Buddhist traditions in death and mourning
Customs of Buddhist funerals
Many Buddhists believe that a person’s body can receive gifts and messages after they pass away, so they gather around them to pray and bestow presents.
Buddhist mourning periods last up to 100 days, with services traditionally held on the third, seventh, 49th, and 100th day.
Cremation is traditional in Buddhism, but only after seven days have passed.
Mourners wear white, and the service and casket are typically very simple and not showy.
Whether you or your loved one was a practicing Buddhist, or you just find beauty in Buddhist beliefs, you may be considering incorporating some Buddhist aspects into your memorial planning. Knowing more about the background of the religion may help you get some perspective on how best to honor both your loved one and these traditions.
Buddhism originated in India in about the fifth century BCE, and has become one of the most popular belief systems in the world. It is considered at once a religion, a philosophy and a moral discipline. Unlike Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, it is non-theistic: There is no belief in a creator god. Many people find this unique aspect of Buddhism appealing in that it allows practitioners to combine a Buddhist practice with another religion of their choosing.
Although Buddhism has several denominations throughout different cultures, one of Buddhism’s defining features is a belief in samsara, the cycle of life and death. Buddhists believe that every person is caught in a succession of deaths and rebirths until they are able to free themselves from all desires and the idea of an ego or self. Once they are able to let go of all attachments and realize that individuality is an illusion and that we are all parts of a greater whole, they will reach the ultimate state of enlightenment, known as nirvana.
Given this context, it becomes clear that both birth and death are important, inevitable parts of life in the Buddhist worldview. Birth is precious, and life is precious, but so is death, because it marks the beginning of the next life through rebirth. Death is not something to be feared, because it is natural—and it is not the end.
When someone dies, Buddhists believe that the spirit stays close by while it seeks out a new body. Some compare it to a flame passing from one candle to another. However, where and how a person is reborn depends upon their behavior during this life and all of their previous lifetimes. This is where the popular idea of karma comes in. Karma is the Buddhist name for the cosmic law of cause and effect. Everything you do has an effect, and therefore it is important to live a good life so you can have a good death. It is essential to treasure the life you have and to make every moment count. Death can come at any moment, so it’s better to be ready whenever your time comes.
When a Buddhist is facing death, friends and relatives are encouraged to stay serene. Rather than fighting the inevitable, they can remind the dying person of what a good life they had and how the good deeds they performed during their life will benefit their next incarnation. Most importantly, the dying person should be made as comfortable as possible so they can pass peacefully from this life into the next.
Buddhist funeral rites share a lot in common with other cultural and religious traditions, but there are a few aspects that make them unique. According to the Buddhist religious text The Last Rites of Amitabha, the body of someone who has died should not be touched, disturbed or moved in any way until it is completely cold, as the soul does not leave the body immediately once breathing ends.
When the time comes, friends and relatives will often do a bathing ceremony in which they pour water over one hand. The body is then traditionally placed into a casket and surrounded by flowers, candles, incense, colored lights, and, typically, a photo of the person. Instead of being dressed in fancy clothes, they should be dressed the same way they would have dressed on any normal day.
A person should be made as comfortable as possible so they can pass peacefully from this life into the next.
As long as the body is present, the person’s spirit can benefit from gifts, words, and songs given to it. Sometimes monks come one or more times per day to sing over the body, but relatives can also do the chanting, or even choose to play a recording.
The services can be small and intimate or larger and open to the community. They can be held either at home or at a monastery.
Buddhist services, from the 7th day to the 49th day
Buddhist funeral services can take place before burial or cremation, or as a memorial service after cremation. Cremation is popular because it is thought to free the soul from the body, but it is typically delayed until the seventh day after death, as Buddhists believe that once cremation happens and the body is no longer present, the spirit is cut off from our world entirely.
Many Buddhists hold a series of services instead of a single funeral—every seven days, for seven weeks, culminating with a service on the 49th day after a loved one’s death.
No matter what form the funeral or memorial takes, the service is typically simple. A funeral is not seen as an appropriate time to display wealth. Mourners wear white clothing to symbolize their grief and seriousness.
For the service, the casket or cremated remains are placed at the front of the room with an altar nearby. The altar will usually hold the person's photo, a picture or statue of the Buddha, candles, flowers, fruit, and incense. Any flowers or wreaths given to the family by mourners may also be displayed.
When entering the space, mourners should approach the altar, bow with their hands pressed together in a pose of prayer, and reflect at the altar for a moment before taking their seats. Usually a monk officiates, but it may also be a minister, priest, or other religious leader if the family practices Buddhism alongside another religion. There are no formal guidelines for Buddhist funerals, but prayer, meditation, and eulogies are all common.
In some Buddhist traditions, memorial practices are observed every year to commemorate departed loved ones. For instance, the Japanese Buddhist tradition o-bon, which takes place during the summer months and is marked by religious and cultural heritage festivals that involve feasts and processions through cemeteries. Families take this time to visit and clean gravesites. There are also group dances performed around a stage by dancers wearing colorful kimonos. The stage itself is roped off and lanterns are lit overhead as a way of inviting departed spirits to join in the celebration.
Non-Buddhists might think that the acceptance of death as a natural process means that grief is minimized or even discouraged in Buddhist traditions, but this is not the case. Buddhists recognize that grief is as universal and inevitable as death itself, and that surviving friends and relatives must learn to carry on without their loved one.
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