Although there are many types of Buddhism, they all share the belief that reincarnation of the soul takes place after death. This belief is the foundation of Buddhist funerals, including the traditions, etiquette and general funeral components.
We’ve put together this guide to help you understand the history, traditions, standard etiquette, and behaviour at a Buddhist funeral.
What is a Buddhist funeral?
A Buddhist funeral is a simple ceremony at a Buddhist temple, a family home or a funeral home. The funeral focuses on peace and serenity with a service that a monk oversees. During the service, there is typically prayer and meditations.
Because Buddhism can vary significantly by location and cultural origin, it’s common for the Buddhist community to incorporate Catholic beliefs in their funeral traditions, such as using a priest to officiate the service or including sermons and eulogies.
Buddhist Death Rituals
Buddhists carry a deep belief that reincarnation occurs after someone passes away. Therefore, when a person is dying and after they have passed away, there are strict rituals to help the deceased through the reincarnation journey.
Before death: If the death of a loved one is expected, friends and family will create a peaceful environment for dying. Loved ones will usually reflect on the person’s good deeds and often carry out good deeds on their behalf.
After death: Once the person has passed away, it is a tradition in Buddhism to let the body sit for four hours. During this time, no one is allowed to move, touch or disturb the body, including embalming, autopsies or organ donation. This time allows for the soul to leave the body.
Buddhist funeral traditions
Various Buddhist funeral traditions aim to help the deceased transition to the afterlife and provide comfort to the mourning.
The altar: It’s common in Buddhist funeral traditions to have a portrait of the deceased next to the casket that serves as the altar's centrepiece. The family places offerings next to the deceased, including candles, incense, fruit and flowers. Buddhist funeral traditions also place photos or statues of Buddha close to the casket.
The funeral service: Buddhist funeral services occur on the morning of the cremation or burial. Typically, the funeral service is led by a monk or a group of monks that offer a variety of Buddhist funeral prayers (sutras), chants and sermons. Part of the funeral rituals includes the ringing of bells or gongs. Depending on the wishes of the family and the deceased, the funeral service is usually between 45 - 90 minutes.
Buddhist Funeral Etiquette
Since tradition can vary between Buddhist communities, the deceased's family will often communicate what’s expected of guests during the service. When mourners arrive, they should proceed to the altar to pay their respects by placing offerings next to the casket and slightly bowing with their hands in prayer.
Donations, flowers, food and sympathy cards are acceptable to send to the family before the funeral, but you should avoid anything that’s the colour red. There is often chanting at Buddhist funerals. Mourners are welcome to participate, but if they're not familiar with the chants, it’s acceptable to remain silent.
What to wear to a Buddhist funeral
What you wear to a Buddhist funeral can vary greatly depending on the Buddhism community. Typically, the family wears white clothing while friends and guests wear black. However, Japanese Buddhist families wear black and invite their guests to wear white. In any case, you should avoid bright colours and any display of wealth.
Buddhist mourning period
There are specific days that are significant in the Buddhist mourning period. Typically, activities or rituals happen on the 3rd, 7th, 49th, and 100th day following the person’s death. The third or seventh day is when families will hold the funeral but the total mourning period lasts 49 days.
In Buddhism, the belief is that rebirth happens 49 days after a person passes away. However, the exact date can vary between Buddhism communities as some people believe that karma determines how soon the reincarnation will happen. Over the 49 day mourning period, there are prayers every seven days to help the deceased transition to the afterlife.
On the 100th day, the family hosts a celebration to honour the successful passing of the deceased into their new life. This celebration usually includes prayers, offerings and food loved by the deceased.
Buddhist funerals have several traditions that revolve around a peaceful journey for the deceased through their reincarnation. Therefore, it’s important to show respect for Buddhist funeral traditions, the deceased, and the family when attending a Buddhist funeral.
If you have specific wishes for your funeral, consider Willed’s prepaid funerals. You can plan and pay for your funeral in advance to save your family time, money and stress.