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Buddhist Funeral Traditions, Customs, and Beliefs

Buddhism is the world’s fourth largest religion with over 520 million followers, most of which reside in Asian countries including China, Japan, Myanmar, Tibet, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. In the United States, Buddhists make up roughly 1% of the population with the greatest concentrations in Hawaii and Southern California.

If you’re attending a Buddhist funeral or are a Buddhist yourself but haven’t attended a Buddhist funeral before, it’s important to know about Buddhist beliefs, Buddhist funeral customs and Buddhist traditions in order to respectfully pay your respects. Keep in mind: funeral customs vary from denomination, culture and family so it’s best to ask the family if there are any questions about funeral etiquette.

In the hopes of helping both Buddhist and non-Buddhist funeral attendees alike, here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about Buddhism and Buddhist funerals.

What do Buddhist people believe?

Buddhism can be traced back 2,500 years to present-day Nepal in a time where Siddhartha Gautama lived who went on to become the Buddha. Buddhists believe that Siddhartha left a life of privilege and luxury to become a monk and reached enlightenment after meditating and reflecting on his life. He was thereafter referred to as the Buddha, which means the Awakened One. Buddha’s teaching, known as dharma, then spread from present-day Nepal to many countries in East Asia.

There are many denominations within the Buddhist religion, the most popular being Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is known for being the head priest of Tibetan Buddhism, which is practiced primarily in Tibet. Even though there are many denominations, the common values shared across all schools of Buddhism are meant to guide followers on their path towards enlightenment which involves practicing morality and meditation and acquiring wisdom.

The concept of karma is used in both Buddhism and Hinduism to describe the belief that all actions in one life are of consequence to the body in the soul’s next reincarnated life. Thus karma is described as an accumulation of consequences, either inflicted on or gifted to, the body from the accumulation of actions from previous lives.

The ultimate goal for Buddhist believers is to reach nirvana and break the cycle of reincarnation so that the soul may be freed from the infinite rebirths it experiences.

What do Buddhist people believe happens after death?

Buddhists believe that the soul transmigrates from one body to the next in a cycle of life and death known as samsara. It is only when the soul achieves enlightenment that it can break away from the cycle and achieve nirvana. In addition, if a person has built up enough positive karma in life, they are believed to be more likely to benefit from positive karma in their next life. Thus death for a Buddhist person is an opportunity to reflect on life in hopes that their next rebirth will provide them with a better life.

How soon after a death does a Buddhist funeral take place?

According to some beliefs, the body should not be touched or moved immediately after the death, because Buddhists believe that the soul does not leave the body as soon as the person passes away. Once a few hours have passed, it can be transported, washed and prepared for cremation or burial.

Most Buddhists choose to be cremated. It is said that the Buddha himself was cremated, and so cremation is widely regarded as the primary body disposition method, although a burial is acceptable.

It is also suggested that the body be cremated on the third day after passing, although date changes are acceptable and should be accommodated, according to the family’s wishes.

What other Buddhist funeral customs should I be aware of?

Since Buddhist funeral rites vary by region and Buddhist denomination, not all are the same. However, the following funeral customs are most common in the Buddhist faith:

  • Viewing. Holding a viewing is acceptable in Buddhist traditions. The body should be dressed in simple clothing and placed in a simple casket.
  • Funeral Attire. Family of the bereaved will typically wear simple and casual white clothes, while guests of the funeral may wear black. If you are uncertain about attire, you are encouraged to ask the family of the deceased before attending the funeral.
  • Funeral Hymns. Chanting may be lead by monks, friends and family of the bereaved, or designated funeral leaders.
  • Eulogies. Monks or friends and family may be asked to perform sermons at the funeral service.
  • Funeral Flowers. It is common to send funeral flowers to the family or directly to the funeral home. It is not recommended to bring flowers to the funeral or to send food.
March 2018
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