The Buddhist Funeral
Since its founding 2,500 years ago in India, Buddhism has become one of the world’s largest religions, spreading across vast geographical areas and branching into numerous sects bound together by common beliefs but characterized by individual traditions and practices.
Reincarnation plays an important role in Buddhist funeral traditions. Buddhists see death as a transition from this life to the next, bringing the soul closer to nirvana, a state of absolute bliss. Death is also an occasion of major religious significance for survivors, serving as a reminder of the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence as well as providing an opportunity to assist the deceased as they travel on to their new existence.
The Buddhist funeral is simple, solemn and dignified and usually takes place within a week after death. Many take place in a funeral home, not a temple. The body is viewed for only one night, generally the evening before the funeral. At the funeral home, a table will be set up with candles and incense which burn until the body is moved to the cemetery or crematorium.
The family sits at the front of the room in which the casket is placed. Visitors greet the family, offer their condolences, then go to the casket and bow. They may then either stay for a while or leave, according to personal preference. Visitors will often make a financial donation to the family.
The funeral service, typically held the following day, is conducted by a monk. There is almost always an open casket. Guests are expected to bow slightly toward the body as a sign of appreciation for its lessons regarding impermanence.
After the ceremonies are completed, the casket is taken to a burial ground, usually on a hillside for better feng shui. When the casket is buried, the family turns away from the casket to show respect.
Depending on their beliefs and preferences, Buddhists may also choose cremation. In some groups it is traditional for the family to witness the cremation.
Guests are not expected to participate in the ceremony, but rather to quietly observe the rituals, standing or sitting as directed. Men and women sit together. No headgear is required, and shoes must only be removed if the ceremony is held in a temple. While white is the color of grieving for the family, friends often wear black.
Friends may call at the home of the deceased’s family after the funeral, but not before. In the Buddhist tradition, flowers or donations may be sent to the family, but gifts of food are considered inappropriate. Guests may also make a donation to a designated charity in the name of the deceased.
For a temple ceremony, men should wear a tie and women a dress or skirt and blouse, clothing suitable for sitting on the floor during meditation.