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What is a Buddhist funeral like? And what do Buddhists believe happens after death? In this article we’ll look at what happens at a Buddhist funeral, plus the etiquette to follow if you’re attending.

What is Buddhism?

Buddhism is a religion that started in India over 2,500 years ago. People who practice it are called Buddhists. Buddhists follow the teachings of Siddhattha Gotama, founder of Buddhism. He became known as Buddha, which means ‘the awakened’. 

Buddhists are known for practicing meditation and mindfulness, and for trying to live ethical lives in order to become awakened, or enlightened, themselves.

What do Buddhists believe happens after death?

There are many different denominations of Buddhism around the world. But each one has a core belief in the cycle of life and reincarnation. This belief is known as saṃsāra and often plays a part in Buddhist funeral customs.

The final aim for Buddhists is to eventually free themselves from the cycle and reach a higher state of consciousness. To reach this point Buddhists believe that they must lead a good life and help other people. This is known as the principle of karma. Good actions can help a person have a positive reincarnation and move towards enlightenment after they die.

Even though there are different types of Buddhism across the world, Buddhist funerals are all typically based on this belief. So most Buddhist funeral customs (even if they vary slightly) are used to help the person who’s died continue with the next step in their life cycle.

Buddhist funeral customs that happen before the service

  • When someone is dying their family and friends will create a peaceful environment for them. It’s common for family and friends to be close by and gather around the person who’s dying.
  • Family and friends reflect on the good that the person has done in their life. They can also perform good deeds on behalf of the person who’s dying in the hope that this will influence how they’re reincarnated.
  • Once the person dies some Buddhists believe that the body shouldn’t be touched or moved for several hours. This is because they believe it takes time for the soul to leave the body.
  • Many Buddhists choose to donate their organs. This is seen as their final good deed which can help them with their rebirth.

Do Buddhists prefer cremation?

Yes - cremation is typically preferred as part of a Buddhist funeral service. There are various reasons for this:

  • Buddhist belief in reincarnation means that the physical body isn’t seen as important – it’s just a vessel for the soul.
  • Some Buddhists believe that cremation helps to release the soul from the body.
  • Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was cremated which leads many Buddhists to also choose cremation.

However, Buddhist funeral customs don’t have to be carried out in a specific way and burial is also allowed. Some Buddhists choose to have a natural burial because this aligns with the cyclical nature of their beliefs – the body returning back to the earth.

What happens at a Buddhist funeral?

A Buddhist funeral doesn’t follow a strict procedure, but there are some things which might be unfamiliar if you’ve not been to one before. You can expect the funeral to be held at a temple or at a family home depending on the number of people attending. Monks will often lead the ceremony and the body is often put in an open casket. The casket will be closed during the service before it’s taken to the crematorium.

Other Buddhist funeral customs include:

  • A monk may lead the ceremony and will often recite Buddhist funeral prayers and sermons known as sutras.
  • An altar will be decorated with a picture of the person who passed away and a statue or image of Buddha. People may also put offerings at the altar such as food, flowers, candles or incense.
  • Monks may lead chants at the ceremony or pre-recorded chants can be played. This is to help the mourners reflect on the cycle of life. Bells or gongs are often used as part of Buddhist funeral customs for the same reason.
  • At some Buddhist funerals cloth will be offered to the monk or monks leading the ceremony on behalf of the person who’s died.
  • Some mourners may walk with the aid of sticks during the ceremony, to represent the weight of their grief.
  • Sometimes water will poured into an overflowing cup to symbolise what the person has achieved in their life.

You may also find there are parts of the ceremony you’re familiar with, for example a eulogy, or speeches celebrating the life of the person who’s died.

How long does a Buddhist funeral last?

A Buddhist funeral lasts about an hour. But this can vary depending on the cultural traditions and customs that the family and friends would like at the ceremony.

Woman at a Buddhist funeral with her hands in the prayer position.

Buddhist funeral etiquette

If you’re attending a Buddhist funeral and you’re not sure what to expect or how to act, here are a few things that may help:

  • When you enter the funeral venue you should bow at the altar with your hands in the prayer position (palms placed together in front of your heart with fingertips pointing upwards). After this you can take a seat.
  • The monk or person leading the service will let mourners know whether they should sit or stand.
  • Mourners are welcome to bring offerings to the altar or casket at a Buddhist funeral. But if you’re not sure what to bring, don’t worry. You’re not expected to bring anything at all.
  • You’re welcome to take part in chants that happen during the ceremony. If you don’t know them you can sit in silence instead.
  • Remember that you can always ask family members of the person who died what to expect at the funeral and whether you should bring anything. Ultimately they’ll just be happy that you came to pay your respects.

During the funeral you might like to reflect on positive memories you have of the person who’s died. As Lama Zangmo, from the London Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Centre, says:

For non-Buddhists attending a Buddhist funeral, it’s important to keep a pure and positive mindset in how you think about the person. Appreciate and be grateful for the time you spent with them.

In Buddhist teaching, after someone has died, there will still be attachments to those left behind. Your loved ones’ thoughts will affect you in the afterlife.

Is there a dress code? What to wear to a Buddhist funeral

Often the family of the person who’s passed away will wear white to the funeral. This is a symbol of grief in Buddhist funeral practices.

If you’re going to a Buddhist funeral as a mourner, it’s best to wear black or dark coloured clothing. Bright colours should be avoided. Simple, modest clothes are ideal and no jewellery is needed. This is because expensive items and symbols of wealth aren’t important in the Buddhist faith.

Keep in mind that customs differ depending on the type of Buddhism that the family practices. If you’re unsure about what to wear ask the family what’s appropriate.

You can find more advice about funeral dress codes in our guide to what to wear to a funeral.

Buddhist mourning period

After a Buddhist funeral it’s not uncommon for the family to hold a reception or wake to say goodbye. But they’ll also have several services after the death of a loved one. Each one marks a stage of their journey into the afterlife.

The Buddhist mourning period can last up to 49 days. This is because Buddhists believe that rebirth happens 49 days after someone dies. But this can vary depending on different Buddhist traditions. Some Buddhists believe that the time it takes for someone to be reincarnated depends on their karma – the good deeds they carried out in this life.

During the Buddhist mourning period family members may recite prayers every 7 days for a period 7 weeks. This is to help the person who died on their journey into the afterlife. Some Buddhist families also avoid any other celebrations in the 100 days after the person died. On the 100th day they may choose to honour the person who died with prayers and offerings. And they may also share the favourite foods of the person who died as well.

How to arrange a Buddhist funeral 

If you need to plan a Buddhist funeral in the UK, finding the right funeral director will help. It’s a good idea to look for one that knows about Buddhist practice and has arranged Buddhist funerals before.

You could start by contacting your local temple. They’ll be able to give you advice and might recommend a funeral director. They’ll also be able to suggest prayers, readings or Buddhist funeral poems to include in the service.

If you need help finding the right funeral director, try our free funeral director search tool. You can use it to find funeral homes in your area and can filter the results to just show the ones that do Buddhist funerals.

Photos by Sysoda Chau on Unsplash and Truthseeker08 on Pixabay