Buddhists think of death as a part of the natural cycle of life: birth, life, death, and rebirth. Their customs for death, therefore, seek to assist recently departed loved ones in passing on to their next life. Funerals also serve as a reminder of the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence. There are many denominations of Buddhism, and the Buddhist burial traditions are often determined by local culture, so the rituals they practice can differ between them. However, there are some death rituals that are widely adopted across most types of Buddhism.
This article has been reviewed by Jacob Kinnard, professor of comparative religions at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.
Buddhist beliefs about death
Buddhists believe that when we die, we’re reincarnated — our self, or atman, is reborn in another form. We might be reborn as an animal or a human. Some branches of Buddhism also believe we can be reborn as a divine being or demigod. What we’re reincarnated as is determined by our actions in life. If we lead a moral life and build up good karma — the spiritual effects of our actions and thoughts — we’re reborn into better circumstances. This cycle is called samsara.
The Buddha taught that we should all try to reach a state of enlightenment — Nirvana — in order to escape the cycle of samsara. Being reborn as a human is a unique opportunity to work on ourselves, and allows us to follow the Buddha’s Eightfold Path toward enlightenment.
Another key concept in Buddhism is accepting that nothing in life is permanent. The Buddha taught that failure to accept this fact is one cause of human suffering. Recognizing it, on the other hand, helps people on the path to understanding the Four Noble Truths. Therefore, Buddhists see death and funerals as an important reminder of impermanence.
Buddhist customs for death
As in many religions and cultures, Buddhists observe a visitation, a funeral, and burial or cremation when someone dies. Most Buddhist honor their dead for three, five, or seven days. This is because even numbers are seen as “complete,” while odd numbers have a sense of “becoming.” Choosing an odd number of days serves as a reminder that this is a transitional period for the person’s atman.
The visitation takes place before the funeral and gives people a chance to spend time with the body and the deceased’s friends and relatives. It typically takes place in a funeral home or at a Buddhist temple. There’s an open casket, and the body is dressed in simple clothing.
The family of the deceased are present and sit at the front to greet visitors. It’s traditional for visitors to offer condolences to the family, then bow at the casket to pay their respects. If they wish, they may also stay awhile.
Usually, there is an altar decorated with candles, incense, fruit, and flowers at the visitation. However, it’s a peaceful and solemn event and displays of wealth and extravagance aren’t appropriate. There may also be a portrait of the person who’s passed away and a picture or statue of the Buddha.
Again, the funeral service will either take place at a funeral home or a Buddhist temple. At the visitation, there’s usually an open casket and decorated altar. When they enter, funeral guests bow to the casket in gratitude for the reminder of the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence. They then take a seat.
The funeral is led by a Buddhist monk, who typically delivers a sermon and may lead meditations to reflect on the person’s life and the Buddha’s teachings. As a sign of respect, everyone should stand when a monk enters, and no one should sit at a higher level than a monk.
The monk or family members lead chants as part of the service. These also encourage the congregation to reflect on the cycle of life and rebirth and the teachings of the Buddha.
Family members may also read eulogies and sermons at the funeral. These should align with Buddhist teachings. Other traditional rites, such as civil, military, or local funeral traditions, are permitted as long as they don’t conflict with Buddhist beliefs.
Burial or cremation
Cremation is usually favored in Buddhism, but burial is also permitted. The burial or cremation usually takes place right after the funeral. In some Buddhist traditions, such as Mahayana Buddhism, the funeral takes place a few days after the death to allow the first stage of rebirth to occur. Other denominations of Buddhism wait longer before the funeral, in order to properly prepare the body for cremation. They might wait anywhere between a week and a month. In all cases, the body should be left as undisturbed as possible prior to the burial or cremation.
On the morning of the burial or cremation, it’s traditional for Buddhist monks to perform the last rite. This is a chant that speaks about seeking refuge in the “Three Jewels” (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha) and the Precepts.
Buddhism and cremation
Cremation is the preferred option for Buddhists because it’s believed to help free the soul from the body. It follows the tradition of the Guatama Buddha, who was cremated on a funeral pyre. Also, in Buddhism, the physical body is seen only as a vessel for the atman. Therefore, once a person dies, the body doesn’t hold great significance. Seeing the body reduced to ashes is a powerful reminder of this, and also of the impermanence of all things.
It’s traditional for the family to gather to watch the cremation in a dedicated viewing chamber. After the cremation, the ashes are placed in an urn. The urn can be kept or buried. Buddhists can also choose to scatter ashes at a place of personal significance.
Buddhist burial practices
If a Buddhist is being buried, friends and family attend a burial ceremony after the funeral. In East Asian Buddhist burial traditions, the body is ideally buried on a hillside for better feng shui, although this isn’t required. When the casket is lowered into the ground, the funeral guests turn away out of respect.
Several Buddhist denominations have ancient traditions of burying the dead in nature. For example, Chinese Buddhists have often buried people in the forest or natural caves. Tibetan Buddhists, who often didn’t have wood to burn for cremation, created the sky burial where the body is left atop a mountain for vultures to feed on, which is, again, seen as a lesson in impermanence and a final act of generosity.
The Buddhist mourning period
Most branches of Buddhism observe a mourning period, which can vary in length. Some have a mourning period of 49 days, as they believe this is how long rebirth takes. During this period, they say prayers for the deceased every seven days to help them pass into the next life. Many traditions feel that this is a particularly important time. They also feel that the proper performance of the rituals and the ethical purity of the surviving family members ensure a smooth passage into the next life.
Other Buddhists observe a mourning period of 100 days. During this time, they don’t hold or attend celebratory events like weddings and baby showers. A ceremony may be held on the 100th day to celebrate the end of the mourning period and the successful rebirth of the person’s soul.
What do you wear to a Buddhist funeral?
The family of the person who has passed away wears white, which symbolizes grieving in Buddhism. Other funeral guests may wear black or any other muted color. Bright colors aren’t appropriate. You should especially avoid wearing red, as this symbolizes happiness for Buddhists.
If the funeral is taking place in a temple, a shirt and tie or a skirt or dress is appropriate attire. Clothing should also be loose and comfortable enough to sit on the floor to meditate. Mourners should remove their shoes while in the temple.
What do you give a Buddhist when someone dies?
You may send flowers or donations to the family. The family may also have named a charity that they’d like people to donate to. Gifts of food aren’t considered appropriate at a funeral and bear in mind that displays of wealth or extravagance go against Buddhist principles.
How do you give condolences to a Buddhist?
When offering condolences to a Buddhist, it is appropriate to offer sympathy for the pain they’re feeling, but also you should be conscious of basic Buddhist beliefs about death. Avoid talking about heaven or seeing the person again one day. Instead, talk about your fond memories of the person. You can also mention their kindness and good deeds, which Buddhist believe contribute to good karma and rebirth into a better life. Quoting relevant teachings from the Buddha is also appreciated.
As a Buddhist, there are traditions and rituals to honor the deceased, and it’s important to follow them. If you have any questions about proper etiquette, you should always feel comfortable asking questions to clarify.