Being an incredibly diverse region, Southeast Asia does not have a prevailing religion or ethnicity. Funeral customs therefore differ significantly even within countries, though most people follow Buddhist, Muslim, or Chinese tradition. Each Southeast Asian country has its own spin on these traditions, and they vary from country to country and even from village to village. Here are the variations you’ll see in Theravada Buddhist funeral ceremonies.
Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia
Death in Buddhism
97% of Cambodians follow Theravada Buddhism. Central to Buddhism is a belief in reincarnation, and Cambodia is no exception. Unlike in the West, death is seen as the beginning of a new and better life for the deceased. Buddhists are cremated and their ashes are kept in a temple stupa.
Cambodian Crocodile Flags
The families of the deceased hang white crocodile flags outside their homes as a sign that their loved one has passed. These crocodile flags are essentially crocodiles drawn onto white cloth, or white cloth cut into a “crocodile shape.” They can sometimes come in other colors. On theory on this tradition, which is unique to Cambodia, is when a crocodile ate a Cambodian princess. The King gutted the crocodile and hung up its skin. Afterwards, Cambodians began hanging crocodile skins outside their homes after a loved one’s death. Over time, they switched from real crocodiles to symbolic ones.
Animism and Theravada Buddhism in Laos
Animism in Laos
Despite Laos being 66% Theravada Buddhist, a large segment of the population follows Laotian folk religions, which are Animist. In many areas, Theravada Buddhist beliefs blend with Animist beliefs: beliefs in phi, or spirits that pervade daily life. Spirits exist in people, homes, rivers, plants, and animals, and can be benevolent or malevolent. An example of this religious fusion can be seen in regions where Buddhist monks exorcise bad spirits.
Funerals in Laos
Funerals keep to Buddhist tradition. The body of the deceased is kept for several days, and during this time friends and relatives will visit to pay respects and help the deceased’s family. These guests will often stay overnight, eating food and playing card games, and some funerals can even be loud and lively affairs.
Theravada Buddhism in Thailand
A Thai Funeral
The majority of Thai are Buddhist, and their funeral ceremonies adhere to Buddhist tradition. Funerals last anywhere from seven days to a year, much longer than in the West. A funeral rite’s complexity corresponds to the age and importance of the deceased, so a very old and very respected person would have more elaborate funeral rites than someone who died young and unknown. Funerals of high-status people in Thailand are expected to entertain guests and their ceremonies often include theatre, but in modern times this cultural requirement has faded--at least in many areas of Thailand.
Before Death in Thailand
When a person approaches their death, they are encouraged to chant Buddha’s name or scripture as their dying words. This is a common tradition in Buddhist countries because it is believed your next life will be better if you make a strong connection to Buddha at the time of your death.
After Death in Thailand
In the evening of the funeral’s first day, close family members and friends gather to pour holy water on the deceased’s hand in what is known as the bathing ceremony. Afterwards, the deceased is placed in a coffin and taken to a Buddhist temple. Over the next seven days, monks are invited for daily chanting sessions. A family may choose to cremate their loved one right after these seven days end or wait for a year.
Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar
The Importance of the Soul in Buddhism
The guidance of a loved one’s soul after death is a matter of great importance in Myanmar. It is said that for the first six days after its host has passed on, the soul has not yet accepted they have died. Until the soul does, family members must open all doors and windows of the house and keep vigil at night. Relatives also place a coin or “ferry toll” in their loved one’s mouth to pay for their passage to the afterlife, and a monk visits on the first day after death to chant prayers that will safeguard the soul on its journey.
A Funeral in Myanmar
On the third day of the funeral, the body is cremated, though burial is more common in rural areas. The family of the deceased will receive lots of gifts from funeral guests like food, money, and flower wreaths. On the seventh and final day of funeral proceedings, the family of the deceased hold a meal for the monks. Soon after this they hold the Buddhist water libation ceremony, in which throwing water symbolizes throwing away one’s mortal life, allowing the soul to finally accept that they cannot return.
Indonesian and Malaysian Funeral Customs
Muslim-majority Indonesia follows Muslim funeral customs, but the diverse country of Malaysia is a different story. Despite being 61% Muslim, the country has many Buddhist, Hindu, Chinese, and Christian minorities who follow the funeral customs of their religion.
More World Funeral Customs
We hope you’ve found this article on Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia helpful. For more information on funeral customs all around the world, check out our articles on East Asian and Eastern European funeral customs, and our articles on Buddhist, Mormon, Hindu, Quaker, Jewish, and Muslim religious funeral customs. For more educational articles, see our blog.