Buddhist Funeral Traditions

Jun 6, 2010 | 6 comments

Buddha meditatingThis post highlights general funeral practices of Buddhists. The actual practices of individual families and congregations may vary. There are different observances for Japanese, Cambodian, Thai and Ceylonese (now Sri Lankan) and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, but all believe each individual passes through many reincarnations.

Buddhists comprise less than one percent of the U.S. population, with perhaps as many as 1.5 million adherents. There are different observances for Tibetan, Japanese, Chinese, Cambodian, Thai, and Ceylonese (now Sri Lankan) Buddhist traditions, but all believe each individual passes through many reincarnations, and that one enters a new incarnation immediately after death.

It’s usually not considered appropriate to communicate with the bereaved before the funeral, but it is appropriate to visit the bereaved at home after the funeral. It is appropriate to send flowers to the funeral or make a donation to a charity or cause specified by the family. However, it is not appropriate to send food.

In many cultural traditions, the washing and dressing of the body is a ceremony unto itself. The body is put on display during a wake, with the body preserved by dry ice or embalming. Candles, flowers, burning incense, and other items are placed around the body during viewing.

The Buddha’s body was cremated, and this set the example for Buddhists throughout the world to follow. While many choose cremation, some may opt for burial. Guests may attend the interment or cremation.

At cremations, the family may provide a printed pamphlet with Buddhist teachings as a tribute to the deceased and a way of helping their “merit transference,” a way for the living to generate good energy toward the deceased for his or her new incarnation. At graveside, prayers are recited and the body is committed to the ground. The local language is used in the ceremony.

In certain Japanese traditions, the funeral takes place within one week. A minister or priest officiates at a ceremony that may last over an hour. Japanese Buddhist funerals can include a ceremony at a funeral home with a eulogy and prayers. In the Japanese tradition, guests are advised to wear dark, somber clothing.

Buddhist traditions from Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand involve three ceremonies conducted by monks: one, held at the home within two days of death; a second, at the funeral home two to five days after death; and a third, held either at the home or a temple seven days after the burial or cremation. Each ceremony lasts about forty-five minutes. Cambodian, Thai, and Sri Lankan traditions call for attendees to wear white clothing.

All Buddhist traditions and sects quote from the Sutras, the collected sayings of the Buddha. The priest or monk will announce the order of the ceremony. The three components of any Buddhist funeral ceremony are: sharing, the practice of good conduct, and meditation. The body is always viewed in an open casket and guests are expected to view the body, as a valuable reminder of the impermanence of life. When viewing, bow slightly toward the body.

For a funeral ceremony held at a temple or home, seating may be on meditation cushions on the floor. Guests of other faiths should stand when others do so. The vast majority of Buddhist temples allow casual attire for funerals. Loose, comfortable clothing is recommended, especially for temples in which attendees sit on meditation cushions on the floor. Call the temple in advance of the funeral to learn seating details.

It’s appropriate to visit the bereaved at home after the funeral. Seven days after burial or cremation, monks in the Cambodian, Thai, and Sri Lankan traditions lead a merit transference ceremony at the home. After the ceremony, food is served.

All Buddhist traditions have a memorial service ninety days after the death. A merit transference ceremony is also held a year after the death, held either at the home of the bereaved or at a temple. When the mourner returns to work and resumes a normal social schedule is up to the individual.

Do’s and Don’ts: Sign the guest book, if there is one, and sit wherever you wish. Seating may be on meditation cushions on the floor. Guests of other faiths should stand when others do so. It is not appropriate to take pictures or record the service (both audio and video).

This information is included in A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die by Gail Rubin, author of The Family Plot Blog. The book, which includes funeral traditions for many major faiths, is available in print and ebook formats at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and at AGoodGoodbye.com.

For more details on this religion’s history, beliefs, and funeral practices, you may wish to consult this excellent resource: The Perfect Stranger’s Guide to Funerals and Grieving Practices: A Guide to Etiquette in Other People’s Religious Ceremonies (SkyLight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, VT), or visit Funeralwise.com.

Please post a comment to let me know if you find this information helpful, or if there are specific details you were looking for that this post did not address.

A Good Goodbye