Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and that the actions you take whilst you’re alive reflect on who, or what, you become in your next life. When someone dies, the body must not be moved or touched as Buddhists believe the soul doesn’t leave straight away.
Preparing the body
The body must be completely cold before it is washed and dressed in simple clothes, such as the ones the person would have worn whilst they were alive. Embalming should be avoided if at all possible, and the body should be as undisturbed as possible between death and the funeral.
As the Buddhist faith is so diverse there is no one way to hold a funeral. Buddhists will have an existing connection with a group or community who will normally be able to provide a teacher or community member to take the funeral service. The funeral may vary depending on which tradition the deceased followed, e.g. Zen, Tibetan, Theravada, or Pure Land.
According to Buddhist funeral customs, a service may be presided over by monks, who will deliver a sermon and perform Buddhist rites. If a monk is unavailable, others may conduct the service. Rituals that transfer merit to the deceased may be performed by family or other mourners, such as offering cloth to the presiding monk on the deceased’s behalf, pouring water from a vessel into an overflowing cup, preaching, and giving offerings or almsgiving.
At a traditional Buddhist funeral, the deceased’s family wear white or cover their clothing with a traditional white cloth, along with a headband or armband. Mourners may also:
- Walk with sticks to symbolize that grief has left them the need for support
- Chant or sing appropriate sutras(prayers)
- Bring offerings of flowers and fruit
- Burn incense to sweeten the air
- Ring gongs or bells
Although Buddhists understand that death is not an end, only a transition from one form to another, it is acceptable to show grief. However, the focus should be on understanding how life is temporary, thinking about mortality as a reason to make life meaningful, and performing good deeds on behalf of the deceased person.
Cremation or burial
Traditionally Buddhists are cremated, but this isn’t always the case. The deceased, or their loved ones, may decide that burial is more appropriate. Some Buddhist traditions say that you must wait at least four days between death and cremation to allow the soul to move on undisturbed.
If they are present, monks will perform the last rites before the casket is sealed. Family members may help in lifting the casket as a final act of service, while others attending may observe a moment of silence. During the funeral procession, family members walk behind the hearse and all attendees send good thoughts to the family and contemplate the impermanence of life.