A Guide to Buddhist Funeral Customs and Traditions

Buddhist funerals are unique in many aspects. They vary not only from family to family and different schools of Buddhism, but also according to their  country of origin. Samsara, the cycle of life, is the core of the Buddhist faith. This belief emphasizes that the rituals performed at a funeral help the deceased progress onto the next stage of their journey into the afterlife. Buddhist funerals range from more traditional to a combination of traditional and modern practices. 

Read on to explore the basics of a Buddhist funeral service, including its customs, traditions and etiquette to learn how to properly pay your respects. 

What is a Buddhist Funeral?

Buddhis funerals are centered around a focus of peace and serenity. While rituals can vary from family to family, usually the family of the deceased plans the funeral service and an altar for the ceremony. Buddhist funeral ceremonies are simple in their nature. Usually, a monk would oversee the services and guide the family through the prayers and meditation aligned with the traditional activities. The Buddhist funeral service usually ends with the cremation of the loved one. There are no strict, formal guidelines for Buddhist funerals so some families tend to blend Christian and Buddhist rituals.  

Buddhist Funeral Rituals

Some Buddhist funeral rituals are performed to support the afterlife journey of the loved one. They include the following.

Peaceful environment for passing. When a person is dying, the family does their best to create a peaceful environment for the person passing away. Usually, family and close friends are present.

Recalling good deeds. Family and friends recall the good deeds the deceased performed in their life. 

Performing good deeds for the deceased. Like many other religions, family and friends perform good deeds on behalf of the loved one. 

Post-death ritual. The body of the deceased is usually left without disturbance to ensure the peaceful exit of the soul from the body. 

Organ Donation Ritual. Some Buddhists choose to donate their organs as their final good deed in this life. 

Buddhist Funeral Traditions and Customs

General Buddhist funeral traditions and customs are as follows. Not only do they support the transition of the loved one, but also comfort the mourning family. 

  • Offering a cloth to the monk: A piece of cloth is often offered to the monk on the deceased’s behalf. 
  • Altar Layout: The altar is decorated with photos and statues of the Buddha as well as photos and objects to honor the deceased. There is usually a variety of food and flowers laid out on the altar as well.
  • Cremation: The Buddhists believe in reincarnation so the standard Buddhist burial practice is cremation. 
  • Leading the Ceremony: The ceremony is led by a group of monks who deliver a variety of Sutras, the Buddhist funeral prayers and deliver sermons and lead chants. 
  • Funeral Location: Usually the location of the funeral service is decided based on the number of attendees, but the family home or a religious space is often chosen.
  • Procession: After the funeral, ceremonies have been performed the body is sealed in a casket before being transferred to the crematorium. 
  • Bells and Gongs: Bells and gongs are rung as part of the funeral rituals as traditional practices.
  • Water pouring: As a ritual, water is poured from the vessel into an overflowing cup, another traditional Buddhist practice. 
  • Walking with sticks: The mourners walk with sticks to symbolize their need for support during the grief. 
  • Bringing offerings: Attendees often bring offerings like flowers, fruits, and candles for the deceased and their family. 

Buddhist Funeral Etiquette

When they arrive, the mourners quietly proceed to the altar to pay their respects to the deceased. They do so with a slight bow and folded hands in prayer. The mourners contemplatively think about the deceased and the life they led. Later, the attendees are welcome to join the chanting, but it is not obligatory; it is acceptable to remain silent if one’s not familiar with these chants. When monks are present, the mourners follow their cues to sit and stand. 

Buddhist Funeral Duration

A Buddhist funeral service will usually last between 45 – 75 minutes. This depends on the wishes of the deceased and their family.  The time is mostly spent in meditation or making quiet prayers. The general atmosphere of the funeral is somber and melancholy in its nature.

Appropriate Attire for a Buddhist funeral

At any traditional Buddhist funeral, the family covers themselves with a white cloth. The mourners are expected to wear simple, black, or dark clothes. Minimalism is essential. Wearing expensive clothing or jewelry as a display of wealth is not appreciated at a Buddhist funeral. Try to wear your simplest clothes and do not wear any fancy jewelry to the funeral.  

Buddhist mourning period

The grieving family may choose to host a reception after the funeral, although it’s not required. The mourners continue to pay their respect by praying for the deceased. It is a widespread practice for Buddhists to hold many services after the funeral. These are often held on the 3rd, 7th, 49th, and 100th day after the death, and they collectively comprise the Buddhist mourning period.

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