Buddhist funeral customs explained
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 forms a large part of Buddhist funeral customs. In this article we’ll look at what happens at a Buddhist funeral – plus advice on etiquette if you’re attending.
What do Buddhists believe happens after death?
Buddhist funeral customs are based on their belief in the natural cycle of life, death and reincarnation. This is known as saṃsāra. 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.
The final aim is for Buddhists to eventually free themselves of the cycle of life and reach a higher state of consciousness. To reach this point Buddhists believe that they must lead a good life and help other people. They will then be rewarded for their good deeds in the afterlife. This is known as the principle of karma – something which often plays a part in Buddhist funeral customs too.
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?
Because of Buddhists’ belief in reincarnation the physical body isn’t seen as important. According to the Buddhist faith, it’s just a vessel for the soul. So cremation is typically preferred as part of a Buddhist funeral service. Some Buddhists also believe that cremation is an effective way to help release the soul from the body. It’s often closely associated with Buddhism because the Buddha himself was cremated.
But burial is also allowed. Some Buddhists choose to have a natural burial because this aligns with the cyclical nature of their beliefs – the body will return back to the earth. And unlike some other religions, Buddhist funeral customs don’t have to be carried out in a specific way. Instead, they concentrate on helping the soul reach its next step in the life cycle.
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 attended 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.
- Sometimes water will poured into an overflowing cup to symbolise what the person has achieved in their life.
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.
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 prayer position. Then 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.
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. Mourners usually wear black or dark colours and bright colours are avoided. Something simple is ideal and no jewellery is needed. This is because expensive items or 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 so if you’re unsure about what to wear ask the family what’s appropriate.
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.
For more info on different funeral customs and advice on arranging a funeral visit our funeral planning advice centre.
Photo by Sysoda Chau on Unsplash