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Buddhist Death and Funeral Customs and Traditions

Buddhist Death and Funeral Customs and Traditions

Buddhists believe in reincarnation and that death is a transformation into the next incarnation. Each incarnation brings the soul closer to nirvana, which offers complete spiritual enlightenment. Because of this belief, Buddhist funerals celebrate the soul’s ascent from the body, rather than the demise of the body itself. Like Christianity, there are many types of Buddhist religion and all have different death and funeral traditions or customs. In general, Buddhist funeral rituals take place within a week of death and the deceased is usually cremated. Often the cremation (or burial) is preceded by other services. The first service may be held two days after the death, in the home of the bereaved. A second service is often held 2–5 days after the death, and is usually conducted by Buddhist monks at a funeral home. The next service is more akin to a funeral, with the viewing of the ashes or body. Seven days after the cremation or funeral, a final service may be held to create positive energy for the deceased as he or she transcends to the next stage of incarnation. While funeral customs and rituals differ in some Buddhist religions, there are some standard expectations.

Things to know:

  • Family members often:
    • Wear traditional white cloth, such as a headband or armband
    • Walk with sticks to symbolize that grief has left them with a need for support
    • Chant sutras (prayers)
    • Bring offerings of flowers and fruit
    • Burn incense to sweeten the air
  • Guests usually wear modest, dark clothing: a tie and jacket for men; a dress or skirt for women. Clothing should be comfortable, since part of the ceremony may include kneeling for meditation
  • Gifts of flowers or donations may be sent to the family, but gifts of food are considered inappropriate
  • Guests are generally not expected to participate in the chants or other Buddhist-specific traditions if they aren’t practicing Buddhists
  • If a family has chosen burial rather than cremation, the casket may be open for viewing. Guests are usually expected to view the body and bow in acknowledgment of the death
  • Cameras or recording devices of any kind are not considered polite
  • The formal mourning period usually lasts 90 days

Although Buddhists believe that death leads to the ascendance of the soul and is a transition rather than an end, showing grief is also acceptable and expected.

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