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The Golden Buddhist

James Bond battled the villain Goldfinger. Now a Buddhist temple in China has shown that a saint can go much further. The entire body of a dead monk has been covered with gold leaf as a mark of deep respect. He will now serve as a focus of worship at Chongfu temple, which is situated on a hill in Quanzhou city, south-eastern China.

The monk was called Fu Hou and died at the age of ninety-four after dedicating his life to the study and practice of Buddhism, the peace-loving religion that is thousands of years old and that was founded thousands of miles east of Quanzhou in India. He decided before he died that he wanted to be mummified after his death – that is, he wanted his body to be preserved rather than buried or cremated. Because of his dedication and the reverence in which they held him, his fellow monks were happy to comply with his wishes.

When he passed away, two experts in mummification treated his body  with special chemicals and then placed it in a sitting position in a giant mummification jar, allowing the chemicals to soak completely into his skin and remaining flesh. When the jar was opened to check on the success of the procedure, his body was found to be completely intact and sitting in the same posture. It’s a traditional belief of the region that only the most virtuous Buddhist will remain intact after death.

Fu Hou was therefore accorded a further honour: his mummy was prepared for public display. First it was covered with gauze and lacquer, then with a gleaming layer of gold leaf. Finally, it was clothed in traditional Buddhist robes, ready to be placed in a glass case so that visitors to the temple can be inspired by his example of service and dedication.

It’s an interesting story not just in itself, but also for the light it casts on humanity in general. Few people will want to copy Fu Hou’s life: he lived quietly and austerely, giving up rich food, alcohol, sex and costly possessions so that he could better study and practice the teachings of the Buddha. But he had something in common with ordinary people, whether in China, Britain or Timbuktu. He wanted to have some say in what happened to his body after he passed away.

In other words, he had a funeral plan. He chose to be mummified. Most other people will chose to be buried or cremated, but it is still very important for human beings, while they are still alive, to decide what happens to their dead bodies. As a Buddhist, Fu Hou would have believed that the body is only a temporary container for the spirit, which will pass on after death, entering another body or ascending to a higher plane of existence, depending on how well the person has behaved during life.

But whatever people believe about the reality or otherwise of reincarnation and other aspects of the afterlife, almost everyone thinks that a dead body should be treated with respect. It isn’t like the skin of an orange or banana, something to be discarded without care or thought when its usefulness is over. No, it was once the home for a living, breathing human being and that makes it something special.

Buddhist monks in south-eastern China recognize that and so does the rest of the human race. That’s why almost all of us want to choose during life what happens to us after death. Whatever we choose, we all want to have a funeral plan of some kind. It’s a way of getting back a feeling of power in the face of the inescapable fate that awaits us all, sooner or later. We all have to pass away, but we don’t want death to have the final word. The saintly Buddhist monk Fu Hou thought the same and his golden mummy proves that he was right.