Buddhist Funeral Traditions

Religious/Cultural Traditions

Posted on July 12, 2016 by Morgan Marant

Buddhist Funerals & Reincarnation

There are no specific rituals or rites common to all Buddhists. Funeral traditions vary greatly between the different types (sects) and countries where the funeral takes place due to different teachings and beliefs of the religion. However, central to all Buddhism, is the belief in reincarnation – the concept that all life exists in a cycle and those who perish may be reborn. A funeral is treated and viewed as a ceremony in which the bonds of the body are broken from the bonds of the spirit, allowing the deceased to grow and be reborn. Although the bereaved friends and families may show grief over the loss of a loved one, the atmosphere is, generally, supposed to be calm, peaceful and sensitive to the life the deceased lived and hopeful for the spiritual insights they may gain in their new form.

Buddhist Death Rituals

Before death, friends and family gather around the loved one and comfort them. A monk or nun is often requested for assistance. These officials lead group prayers and chants around the deathbed, which are an important Buddhist funeral tradition. Ideally, this chanting will be the last thing heard by the loved one upon death.

Buddhist Views on Organ Donation and Embalming

Donation of organs, or of the body itself, are both acceptable. Embalming is also permitted in Buddhism, though in certain groups, cremation is generally more acceptable and suggested. 

Body Preparation for Buddhist Funerals

The deceased should be bathed and dressed shortly after their passing. This is traditionally done by the family and close friends.  It is typical to dress the deceased in everyday clothes that the person would normally wear, to best prepare them for their spiritual pilgrimage.

Buddhist views on Wakes, Viewings, and Visitations

Buddhist Methods of Body DispositionThere are no specific guidelines for holding services before the main funeral ceremony. If a viewing, wake or visitation is had, though, it typically simple and includes peaceful prayers and chanting – just like at the deathbed. It can be held in any appropriate venue and take as long as the mourners wish. The monks or nuns are often in company. The body is placed in a basic casket that is open or closed for all tooffer their respects to. An altar may be placed at the head of the casket featuring images of the deceased, other gods, and reincarnations of the Buddha. Additionally, the altar may hold candles, incense, flowers, and fruits. After the ceremony, the casket should be closed and transported to a crematorium or burial site.

Buddhism allows for both burial and cremation, but cremation is the customary method among many Buddhist since Buddha was cremated, setting an example to other Buddhist. Cremation has become even more popular today for two main reasons. First, cremation is significantly less expensive than a casketed burial. Second, it takes up less land resources.

One day, all available land will be occupied by the dead and the living will have no place to live. -Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera

Following cremation, ashes are placed into an urn. Some Buddhist cultures bury these urns in the ground along with a grave marker, while others store them in a family home or in a columbarium. Additionally, some cultures choose to scatter the cremains in scenic locations or over the water. Scattering is becoming increasingly popular in densely populated countries such as Japan, since it doesn’t take up any land.

Dress Code for Buddhist Funerals

Buddhist mourners traditionally wear modest white clothes to funerals since the color is representative of death and grief in much of Asia. However, Western influence has made black an acceptable color as well.

Buddhist Funeral and Memorial Services

Buddhist Funeral Prayers & TributesSimilar to the wake, a Buddhist funeral service can take on many different forms in many different venues. The only real principle is that the service should be carried out in a typically Buddhist fashion – with modesty, respect and tranquility. That said, the service usually lasts for 45 minutes to an hour and it is either held at a Buddhist temple, the home of the deceased, or sometimes at a funeral home. An acceptable layout could feature the urn with cremated remains or the casket at the front of a room, with a memorial altar beside it. Additionally, any flowers or other gifts are likely displayed prominently in the front. When arriving, mourners should go up to the altar, bow with hands in prayer pose, and take a moment to pray or ask for forgiveness from the deceased before sitting down amongst the rest of the group until the prayer service begins.

Funeral prayers are typically overseen by a monk or a nun. The official reads from the Sutras and leads the mourners in group chanting. Monks are identified by yellow robes for the older, more experienced monks, and gray robes for the younger, newer monks. Nuns typically wear gray robes throughout. A meditation session sometimes follows. The service can also be led by non-officials such as family members. Pre-recorded chanting is sometimes played to lead the group through its own chanting. It is acceptable for eulogies to be given by family and friends.

Buddhist Ceremonies for Enshrinement, Scattering, and Burial

This part of the proceedings is much like the wake and funeral service, except it is more abbreviated. Prayers are spoken, chants are sung, and then the remains are laid to rest.

Extended Mourning and Memorials in Buddhism

In Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, the traditional mourning period lasts for a period of 49 days following a death, since this is believed to be the average time it takes for one’s spirit to be reborn. Memorials are put together by family and friends once a week for 7 weeks following a cremation. If the body was buried, then memorials are performed every 3 days. They feature chanting and prayers from the Sutras, like at the immediate funeral services. However, these memorials are more casual and relaxed in nature. Every year on the anniversary of the death, family remembers by offering incense, fruits, and lighting candles upon a separate altar for the deceased. Afterwards, they eat a meal together. Food, preferably home-made, is almost always provided after the memorial service ends. This meal is a close equivalent to the receptions held after Western funeral services. Theravada Buddhists generally don’t engage in these extended memorials, however, since they believe the spirit is reborn into another being instantly upon death.