What Is a Buddhist Funeral?

What Is a Buddhist Funeral?

What Is a Buddhist Funeral?

A Buddhist funeral is the process of honoring and cleaning the deceased before they are cremated.

The mourning family gathers to chant mantras, light candles, and offer tea. They also offer food to the monks who will be performing rites for their loved one.

A Buddhist funeral usually lasts about an hour but can last up to three hours if there are other rituals involved such as chanting or incense burning. 

It's important not only for Buddhists but for anyone else who has lost a loved one to consider what type of service they would like in lieu of a traditional burial ceremony with embalming and caskets - all which cost money that may not be available when someone dies unexpectedly.

The basis of a Buddhist funeral focuses on peace and serenity.

Even though rites may vary, generally, the family plans a funeral service and an altar to honor their loved one.

Typically, families hold a simple ceremony.

These services are often overseen by monks, with prayers and meditation to match the traditional activities.

Cremation often occurs after the Buddhist funeral service is over.

Since there are no formal guidelines for Buddhist funeral services, some families choose to blend Buddhist rituals with Christian traditions.

Buddhist Death Rituals

Buddhist funerals include specific rituals and ceremonies to support the reincarnation journey of a loved one. Common practices and traditions include:

  • Environment for Peaceful Dying: When a person is dying, the family does their best to create a peaceful and calm environment. It’s common to have family and close friends present during the passing.
  • Reflecting on the Person’s Life: Loved ones may reflect on the good deeds the person accomplished in their lifetime.
  • Performing Good Deeds: Family and friends can also perform good deeds on behalf of the individual, offering merit to the loved one.
  • After Death: When a death occurs, Buddhist tradition is to let the body rest for four hours. During this time, no one moves, touches, or disturbs the person. Buddhists believe that it takes time for the soul to leave the body.
  • Organ Donation: Many Buddhists choose to be organ donors because they see this final act as a good deed which is in line with their principles of dying.

Buddha Sculpture FAQs

How Are Buddhists Buried?

Buddhist funeral rites vary, but in general, there is a funeral service with an altar to the deceased person.

Prayers and meditation may take place, and the body is cremated after the service. Sometimes the body is cremated after a wake, so the funeral is a cremation service.

Why Do Buddhists Cremate Their Dead?

Buddhists believe that cremation is an important ceremony for releasing the soul from the physical form.

The spiritual leader of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha, was cremated on a funeral pyre, so Buddhists will often follow that tradition.

How Do Buddhist Monks Bury Their Dead?

Monks may bury their dead, but in some areas where burial is not possible, they cremate those who have passed.

Do You Send Flowers To A Buddhist Funeral?

Yes, it is appropriate to send flowers to be displayed at the wake/funeral service. Some mourners may also bring the flowers to the funeral with them, placing them on the altar as a form of condolence to the family.

But no red flowers.

What Is A Buddhist Funeral Like?

Buddhists don't have set-in-stone protocols for their funerals, but you can expect either an open casket funeral, a funeral that takes place just before cremation, or a memorial service that takes place after burial/cremation.

Whatever form it takes, the funeral will typically involve prayer and meditation, often led by a monk or monks. Chanting will be led by family members if no monks are present.

Buddhist Beliefs About Death

Similar to Hinduism and Sikhism, Buddhists believe in reincarnation and the freeing of the soul.

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To them, death is a natural part of the cycle of life (saṃsāra), and how a Buddhist acts throughout their life will determine their future lives, through reincarnation.

This is a unified belief across all forms of Buddhism and creates the foundation for Buddhist funeral customs.

For many Buddhists, the ultimate goal is to liberate themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth so they can reach the state of nirvana.

To do this, they must rid themselves of basic desires and all notions of self, ultimately attaining total enlightenment.

Saṃsāra And The Six Realms

In line with saṃsāra, after death it is believed that a Buddhist will be reborn into one of six realms, depending on their karma:

  • Gods realm (DEVA) – those wanting power and wealth, but who lack compassion or wisdom. The pleasures of this realm stop individuals achieving nirvana.
  • Human realm (MANUSYA) – the only realm where you can attain nirvana and escape saṃsāra.
  • Demi-god realm (ASURA) – those who are strong and powerful, but impatient, angry and envious.
  • Animal realm (TIRYAGYONI) – those who are ignorant, stupid and have no desire to change. It is believed they prey on each other and suffer as a result.
  • Hungry ghosts (PRETA) – those who are compulsive, obsessive, and addictive. They are described as having very small mouths but a very large stomach.
  • Hell realm (NARAKA) – those who are angry, aggressive, and have evil karma such as theft, lying and adultery from their lifetime. This realm is seen as a temporary state; once your evil karma has run its course you are given another chance.

Buddhist Funeral Rites

Buddhist tradition suggests that death should occur in a calm and peaceful environment, with close friends and family in attendance.

Together they should reflect on the good deeds the dying person has done throughout their life, in the hopes it will help them in their next reincarnation.

Additionally, family and friends can perform good deeds on behalf of them, which they believe will be of merit to the deceased.

Once the person has died, their body should not be touched, moved or disturbed for at least four hours.

This is because Buddhists believe the soul doesn’t leave the body straight away. The body must be kept cold and should be cleansed and dressed in their everyday clothes.

Buddhist Funeral Traditions And Customs

There can be a wake, during which mourners may pay their respects to the deceased person and express condolences to the family.

There will likely be a portrait of the deceased person in front of the casket.

This serves as the centerpiece of the altar that's set up by the family for the wake. The altar also has candles and other offerings such as flowers and fruit. There will be incense burning, too.

If the wake is taking place in a funeral hall, flowers may be displayed modestly. Buddhist tradition dictates that an image of Buddha should be placed near the altar, too.

Buddhists generally favor cremation, but embalming is allowed as well. Families choose according to their personal preference.

There are no rules governing when the burial or cremation takes place.

Buddhist funeral rites are conducted on the morning of the burial/cremation ceremony.

Verses are chanted, and monks may be invited to conduct the ceremony according to Buddhist funeral traditions.

Again, it depends on the family's wishes. The burial or cremation ceremony may simply be conducted by the family.

Buddhism does not prohibit the donation of organs. Also, they see autopsies as a way of helping others, so those are allowed as well.

They do prefer that a medical examiner wait three or four days before the autopsy, until the soul has left the body.

Following these Buddhist funeral traditions not only supports the transition of a loved one, but the practices can also be of help and comfort to the mourning family. 

  • Buddhist Cremation: Because of the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, Buddhist burial practices focus on cremation – the preferred choice for laying a loved one to rest.
  • Procession: After the ceremony, if there is a casket, it may be sealed before it is transferred to the crematorium.
  • Funeral Location: Traditionally, many Buddhist funerals happen in the family home, or in a religious space, but there are many variations in modern practice. Families determine the location based on the number of attendees and their preferences for ceremonies.
  • Leading the Ceremony: A monk or a group of monks will generally lead each funeral ceremony, offering a variety of sutras (Buddhist funeral prayers), chants, and reading sermons.
  • Altar Layout: Buddhist funerals feature an altar with photos or statues of Buddha and offerings, as well as photos and objects that honor the person who has died. There may be flowers and food.
  • Bells and Gongs: Often there will be a ringing of bells or gongs as a part of the funeral rituals.
  • Length of Funeral: Most Buddhist funeral services last between 45 – 75 minutes, depending on the wishes and particular traditions of the family.

What Do Buddhists Do At A Funeral

Buddhist funeral customs include:

  • Offering cloth to the monk on the deceased’s behalf
  • Decorating the alter with an image of the deceased person and Buddha
  • Pouring water from a vessel into an overflowing cup
  • Walking with sticks to symbolize they need support for their grief
  • Chanting or singing appropriate sutras (prayers)
  • Bringing offerings such as flowers, candles and fruits
  • Burning incense
  • Ringing gongs or bells

Buddhist Mourning Period

When the funeral is over, the family may choose to host a reception where family and friends continue paying their respects.

While many other religious traditions hold a single event after the passing of a loved one, it’s common for Buddhists to have multiple services throughout the mourning period.

Specific days are significant in the Buddhist mourning journey, with activities or rituals happening on the 3rd, 7th, 49th, and 100th day following the person’s death.

Odd numbers offer a sense of “becoming,” which is why families might hold the funeral 3 or 7 days after death or continue funeral activities for 3, 5, or 7 days.

One notable occurrence is 49 days after death in Buddhism.

The total mourning time often lasts for 49 days, with Buddhist prayer for the dead conducted every 7 days, for a period of 7 weeks.

The prayers help to facilitate the deceased as they journey into the afterlife.

In Buddhism, the belief is that rebirth happens 49 days after a person passes away, although this exact length of time varies between Buddhist traditions.

For example, some groups believe that the person’s karma determines how soon the reincarnation will happen, which affects the mourning period after the funeral.

Families in mourning will continue to avoid celebratory activities for 100 days after the passing of a loved one.

On the 100th day, they have a celebration to honor the successful passing of the individual into their new life that lies ahead.

During this ceremony, the family can choose to include prayers and offerings on behalf of their loved one, and later they may enjoy foods that were loved by the person who died.

Buddhist Funeral Etiquette

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Since there are varying practices between Buddhist groups, the family will often communicate the expected etiquette for those who will attend.

You should always feel free to ask if you’re not sure.

Traditional Buddhist funerals might include some of the following:

  • Arrival: When mourners arrive at the service, they may proceed quietly to the altar to pay their respects. Traditionally, hands may be pressed together at the chest or folded in prayer, with a slight bow to honor the loved one, but you can also ask when you arrive what is appropriate.
  • Offerings: When mourners attend Buddhist funeral services, they sometimes bring offerings to lay at the casket, such as fruit, candles, and flowers. But these are not expected, so do not worry if you’re not sure. Just show up and you’ll be fine.
  • Chanting: Funeral attendees are always welcome to participate in the chanting. If you aren’t familiar with the chants, don’t worry at all. It’s perfectly fine (and very lovely) to remain silent and observe the ceremonies.
  • Cues: Monks leading the funeral service will usually offer cues about when to sit and stand during the services, so you won’t feel out of sync.
  • Clothing: The family wears white clothing or white cloth to cover themselves. Are you wondering what to wear to a Buddhist funeral? Mourners should wear simple, dark, or black clothing. Avoid flashy or expensive clothing and jewelry and opt for basics instead.

There are many differing beliefs, practices, and rites for Buddhist funeral services, but what’s most important to know is that you’ll be very welcome.

Don’t worry if you’re not sure what to do.

Feel free to ask someone in advance if you want to make sure to wear the right thing or arrive at exactly the right time, or to know how condolences can best be expressed.

Your presence will be much appreciated by the family--they’ll be honored that you’re there.

And you’ll experience a beautiful tribute filled with meaningful rituals and moments.

How Long Is A Buddhist Funeral

Depending on the wishes of the deceased and their family, a Buddhist funeral will usually last between 45 – 75 minutes.

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