Buddhist Funeral Traditions

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Many of the world’s millions of Buddhists believe that reincarnation of the soul takes place after death—part of a cycle known as samsara. Each death, it’s believed, moves the soul closer to nirvana. For this reason, death isn’t a cause for deep sadness and grief, but a natural and even celebrated step on a soul’s journey.

It’s worth noting, however, that  the nuances of death and rebirth vary greatly among the vast cultural teachings and followers of Buddhism. “Reincarnation is not essential to Buddhist teaching,” says Rev. Patti Nakai, a minister at the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple, in Chicago. “Buddha taught us that this life is so important now, in this moment, we shouldn’t worry about the future or the past.”

While Buddhist funeral protocols may incorporate regional traditions and customs, the general protocol for many Buddhist funerals is a simple ceremony that takes place at the family home, a funeral home, or a Buddhist temple. There may be a funeral service before burial or cremation, or a memorial service after cremation. There are no formal guidelines, but services usually include prayer, meditation, and chants, and possibly sermons and eulogies led by an officiant, such as a monk or member of the Buddhist community.

In traditional Buddhist funerals, the mood is dignified, more geared toward celebrating the deceased person’s life than grieving their death. Cremation is a common Buddhist practice, as the spiritual leader of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha, was cremated on a funeral pyre.

What happens at a Buddhist funeral?

Buddhist funeral services may be held at a family home or monastery, and the family may choose to limit the participation to only family members or invite the larger community to participate. When a Buddhist is approaching death, close friends and family members should help the dying person to feel calm and serene. Prayer and chanting is an important ritual throughout this time and after death to calm and soothe those present.

Some traditions require that the body of a Buddhist not be touched, disturbed, or moved in any way as it is believed that the soul doesn’t leave the body immediately after breathing stops. When it comes time to prepare the body, some Buddhists will dress the deceased person in clothes that he or she would normally wear rather than fancy attire. However, others will follow timelines and protocols associated with regional or mainstream practices and/or dictated by local funeral homes.

During a visitation or wake, the room in which the body rests should be calm and peaceful. The body will typically lie in an open casket, though the casket’s design and detail can vary considerably. An altar may be placed near the casket and feature an image of the Buddha, a picture of the deceased, candles, flowers, fruit, and incense. Chanting—live or recorded—is often performed.

Before the burial or cremation, monks or other members of the Buddhist community may be invited to perform Buddhist rites, sermons, and eulogies. Chanting may again be led by monks or laypeople. Recordings of chants are sometimes played and mourners are invited to join in the chanting or sit silently. As at the wake, the funeral altar will most often feature an image of the Buddha.

Depending on the family’s beliefs, they may hold additional memorials—either small, informal gatherings or more formal temple services—on the anniversary of a person’s death for months or years to come.

Planning a Buddhist funeral

Buddhism is incredibly diverse, and there is no single funeral service or ritual common to all Buddhists. Many practicing Buddhists will have an existing connection with a group or community who will be able to provide a teacher or community member to lead the funeral service.

Frequently asked questions

Can Buddhists donate their organs?

Organ donation is allowed in the Buddhist faith, and is viewed as a way of helping others.

Can Buddhists be cremated?

Yes, cremation is allowed. During a cremation, monks may be present at the crematorium and lead chanting, or close family members or friends may lead the chanting. Cremated remains may be kept by the family, enshrined in a columbarium or urn garden, or scattered at sea.

Can Buddhists be embalmed?

While embalming is acceptable, some Buddhist traditions discourage it.

What is the dress code at a Buddhist funeral?

Because Buddhism is practiced by a diverse range of people from different cultures, attire differs widely. Reach out to the family for guidance, if you’re unsure. In general, neither bright colors nor displays of wealth are encouraged.

Do you send flowers to a Buddhist funeral?

White flowers are the traditional Buddhist flower of mourning and may be sent to the family. It’s also customary to bring your donation or your flowers to the funeral, presenting them to the family by placing the flowers near the altar. Red flowers are considered a poor choice, as are gifts of food during a time of mourning. Beyond flowers, a charitable donation is appropriate.

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