Buddhist funeral traditions are steeped in unique beliefs regarding death and dying. At the core of these beliefs is the idea that death is a natural part of life, and that the soul is reincarnated into a new body after death.
Whether you are attending a Buddhist funeral, arranging one, or simply seeking knowledge about their religious practices, this useful guide to Buddhist funeral traditions is here to help.
Buddhist beliefs about death
Buddhism has numerous denominations across various cultures, but a fundamental belief is in Samsara.
Samsara is a concept of reincarnation rooted in the idea that an individual's soul or spirit is caught in an infinite cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
The main goal is to break free from the cycle of death and rebirth to achieve a state of nirvana. This involves letting go of basic desires and abandoning all notions of self.
Before the funeral
In Buddhist teachings, it is ideal that death occurs in a peaceful and serene environment.
According to Buddhist beliefs, the soul does not leave the body right away after the ceasing of breath. Therefore, it is advised that the deceased's body should not be touched or relocated for at least four hours after death.
Preparing the body
According to Buddhist traditions, the body must be completely cooled before it is washed and prepared for either burial or cremation. The deceased is typically dressed in their everyday clothing, rather than fancy attire.
Significant days in the Buddhist mourning period
In Buddhism, the mourning period has specific days of importance due to the belief that rebirth occurs 49 days after a person's death. Prayers are held every 7 days during the 49-day mourning period to help the deceased transition to the afterlife.
A religious ceremony and service is typically conducted on the 3rd day after the passing of a loved one. However, the timing of this service can vary depending on the family's wishes and the situation surrounding the death.
One notable Buddhist funeral tradition is the visitation, which takes place either in a funeral home or at a Buddhist temple before the funeral itself.
This provides an opportunity for friends and family to spend time with the deceased and reflect on their life.
During this time, it's common for loved ones to remember the person's good deeds and perform similar acts of kindness in their honour.
Traditionally, during the visitation, the family of the deceased is seated at the front of the room and greets those who have come to offer support. Visitors will express their condolences and then proceed to the coffin or casket to bow – a sign of honour and respect.
During the visitation, there is often an altar decorated with candles, incense, fruit, and flowers. It's important to remember that this is a peaceful and solemn occasion, so displays of wealth and extravagance are not appropriate.
Additionally, there may be a portrait of the deceased and a picture or statue of Buddha.
The funeral service
A Buddhist funeral can take place in various locations such as a funeral home, the family's home, or a monastery. Typically, the service lasts between 45 to 75 minutes, depending on the wishes of the family and the deceased.
Buddhist funerals typically take place on the morning of the cremation or burial ceremony and are intended to be a solemn and peaceful gathering. The ceremony is often led by Buddhist monks who recite sermons, and lead chants or sutras (Buddhist funeral prayers).
Buddhist funeral traditions may include the following:
Presenting cloth as an offering to the monk in honour of the deceased
Adorning the altar with a Buddha image and a picture of the deceased
Pouring water from a vessel into a cup until it overflows
Walking with sticks to symbolize the need for support in times of grief.
Chanting or singing appropriate sutras, or prayers
Bringing offerings such as flowers, candles, and fruits
Ringing gongs or bells
These Buddhist funeral traditions are meaningful ways to honour and celebrate the life of the deceased, as well as to find solace in the mourning process.
Cremation or Burial
As Buddhists believe in reincarnation, cremation is the preferred choice in many Buddhist cultures, and it is often viewed as a respectful and symbolic way to release the soul from the physical body. Generally, the cremation process is accompanied by a series of rituals and ceremonies, intended to pay tribute to the departed.
What to wear
During a traditional Buddhist funeral, the family members wear white or a white cloth to cover themselves.
In Buddhism, death is considered a release from one life and the beginning of another. As a result, white represents the desire for the deceased to have lived a pure life and to transition peacefully to their next existence.
Other guests should wear simple, black, or dark clothing to show respect. Wearing flashy or expensive clothing and jewellery is discouraged.