There are a number of Buddhists traditions, but most Buddhists believe that life and death are part of a cycle known as samsara, where death marks the transition from this life to rebirth into the next. One’s actions in this life and all previous incarnations determine the next reincarnation. The ultimate goal of a Buddhist is to get enlightenment (Nirvana) and be free of endless reincarnation and suffering (Dukkha). So, dying is seen as a natural and inevitable part of the life cycle.
Preparing the Body
The Last Rites of Amitibha states that the body of the deceased should not be touched or moved for a period of time (some suggest four hours) after breathing stops to give the soul time to leave the body.
After a number of hours, once the body is completely cold, it can be washed and prepared for burial or cremation. The deceased is dressed in everyday clothes.
According to a tradition set at Buddha’s death, most Buddhists are cremated, but some traditions accept burial. Since it is thought that consciousness continues for several days after the body dies, many Buddhist traditions state that there should be an interval of at least three-and-a-half days before the body is subject to autopsy, cremation or burial.
The Funeral Service
There is no single funeral service or ritual common to all Buddhists. If the deceased is connected to a particular local group or community (eg Zen, Theravada, Tibetan), they may be able to provide guidance.
A wake may be held, with a simple, open casket. An alter can be placed near the casket and may feature an image of the deceased, of Buddha, candles, flowers, fruit and incense. Chanting, performed by monks, laypeople, or pre-recorded, may take place during the wake. The wake may last for as long as the family wishes.
The funeral can be a funeral service before burial or before cremation, or a memorial service after cremation. The service and surrounding events should be simple, solemn and dignified. The casket or cremated remains are placed at the front of the room with an alter (similar to that at the wake) nearby. When entering, mourners are expected to approach the casket or remains, bow with their hands pressed together in a pose of prayer, pause for a moment then take their seat. Buddhist rites are performed by monks. Sermons and eulogies are delivered by monks and mourners or other members of the Buddhist community, followed by chanting. The monks should occupy the highest seats and all present should stand when the monks stand. If cremation has not yet taken place, the casket is then transported to the crematorium with mourners following behind in a procession.
For some, religious memorial services are traditionally held on the third, seventh, forty-ninth and one-hundredth day after the death. These services may be small, private affairs or extended to the larger community. They can be held at home or at a monastery. ‘Dana’, an act which purifies the mind of the giver and allows for blessings to be given to the Sangha (‘community’) and subsequently transferred to the deceased, will be performed.
What to Wear
The family will usually wear white to symbolize their grief. Other mourners should do the same, or dress in sombre, muted colours.
Burial and cremation are both acceptable.
Organ donation and donating the body to medical research are both acceptable.
Embalming should be avoided where possible but is acceptable in some traditions.
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