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Understanding Buddhist Funerals: Traditions & Etiquette

Buddhism is practiced by over 500 million people worldwide (~ 240.000 Brits identify as Buddhists) and therefore considered one of the world’s main religions. However, many consider it more of a philosophy or spiritual practice as contrary to other religions there’s no deities or creator God that’s being worshipped. 

Buddhism originated in India roughly 2500 years ago when Siddhartha Gautama reached enlightenment and became Buddha (‘a person who is awake”). His teachings are called “Dharma” and include The Four Noble Truths. The latter are principles that explain human suffering and how to overcome it. In the centuries following Siddhartha Gautama’s death, Buddhism spread throughout Asia and into the rest of the world. In the last few decades, more and more people have become aware of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and Buddhism has experienced a rise in interest and popularity in the West.

This blog post focuses on Buddhist beliefs about death as well as everything you need to know about and what you can expect when attending a Buddhist funeral. We are covering etiquette, dress code, customs and traditions around gifts and answer the most common questions around Buddhist funerals.

Buddhist beliefs about Death

Buddhism is very diverse. You’ll find there are many different sects like 

  • Theravada Buddhism
  • Zen Buddhism
  • Tibetan Buddhism
  • Mahayana Buddhism
  • Pure Land Buddhism

… just to name a few. They all interpret the Buddha’s teachings slightly differently and follow different customs and traditions. What unifies them are their beliefs about death. Buddhists believe in Karma, the law of cause and effect or action and consequence, as well as in Samsāra, the cycle of life, death and rebirth. It depends on the Karma a person has accumulated how, where and as what they reincarnate. 

From a Western point of view, one could say that a Buddhist’s ultimate goal is to eventually break the cycle of Samsāra by becoming enlightened and reaching Nirvana. One of Buddhism’s main principles, though, is non-attachment and the acceptance of impermanence and suffering as part of the human experience. Therefore, Buddhists acknowledged that until one gains enlightenment, illness, old age and death are simply and inherently part of life.

Unlike Judaism that is very rich with customs and rituals around dying, death and grieving, Buddhism doesn’t have strict traditions or special rituals that need to be followed to the letter. Instead, there’s a wide variety of funeral customs and practices across the different denominations of Buddhism that can be and regularly are interspersed with traditions of other religions. It’s important to keep in mind that Buddhists believe that the deceased person will be reborn and their reincarnation is defined by their Karma. That means that their soul’s salvation isn’t dependent on any specific funeral rituals or traditions.

When a person is dying, their family and close friends will try to support them through the process by making them as comfortable as possible and ensuring a peaceful and calm atmosphere. Together, they may choose to remember the good deeds that person has done throughout their lifetime. The aim is to make the transition from one existence into the next as easy and smooth as possible. As being and becoming aware of oneself and one’s surroundings is a central part of a Buddhist’s practice, the dying person will probably opt against any medication that would make them feel overly drowsy or confused.

Once death has occurred, it is advised not to touch, move or disturb the body for at least four hours as it is believed that the soul needs some time to leave its physical shell. Only when the body is completely cold should it be washed and prepared for cremation or burial. This includes dressing the body in everyday clothes. If necessary, an autopsy is permissible but should only be carried out after a minimum of four hours have passed after the person exhaled their last breath.

Buddhists believe that when we die our souls go through three stages called “Bardos” on their journey to reincarnation. There’s “The Painful Bardo of Dying”, “The Luminous Bardo of Dharmata” and “The Bardo of Becoming”. Author, spiritual teacher and long-time student of Buddhism, Andrew Holecek, explains the three Bardos in-depth on his blog. While Mahayana Buddhists believe that this process can take up to seven weeks, Theravada Buddhists think that reincarnation happens pretty much straight after death. This leads to various time frames regarding funeral rituals. There can be multiple memorial services that are usually being held on the seventh, forty-ninth and hundredth day after death.

Attending a Buddhist Funeral

A Buddhist funeral will usually not be held before the fourth day after death. As Buddha himself was cremated and Buddhists don’t believe in any connection between the soul of the person who died and the body they left behind, most choose cremation. If, however, for personal reasons one prefers to be buried that is allowed and accepted as well.

When you are attending a Buddhist funeral you can expect a simple, yet dignified and solemn ceremony. It will usually be held at a family home, a temple or monastery or funeral home. If the service is happening before the cremation or burial, you will probably find an open casket at an altar with a portrait of the person who died as well as one of the Buddha near it. There will be moderate flower arrangements – a Buddhist funeral is not a place or occasion to display wealth – and offerings of fruit as well as burning candles and incense. 

On arrival, guests should make their way to the open casket and bow slightly with their hands put together in front of their chest. If so inclined they can take a moment to reflect in front of the altar, before they make their way to their seats. 

The service will most likely be conducted by one or several monks and take between 45 and 75 minutes. It usually involves chanting, the reciting of funeral prayers (they’re called sutras), potentially a group meditation, and the reading of eulogies. The chants may also be led by a family member or layman or can be pre-recorded if there is no monk available for the sermon. If you don’t know the chants or don’t feel comfortable joining in, staying silent is acceptable. 

You will find that the monks are seated higher than the rest of the congregation of mourners. When they stand up, so should everyone else. When they sit, you may sit down as well. If you happen to be seated on cushions on the floor, make sure your feet aren’t pointed at the monks – this would be highly disrespectful. You might observe mourners walking with sticks. It’s a symbolic gesture to express that their grief has left them in need of support.

The monk(s) will perform the last rites before the casket is closed and sealed. It will then be carried to the hearse – family members can choose to do so as a last act of service to the deceased – and the mourners follow in a silent procession.

What to Wear: Dress Code & Colours

Any display of wealth is considered highly inappropriate at a Buddhist funeral. Women should forgo jewellery, men should leave their expensive watches at home. Generally, the occasion asks for simple, conservative clothing.

Family Funeral Dress & Colour Code

In most Asian countries, the colour of mourning is white as it symbolises rebirth, purity, and learning as well as the hope that the soul of the deceased has a peaceful transition into the next life. The family will therefore most likely wear white clothes at the funeral. It has, however, become more popular in recent years for family members to wear black and either cover themselves with a white cloth or add a white hairband or wristband to their funeral outfit.

Friends Funeral Dress & Colour Code

When attending a Buddhist funeral as a guest, you should wear black or subdued colours. Your attire should be modest and conservative. Please keep in mind that you might need to kneel or sit on the floor, so choose clothes that allow you to do so easily and comfortably. Bright colours and particularly red – the colour of joy – are not appropriate.

Sending Flowers & Bringing Gifts

Flowers and floral arrangements are welcome and appropriate gifts at Buddhist funerals. You should, however, avoid the colour red at all costs and not go overboard with buying a lavish funeral flower arrangement. As mentioned above: A Buddhist funeral is not the occasion to display wealth in any form. If you are bringing flowers to the funeral, you may place them at the altar yourself when you go to pay your respects at the open casket.

Food or fruit donations as offerings on the altar are equally appropriate. Again, avoid any red food items or fruits. Donations to a charity in the name of the deceased are acceptable as well. You can also send a condolence card to the bereaved when you hear about someone’s death.

Common questions about Buddhist Funerals

How do I plan and arrange a Buddhist funeral?

When planning and arranging a Buddhist funeral, it is very helpful for the bereaved to know what sect (e.g. Zen, Theravada, Tibetan, Mahayana, …) the person who died felt most connected to as well as if they were an active member of a local community (“Sangha”). The latter might be able to provide one or several monks or a teacher for the ceremony. In the UK, there are no dedicated Buddhist funeral directors, yet. However, the Buddhist Society might be able to help you out with guidance and local contacts when you are planning the funeral. As most Buddhist traditions advise to wait at least 4 days between the time of death and the funeral, arrangements don’t need to be made as quickly as for Muslim funerals.

If you want a Buddhist funeral, it’s important to let your family know in advance and put it in your testament and/or last will. Be as explicit about what kind of final send-off you envision and maybe write down the chants or any text that you want to be included in the ceremony. You might also find our “Guide to pre-arranging funerals” helpful. If you are interested or have any questions regarding pre-paid funeral plans, please don’t hesitate to contact us – we are here to help you. To learn more about Safe Hands Funeral Plans, visit our about page

What happens after a Buddhist funeral?

A Buddhist funeral service can take place before the cremation or in form of a memorial service afterwards. There may be a wake or reception after the funeral. It depends on the family of the deceased. If there is one, you can expect to be invited to it.

What happens to the ashes after cremation at a Buddhist funeral?

The ashes are usually collected the day after cremation. Buddhism doesn’t specify what has to happen with the ashes. Therefore, it depends largely on the last wishes of the deceased or their family. In most Asian countries, it is common to scatter the ashes – often over a body of water. Some choose to keep the ashes in an urn in their homes for 49 days before either scattering or burying them.

How long does the mourning period last for Buddhists?

The Buddhist mourning period is nowhere near as strict or regulated as for example the Jewish mourning periods of Shiva and Shloshim. Most Buddhists believe that the stage between death and rebirth will last a maximum of 49 days. That’s why on the 49th day after someone died, there will often be another ceremony held. Oftentimes, they will continue to say prayers for the deceased on a daily or weekly basis after the funeral. Buddhists are not expected to partake in any celebratory events for 100 days.

Are Buddhists allowed to donate their organs?

Even though a dead body should only be disturbed with special care and for an appropriate reason, Buddhist belief supports organ donation. It is considered an act of generosity and compassion and generally beneficial for one’s Karma. Buddhist nun, scholar and social activist Karma Lekshe Tsomo explains: “After death, one’s vital organs are no longer useful, so they may as well be used to benefit others. (…) First, to donate one’s body for research or organ transplantation is a way to sever attachment to one’s own body. Second, to place another person’s welfare above one’s own is a perfect expression of the bodhisattva ethic of compassion. Third, to donate one’s organs with the pure motivation to benefit others will bring great fruits of merit in future lives, enabling one to gain a fortunate rebirth and further opportunities for Dharma practice; if the gift is dedicated to the enlightenment of all beings, the fruits are immeasurable.”