Around the world there are many denominations of Buddhism, each of which adheres to a different set of rites and customs. However, at the core of their faith is the belief in the cycle of life (saṃsāra), reincarnation, good deeds and enlightenment. The rituals that take place around death and funerals are to help the deceased in their future life.
Here is our guide to Buddhist funeral services and Buddhist funeral etiquette.
Buddhist beliefs about death
Similar to Hinduism and Sikhism, Buddhists believe in reincarnation and the freeing of the soul. To them, death is a natural part of the cycle of life (saṃsāra), and how a Buddhist acts throughout their life will determine their future lives, through reincarnation. This is a unified belief across all forms of Buddhism and creates the foundation for Buddhist funeral customs.
For many Buddhists, the ultimate goal is to liberate themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth so they can reach the state of nirvana. To do this, they must rid themselves of basic desires and all notions of self, ultimately attaining total enlightenment.
Saṃsāra and the six realms
In line with saṃsāra, after death it is believed that a Buddhist will be reborn into one of six realms, depending on their karma:
- Gods realm (DEVA) – those wanting power and wealth, but who lack compassion or wisdom. The pleasures of this realm stop individuals achieving nirvana.
- Human realm (MANUSYA) – the only realm where you can attain nirvana and escape saṃsāra.
- Demi-god realm (ASURA) – those who are strong and powerful, but impatient, angry and envious.
- Animal realm (TIRYAGYONI) – those who are ignorant, stupid and have no desire to change. It is believed they prey on each other and suffer as a result.
- Hungry ghosts (PRETA) – those who are compulsive, obsessive, and addictive. They are described as having very small mouths but a very large stomach.
- Hell realm (NARAKA) – those who are angry, aggressive, and have evil karma such as theft, lying and adultery from their lifetime. This realm is seen as a temporary state; once your evil karma has run its course you are given another chance.
Buddhist funeral rites
Buddhist tradition suggests that death should occur in a calm and peaceful environment, with close friends and family in attendance. Together they should reflect on the good deeds the dying person has done throughout their life, in the hopes it will help them in their next reincarnation. Additionally, family and friends can perform good deeds on behalf of them, which they believe will be of merit to the deceased.
Once the person has died, their body should not be touched, moved or disturbed for at least four hours. This is because Buddhists believe the soul doesn’t leave the body straight away. The body must be kept cold and should be cleansed and dressed in their everyday clothes.
Buddhists and cremation
Due to their belief in reincarnation, cremation is seen as the preferred choice when a loved one dies. The physical body holds little significance to the Buddhist faith, it is merely a vessel for holding the soul. Buddhists also believe in organ donation as it is seen as a good deed.
What to expect at a Buddhist funeral
Buddhist funeral services are traditionally held in a monastery or at the family home. In line with Buddhist funeral traditions, Buddhist monks are invited to lead the ceremony, where they will read sermons and lead chants or sutras (Buddhist funeral prayers).
The body is presented in a simple open casket with an image of the deceased, and an image of Buddha placed nearby. Mourners may also lay candles, fruit, flowers and light incense around the body. After the ceremony, the casket is sealed and carried to the crematorium. Friends and family may carry the casket to the hearse and the rest of the mourners should form a funeral procession behind.
What do Buddhists do at a funeral
Buddhist funeral customs include:
- Offering cloth to the monk on the deceased’s behalf
- Decorating the alter with an image of the deceased person and Buddha
- Pouring water from a vessel into an overflowing cup
- Walking with sticks to symbolize they need support for their grief
- Chanting or singing appropriate sutras (prayers)
- Bringing offerings such as flowers, candles and fruits
- Burning incense
- Ringing gongs or bells
Buddhist funeral etiquette
On arrival, mourners should quietly proceed to the altar where they can pay their respects with a slight bow and hands folded in prayer; here mourners should think about the person who has died, and the life they led. Attendees are welcome to join in the chanting, but it is acceptable to remain silent if you are unfamiliar with the chants. If monks are in attendance, it is common etiquette for mourners to follow their cues about when to sit and stand.
How long is a Buddhist funeral
Depending on the wishes of the deceased and their family, a Buddhist funeral will usually last between 45 – 75 minutes.
What to wear to a Buddhist funeral
At a traditional Buddhist funeral, the family wears white or cover themselves using a white cloth. Mourners should wear simple, black or dark clothing. Wearing expensive or flashy clothing/jewellery is seen as a display of wealth and not in keeping with Buddhist funeral etiquette. For more information about what to wear to a funeral, please see our guide.
Buddhist mourning period
The bereaved family may choose to host a reception after the funeral, here mourners will continue to pay their respects. It is also common for Buddhists to hold multiple services throughout the mourning period; these are usually on the 3rd, 7th, 49th and 100th day after the death of a loved one.
If you are planning a funeral for your loved one, please contact your local funeral home
What happens at a cremation service?
Cremations are fast becoming the norm in Britain with over 70% of families choosing this type of funeral.
When someone passes away in the UK, the process of repatriating someone to another country can be a complicated task for anyone to deal with.
Further Reading: Arranging a funeral
Read about how funerals are arranged and what services you can expect to get.