Buddhists believe that after death the spirit is reincarnated into another being and that their body, left behind, is an empty shell. For this reason Buddhist funerals are generally simple affairs without great formality.
Nevertheless there are many Buddhist funeral traditions associated with the dead, which vary according to the nationality and style of Buddhism practiced.
Buddhist cremation or burial?
Traditionally Buddhists can dispose of their loved ones’ bodies in four ways, each of which corresponds to a different element to symbolise the person’s return to nature:
- Fire. This is by far the most common choice for Buddhists in the UK. In the high-altitude regions where Buddhism originated, trees were scarce, so cremation became known as a regal way to dispose of a body. Traditionally Buddhists are cremated on pyres, but this is illegal in the UK so crematoriums are used
- Earth. This takes the form of a burial and was generally practiced if the person died of an infectious disease. It is uncommon for Buddhist funerals to incorporate burials, however, as cremation was traditionally a more prestigious choice
- Air. One of the most notorious Buddhist funeral practices is the ‘sky burial’, which involves exposing a corpse and allowing it to be eaten by vultures. Disposing of a body in this way is illegal in the UK but is still common practice among Buddhists in Tibet
- Water. Similar to the sky burial, but rarely practiced now due to widespread laws and restrictions on water contamination, this involves placing a dismembered corpse in a body of water in order to be consumed by carnivorous fish
Embalming is practised in Buddhism, but only for revered figures such as the Dalai Lama. Most Buddhists request not to be embalmed unless it is absolutely necessary or unless it is a legal requirement (i.e. if the body is being repatriated or otherwise transported a long distance).
What happens at a Buddhist funeral service?
The funeral service for a Buddhist usually takes place within a week of death unless there are other factors, such as a post-mortem or other reason why the body is needed. A Buddhist funeral service typically lasts between 45 minutes and an hour though some may be longer than that.
Buddhist funerals almost always feature an open casket. The only exceptions are when the deceased died violently and to see the body would prove too distressing to mourners, or if the deceased donated their organs. This is an approved practice in Buddhism and is thought to demonstrate selflessness and sacrifice.
The first thing mourners do upon entering the service is to pay their respects to the body of the deceased. Guests of all faiths and beliefs are expected to come to the altar in silence and face the body, then bow with their hands together to acknowledge the presence of the dead. They may also pause at the altar for a moment to reflect.
During the service Buddhist monks will lead mourners in chanting verses that contemplate the nature of life and death. Join in if you know the words, or simply make the om sound throughout the chanting.
Buddhist funeral services also incorporate guided meditation. Again, join in if you wish to do so bow your head and sit or stand respectfully as you are directed to do. Take your cue from the other mourners.
Buddhist funeral flowers
As the traditional Buddhist colour of mourning is white, gifts of white flowers at and after the funeral are an appropriate way of expressing grief. Chrysanthemums represent mourning in Japan, China and much of Asia. Yellow flowers are also appreciated due to the association of yellow with holiness and enlightenment.
Depending on the type of Buddhism and the deceased’s country of origin, it may also traditional to give gifts of vegetarian food to the deceased’s family alongside flowers. Make sure that you ask the family about their preferences as some Buddhists consider food gifts inappropriate. If you are giving a gift of food, avoid anything red.
What to wear to Buddhist funerals?
The clothing at Buddhist funerals reflects the overall tone of the ceremony – simple and modest. Wear unrevealing, loose clothes that will make it easy to sit down on the floor during the ceremony. Also make sure to wear shoes that you can remove as you enter the temple.
Formal clothes such as suits and dresses are not necessary and may even seem disrespectful to Buddhist mourners. Casual clothes are preferred because it is considered offensive to ‘dress up’ at a funeral.
Avoid wearing any jewellery that is brightly coloured or set with gems – the ideal thing for women to wear is a string of black or white pearls.
Japanese Buddhists wear black funeral clothes, but generally it is more common for Buddhists to wear white to funerals as a sign of the soul’s purity and the fresh start of reincarnation.
It is also common for the deceased’s close family to wear white while the guests wear dark colours. Ask the family to make sure. Avoid red, especially if the deceased and their family were Chinese – in Chinese Buddhism, red is the colour of joy.
What happens after Buddhist funerals?
For Buddhists there is no official mourning period following a death. Nonetheless, many types of Buddhism specify that families must hold a series of memorial services after the death of a loved one.
Traditionally these should take place on the third, seventh, forty-ninth and hundredth day after their passing, but this is not strictly necessary and the family can change the dates if it suits them.
At these memorial services, the deceased’s loved ones may visit the temple to pray or a Buddhist monk may come to the house and pray with the family in private, depending on how public they wish to make the event.
The practice of holding memorial services is not universal, however. Theravada Buddhists believe that the spirit is reborn instantly, at the moment of death, and therefore there is no need to for memorials because the soul is already alive again.