In traditional Buddhist countries one is encouraged to reflect on death. I think it is a very important reflection. Otherwise we forget about the most certain thing in life and we assume that we are going to live forever. So when you encounter death it can really give you a shock, you will be taken by surprise.
Talking of cultural differences, I think, generally speaking, in the West death is something that is not looked at, it is something hidden away. In Asian countries you can see death more easily. In India, for instance, you even see people dying on the roadside. You can see death in Sri Lanka also, it is a common sight. One grows up with the idea that death is part of life, that there is no difference between living and dying.
When I was in South Africa I was asked to officiate at a funeral there. That was the first Western funeral I saw: what a contrast to a Sri Lankan funeral! For example, the dead body was in the undertaker’s place; this would never happen in Sri Lanka! In Sri Lanka when there is a funeral, the whole village is watching the funeral. In South Africa only a few people came to the funeral. And people, even the close relatives, were wiping the tears away from their eyes, like they didn’t want to express their sadness, they didn’t want to show their tears to others! But in Sri Lanka and in India people really express their sadness, they even shout and scream without hiding their tears. What shocked me most was that the grandson of the person who had died, he was about forty years old, told me that this was the first time he had seen a dead body. In Sri Lanka you can’t find a four- or five-year old child who has not seen a dead body.
The point here is that it is good, as part of your practice, at least occasionally, to reflect on the impermanence of life: how things are changing from moment to moment. Sometimes reflecting on death, the inevitability of death, helps us to forgive ourselves and to forgive others. It emphasises the need to heal the wounds we are carrying. This idea of death can be something very useful to cultivate and it can be very useful for our practice.