Information on Buddhist funeral traditions and etiquette
Buddhists acknowledge death as a part of the cycle of reincarnation known as saṃsāra. In saṃsāra, a Buddhist’s actions in life will affect future incarnations. Although widely accepted among Buddhists, this belief may differ slightly according to the type of Buddhism.
Buddhists aspire to leave the cycle of saṃsāra by freeing themselves from all desires and notions of self to attain enlightenment and reaching a state of nirvana.
Buddhism is a small but quickly growing religion in Australia, so you may find yourself wanting to pay your respects at a Buddhist funeral. Be aware that Buddhism is practised across many different countries and cultures. Buddhists from different cultural backgrounds may have variations in how they conduct the funeral service.
Planning a Buddhist funeral
Those wanting to have a Buddhist funeral will often indicate this wish in their will. The contact details of members of the Buddhist community who can assist in the funeral preparations, as well as specific chants and texts of significance, should also feature in the will or have been communicated before death.
Most Buddhists prefer cremation, although burials are not unheard of. Organ and body donation for transplant and research purposes are acceptable within Buddhism, while embalming is not encouraged in Buddhism unless it is completely necessary.
Buddhist funeral traditions
Before the main ceremony begins, there may be a period for mourners to pay their last respects.
There is no prescribed procedure that Buddhist must follow, so the Buddhist funeral service may occur before cremation, after cremation or before burial. So dependent on the arrangement, the body may be displayed in an open coffin.
On arrival, mourners may be met by an altar decorated with an image of the person who has passed away, an image of Buddha, flowers, incense, candles and fruits. Mourners often present the bereaved with flowers, with them usually being placed alongside their loved one or the decorated altar.
Normally Buddhist funerals are simple, solemn and dignified and take place at a Buddhist temple or at a family home. The number of mourners can vary, often depending on the size of the venue.
Once all the mourners have paid their respects, monks and other members of the Buddhist community will often read sermons and deliver eulogies.
Chanting by monks regularly features in Buddhist funerals, although the recordings of chants are sometimes played on these occasions instead. Non-religious rites may be performed alongside those of Buddhism, as long as they do not conflict with Buddhist funeral rites and Buddhist beliefs.
If the funeral service coincides with cremation, it is not uncommon for monks or the bereaved to begin chanting.
Buddhist burial and cremation
If the body was cremated, the bereaved will usually collect the ashes. The ashes can be enshrined in a columbarium, kept in an urn garden or scattered over land or at sea, depending on their wishes.
If the body is to be buried, the mourners will carry the casket to a hearse or other vehicle, with the mourners following behind in a procession. If monks are present, they may lead chanting, if not, family members may do so. Chanting can continue until the burial is complete.
Traditionally, Buddhist memorial services are held on the third, seventh, 49th and 100th day after death. These dates, however, can be changed at the family’s discretion.
Buddhist funeral etiquette
When attending a Buddhist funeral, you should dress in simple clothing, as displays of affluence are deemed inappropriate. Unlike Christian funerals, black is usually not worn by mourners. White is the traditional color to wear to a Buddhist funeral, though this may vary according to different cultural traditions.
When entering the service, mourners should approach the altar and bow with their hands together in prayer position, taking time to reflect on the person who has passed away briefly before sitting.
It is common for monks to sit higher than others during the service. What’s more, it is expected for all mourners to rise from their seats whenever the monks stand.
The monks will regularly initiate chanting throughout the service. If you are unfamiliar with these chants, you can choose to observe the ceremony in silence.
For more information on religious funerals, visit our religious funerals page.