Buddhist Funerals: Traditions, Etiquette & What to Expect

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Buddhist funerals are simple, dignified ceremonies. They are considered to be solemn occasions, whether you are attending the funeral of a Theravada Buddhist (or a Thai Buddhist), a Mahayana Buddhist, or a Vajrayana Buddhist. This tone may not be different than any of the other funerals you have attended in the past.

Regardless, you may feel uncomfortable attending a Buddhist ceremony if you don’t know what to expect. 

Jump ahead to these sections:

Keep reading to learn about Buddhist funeral customs and traditions. Learn the appropriate clothing to wear at a Buddhist funeral and what to expect during the ceremony. Discover the proper way to express condolences to the deceased’s family members.  

What’s a Buddhist Funeral Like?

In general, Buddhists are not against using some of the funeral customs and traditions of the local area. In fact, some Buddhists may embrace the local culture and assimilate it into their Buddhist practices.

On the other hand, a Buddhist’s funeral traditions may vary depending on the deceased’s ethnic and cultural origins. 

Buddhism began in ancient India and is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama or the Buddha. Since its beginnings, Buddhism spread throughout Central, East, and Southeast Asia. As Buddhism continued to grow, different movements and schools of thought altered the practice. Today, there are three main traditions of Buddhists practicing throughout the world.

No matter the individual Buddhist’s tradition, ethnicity, or culture, all Buddhists have a standard core set of beliefs. Since death is a natural part of life, Buddhists don’t find it necessary to spend time and money on elaborate practices and ceremonies to mark the end of life. Many Buddhists feel that the resources spent on such services would be better spent on worthy causes or charities. 

Buddhists believe that death is a part of a cycle known as Samsara. Buddhists believe that after death, they’re reincarnated or reborn. Since Buddhists don’t believe in salvation, the main focus of a funeral is to pay homage to the dead. The ceremonies also serve to ease the deceased as they transition into their next lives. 

From these beliefs, you can assume that most Buddhist funerals are simple, modest affairs.

Location

A Buddhist funeral may be held at a funeral home, a monastery, or a family home. Traditionally, the funeral service will occur on the 3rd, 7th, 49th, or 100th day after the death. 

Buddhists believe that a waiting period between the time of death and cremation or burial is necessary, as it takes time for a soul to transition after death. The length of time depends upon the Buddhist tradition. For example, Zen and Pure Land Buddhists believe that the transition takes up to 100 days.

Attendance

The family members of the deceased may choose to limit the number of attendees to one or all parts of the ceremony. While some families do not wish to include others at their loved one's funeral, other families may choose to invite the broader community. 

In most cases, the wake and funeral are generally open to the community. The services may occur before the burial or cremation, or the service may take place after the cremation. 

The cremation ceremony may be for family members only. Although cremation is not a requirement of Buddhists, it is usually the typical practice since the Buddha was himself cremated.

Traditions

As mentioned, many Buddhists choose to use some of the funeral traditions of the local area. Because of this, you may feel that the Buddhist ceremony you attend feels similar to all other funerals you have attended in the past. 

Some Buddhist families may choose to host a wake. If there is a wake, expect the body to be displayed in a simple, open casket. The deceased will be dressed in everyday clothes. 

There may be an altar placed near the casket. You may find a photo of the deceased on the platform, as well as candles, flowers, fruit, and incense. There may also be an image of the Buddha nearby.

During the funeral service, monks may perform Buddhist rites and deliver sermons. Monks or laypeople may chant during the ceremony. 

Military or fraternal rites may be performed as a Buddhist wake. 

Prayers and chants

Chanting and praying plays a vital part of the death process of the Buddhist. As a person lies dying, family members or monks often chant parittas or protective verses. After the person dies, the chanting continues to help ease the transition of the soul out of the body. 

Chanting may also take place during the wake. The chanting may be pre-recorded or may be performed by monks or laypeople. 

Finally, chanting also occurs during the cremation process or interment of the body.

Duration

There are no specific protocols that dictate how long a Buddhist funeral should be. Most services, however, last approximately one hour. 

Family members can choose the length of the wake. 

» MORE: How do you host a virtual funeral? Start here

 

How Should You Behave at a Buddhist Funeral?

Like most funerals, a Buddhist funeral is a somber occasion. Attendees should have a quiet and respectful demeanor. Perhaps you are wondering how you are expected to participate during the ceremony. Here are some general guidelines to help you feel comfortable during the funeral.

When you arrive at the funeral or wake, proceed to the casket or altar. When you reach the area, pause for a moment of silent reflection. This reflection may be accompanied by a slight bow. You may also wish to fold your hands in front of you in a prayer position.

After paying respects at the casket or altar, find a seat and wait quietly for the service to begin. 

Most of the time, monks conduct Buddhist funeral ceremonies. During the service, you may hear sermons, eulogies, and chanting. As the monks or laypeople chant, you may join in the chanting or sit silently. 

Follow the lead of the monks and Buddhist laypeople during the ceremony. You’ll notice that no one in the room should be sitting higher than the monks who are leading the service. 

In general, you shouldn’t do anything at a Buddhist funeral to draw attention. Sitting quietly is always the best option, and of course, don’t record the service on your cell phone or any other device.

At the end of the service, family members and mourners might carry the casket to a hearse. Listen for instructions as to where the casket will be interred. You might be invited to follow behind the hearse in your vehicle to the burial location. 

The family may also be accompanying the body to the location for the cremation. Most of the time, this part of the service is only for family members. 

Clothing

Since such a wide range of cultures and ethnic groups practice Buddhism, the appropriate funeral attire differs widely. For example, you may find that at one Buddhist funeral, the family members wear white, while the other mourners wear black. Family members of Japanese Buddhists may wear black, but other mourners may wear white. If you are not sure of the appropriate color for the occasion, choose to wear muted colors. 

Regardless of color, it is essential that your clothing does not display ostentatiousness or wealth. Your simple, muted dress should also allow you to be able to sit on a cushion or kneel during the ceremony. 

Mood

The mood of a Buddhist funeral is somber and quiet. It is a time to reflect on the good life that the deceased lived.

There will be no mention of going to a “better place” since Buddhists believe that the dead are reincarnated into another being.

Gifts

You may choose to send flowers or plants to be displayed during the funeral service. It is also appropriate that you bring the flowers to the funeral to present to the family personally. White flowers are the traditional choice for a Buddhist funeral. Make sure that the flowers presented aren’t red. 

Cards and donations to charities are acceptable at a Buddhist funeral, too.

What Happens After a Buddhist Funeral?

Many Buddhists are cremated, but it’s not required. Some believe that the cremation process is an essential ceremony for releasing the soul from the physical body.

Cremation and burial

Monks or family members may be present during the cremation process. As chanting takes place, the body is cremated along with a few items that were important to the deceased. 

After the cremation takes place, the remains are typically placed into an urn, and then the urn is buried. 

If the family member chooses not to cremate the deceased, the body will be interred in a plot. Monks or family members may lead chanting by the gravesite as the casket is placed in the grave. 

Mourning and remembering the deceased

Buddhists traditionally continue to pray and offer chants for the dead during the mourning period. This period can last between a month and 100 days.

Although the range of cultures and ethnicities in Buddhists makes it difficult to form many generalizations regarding Buddhist funeral traditions, overall the ceremonies tend to be quiet, modest occasions. Hopefully, these general guidelines will help you understand how to dress for and what to expect during the funeral.


Sources:

“A Guide to a Proper Buddhist Funeral.” Buddhanet, Malaysian Buddhist Co-operative Society Berhad, 24 January 2014. https://web.archive.org/web/20140124153539/http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/buddhist_funeral.pdf

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