October 26, 2018 Brigitte Ganger

Buddhist Funeral Traditions

Understanding the rich death practices of Buddhism

Buddhist Funeral Traditions
Buddhists ritualize death and mourning in beautiful and meaningful ways. (Shutterstock)

The way we honor the dead often reflects our views about the meaning of life. For Buddhists, it's important to tend to the dying and conduct death rituals in ways that honor the beliefs of the person whose time is ending. 


Buddhism is separated into several schools within the larger religion. Because of this, funeral traditions can vary depending on the way the individual practiced their faith. Even within the same school of Buddhism, people may practice this faith in slightly different ways, including the way the dead are honored. There are also several different denominations within Buddhism, so all information in this article should be considered general. If you are seeking spiritual guidance regarding the death of a Buddhist in your life, speak with a monk or spiritual adviser with knowledge of the person's specific beliefs. 


Reincarnation


Buddhists believe in reincarnation of all life, in a cycle known as samsara. In this cycle, a person's actions and impact in life carry forward into their next life. Many Buddhists believe that humans can be reincarnated into plants and other kinds of animals as well. 


Karma is a give and take of energy and deeds that returns to the individual. Believing that all actions have an impact, these deeds return to those who initiated them. It's this belief that necessitates reincarnation.


Buddhists work toward goals of enlightenment, including achieving personal peace, serenity and open-mindedness about the possibilities in both life and death. 


When death is near


Loved ones of the dying person will try to help make the transition from life to death as comfortable and calm as possible. Because death is an inevitable part of life, the dying person must be emotionally assisted to accept their own demise. Together, they'll reflect on the life they lived, including good deeds and lessons learned in the course of their life's journey. 


Some Buddhists will keep a statue of the Buddha nearby during the death. Depending on the school of Buddhism, there may be chanting of verses and other rituals. 


Like many religions, Buddhism doesn't consider death to have occurred until the soul has left the body, This generally means when the body is cold, not when breathing ceases. During this period, the body is left undisturbed. Those taking care of the dying person will wait to bathe, dress or move the body.


Final disposition of the body


There are several acceptable ways to handle a deceased Buddhist's remains. Cremation is an option for Buddhists, as is embalming and burial. 


For devout Buddhists, it's customary for either a monk or the family of the deceased to be present while the body is cremated, and those present may chant during the procedure. The cremains may be scattered or kept by those closest to the deceased person. 


Cremation is a simple and accessible way to handle the remains of someone who has passed away. (Shutterstock)


Some Buddhists opt for embalming, and others do not. Because this faith is so varied and adjustable to individual experience, there is no one right or wrong way to handle the body. Organ donation is acceptable and encouraged for Buddhists wishing to make one final gift of life to others in need.


Memorial services


The memorial service is usually held on the third day after death. Some Buddhists will hold subsequent memorial services on the seventh, forty-ninth and hundredth days after death as well. Buddhist funerals will incorporate altars, candles, flowers and other meaningful objects into the ceremony. The casket will be placed at the front of the memorial for all to see, along with an altar, and a statue of the Buddha. Incense burning and chanting are conducted by a presiding monk or family member. 


Incense plays an important role in Buddhist rituals, including funerals. (Shutterstock)


If a visitation is held for mourners to view the body, the atmosphere is important to the ceremony. A calm, simple environment is ideal for mourning. The deceased person is not dressed in their finest ornate clothing, but instead are dressed in their everyday attire. Guests to the visitation should wear white, rather than black, to show their mourning. As they enter, mourners should pause at the altar with their hands together in a prayer position for a bow of respect to the deceased person, before sitting down. 


A Buddhist's funeral will have many of the same elements as western funerals, such as a eulogist, a funeral procession and solemnity. The presiding monk or other officiant will lead the service with chanting, and the burning of  incense. Though there are many rituals involved in celebrating a Buddhist's life, all rituals must be conducted with spiritual purpose for all in attendance. 


The statue of the Buddha is a meaningful object for Buddhists, and is often present in memorializing of the dead. (Shutterstock)


Following the ceremony, mourners will accompany the body to the gravesite or to crematorium in a procession. There may be further ceremonial chanting by the officiant as the casket is lowered into the grave as well. 


Ceremonial purpose


A devout Buddhist lives their life with intention, as they know every action will have a karmic result. Every part of the funeral should be as intentional and meaningful for mourners who are present at the service. Buddhist funerals are a time for all to reflect and achieve greater enlightenment through communal expressions of grief.  

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