Buddhism is a set of practices and teachings that do not involve worshipping a creator god. Some people don’t see Buddhism as a religion in the Western sense. Buddhism is not in conflict with any other religion. For example, many Buddhist practitioners will tell you that it’s possible to be both a Buddhist or a Christian from the Buddhist perspective.
Buddhism was founded in India over 2,500 years ago. It is based upon the teachings and life of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha or “enlightened” one. Buddhism has gained increasing popularity in the West since its inception.
Buddhist teachings are simple and practical. Nothing is permanent or fixed; actions have consequences; it is possible to change. Meditation and mindfulness are important parts of Buddhist practice.
Buddhism has spread across Asia so extensively over a long time that there are many traditions and offshoots. These traditions have had a profound impact on the culture of the countries or regions where they are found. This includes funeral and incineration practices.
Buddhist Funeral & Cremation Practices
Burial or cremation is a common funeral practice in Buddha’s teaching. It is no surprise that many Buddhist practitioners chose to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha.
Buddha’s teaching isn’t very specific about what funeral practices Buddhists should follow. While cremation is the preferred choice for Buddhists, burial can also be done.
Although certain funeral traditions and sects have their own specific practices, they are not able to have any effect on the soul or the eternal destiny of the practitioner. Buddhism holds that there is no relationship between the consciousness of the deceased person and the remains or body left behind after death.
Buddhists aren’t opposed to funerals – in fact, they care about them – but they do not believe that salvation is at stake. Funeral rites for Buddhists are often solemn, meaningful, and dignified. However, they serve primarily to pay homage to the deceased and make their transition easier, and not to guarantee entry to heaven.
Buddhists believe in reincarnation or rebirth. Buddhism see death as part and parcel of a cycle of rebirth until reaching the highest level of consciousness. The Buddhist attains Nirvana when the highest level of consciousness is attained. This is a state in the Buddhist’s life where there is no pain, suffering, or desire, and all karmic debts have been repaid.
A Traditional Buddhist Funeral
Buddhism covers many funeral practices and beliefs. A typical Buddhist funeral will include incineration. However, this is not required. As many Buddhists believe the soul is still in transition for some time, the Tibetan tradition requires that a four-day waiting period be observed before the funeral or incineration.
Buddhist monks and teachers will lead the family to say prayers for the soul’s release. This marks the start of the funeral period in Mayahana Buddhism, from which the Pure Land and Zen Buddhist traditions in Japan and China are derived. It can last up to 100 days.
As the body is being prepared for incineration, the first week after death is the most important. Family members and monks will continue to pray during this time. Cremation can be held at any time after the first week. Some traditions may allow the incineration to be delayed for up to one month. The deceased may be cremated with some items they loved or that held meaning to them. The cremains will be placed in an urn by family members.
The remains of a cremated body are usually buried in a small plot within the family. During the period of mourning, prayers will be continued. It can last anywhere from one month to as long as 100 days.
Buddhist Funeral Traditions
There are many Buddhist denominations around the globe. Each one adheres to its own set of rituals and customs. Their faith centers on the belief in the cycles of life (saṃsāra), reincarnation, and good deeds. Funerals and rituals around death are meant to assist the deceased in their next life.
This is our guide for Buddhist funeral services.
Buddhist Beliefs About The Death
Like Hinduism or Sikhism, Buddha’s teaching believes that reincarnation is possible and that the soul can be freed. According to them, death is part of the cycle (samsara), and how Buddhist act in their lives will affect their future lives through reincarnation. This belief is common to all forms of Buddhism, and it provides the basis for Buddhist funeral traditions.
Many Buddhists believe that the ultimate goal of Buddhism is to free themselves from the cycle between death and rebirth so that they can attain nirvana. They must let go of all basic desires and any notions of themselves in order to achieve total enlightenment.
Samsara And The Six Realms
According to samsara and reincarnation, a Buddhist can be reborn in one of six realms after death, depending on their karma.
- God’s realm – Those who want power and wealth but lack compassion or wisdom. Individuals cannot achieve nirvana due to the pleasures of this realm.
- The human realm (MANUSIA). – This is the only realm in which you can achieve nirvana or escape samsara.
- Demigod realm (ASURA – Those who are powerful and strong, but impatient, angry, and jealous.
- Animal realm. (TIRYAGYONI). – Those who are stupid, ignorant, and do not want to change. They are believed to prey on one another and suffer the consequences.
- Hungry Ghosts (PRETA). – Those who are compulsive and obsessive. They have small mouths, but large stomachs.
- Hell realm (NARAKA) – Those who are angry and aggressive and have bad karma like theft, lying, and adultery. This realm is temporary and you will be given another chance once your evil karma runs its course.
Buddhist Funeral Rites, Death With Close Friends And Family Members
According to Buddhist funeral rites and tradition, death should be in a peaceful and calm environment with close friends and family members. They should all reflect together on the good works done by the deceased throughout their lives in the hope that it will assist them in their next reincarnation. Family and friends can also do good deeds for the deceased, which they believe will benefit them.
After the death of a person, it is forbidden to touch, move, or disturb their body for more than four hours. Buddhists believe that the soul does not leave the body immediately. The body should be kept at a temperature of 0°C and should be dressed in everyday clothes.
Buddhists And Cremation
Cremation is the preferred option for the death of a loved one because they believe in reincarnation. According to Buddhist beliefs, the physical body is not important. It is simply a container for the soul. Organ donation is also believed by Buddhists. It is considered a good deed.
What can you expect at a Buddhist funeral?
Traditional Buddhist funeral services are held at the family home or in a monastery. According to Buddhist funeral rites, Buddhist monks will be invited to lead the funeral service. They will read sermons and lead chants, or sutras, (Buddhist funeral prayer prayers).
The body is placed in an open casket that contains an image of the deceased and a Buddha image. The body may be surrounded by flowers, fruits, and incense. The casket is sealed after the ceremony and taken to the crematorium. The casket may be carried by friends and family members and friends to the hearse. All other mourners should follow the funeral procession.
What Do Buddhists Do At A Funeral
Funeral customs of Buddhism include:
- On behalf of the deceased, offer cloth to the monk
- Decorate the altar with a picture of the deceased and a Buddha image
- Water from a vessel to fill a cup
- To symbolize their grief, they walk with sticks
- Singing or chanting the appropriate sutras (prayer)
- Offering flowers, candles, and fruits as offerings
- Incense burning
- Ringing bells and gongs
Buddhist Funeral Etiquette
When arriving, mourners may be asked to quietly go to the altar. Here they can pay their respects by bowing and folding their hands in prayer. While everyone is welcome to participate in the chanting, it is okay to keep silent if you don’t know the words. It is a common protocol for mourners may observe the cues of monks when it comes to sitting and standing.
There is no one funeral or ritual that is common to all Buddhists. The Buddhist tradition is diverse. Most practicing Buddhists will already have a connection to a community or group that can provide the teacher or member of the community to perform the funeral service. The situation can be more difficult for people who do not participate in a particular tradition. It is best if the deceased has indicated beforehand which Buddhist tradition they are connected to. Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, Theravada, and Pure Land. The Buddhist Society may be able to advise you or suggest local contacts of funeral home that can help with the organization of Buddhist Funeral services.
A Buddhist Chaplain should be associated with your local hospice or hospital or funeral home so they can offer guidance and help.
The Buddhist Society can offer funeral services for Zen, Tibetan, and Theravada traditions.
How Long Does A Buddhist Funeral Take
A Buddhist funeral can last anywhere from 45 to 75 minutes, depending on the wishes and needs of the deceased or their family.
What To Wear To A Buddhist Funeral
Traditional Buddhism funerals require that the family either wear white or cover their bodies with a white cloth. The funeral service guest should wear plain, simple, or dark clothes. It is considered a show of wealth to wear flashy or expensive clothing/jewelry, which is not in accordance with Buddhist funeral etiquette. Our guide provides more information on what to wear to a funeral.
Buddhism Mourning Period
A reception may be hosted by the family of the deceased, where mourners may continue to pay their respects. Buddhists often hold multiple services during the mourning period. These are typically on the 3rd-7th, 49th, 100th, and 100th days after the death.
The History of Cremation in Japan
The practice of Cremation grew as Buddhism spread throughout eastern Asia in the first two millennia AD. People believed that death was a source of pollution and ritual disposal of bodies was meant to cleanse the environment. Until the last few years of the 19th century, incineration was controversial in Japan because a portion of the population – Confucians, specifically – believed the burning of corpses to be morally indefensible and more polluting than full-body burial or cremation. While Buddhism was a major driver of cremation’s expansion in Asia, it has remained popular in Japan mainly because of practical reasons. This is how Japan became the country with the highest incineration rate in the world.
Japan’s incineration movement was launched by two important deaths, Dosho (a Buddhist priest) in 700 AD and Emperor Jito (703). The Japanese aristocracy would be influenced by the emperor’s death through cremation.
It wasn’t until the Heian period (794-1185), that incineration was closely associated with Buddhism in Japan. This occurred shortly after Jito and Dosho’s bodies were burned. The Japan philosophy teaches that everything – including life and the body – is impermanent and that the cleansing fire of cremation is transformative. As Masao Fuji explained, cremation is used to remove “pollution” after a person’s death and to move the spirit into an ancestral realm. It can be used to transform a “polluting spirit” to a “purified ancestral spirit.” The Kamakura period (1192-1333) saw incineration become more popular among the aristocracy than the common people.
Japan has seen a vocal opponent to cremation over the past 142 years: Confucians. Confucians saw cremation as disrespectful and “unnatural”, despite the fact it being a Buddhism practice. Most crematoria in Japan and China were owned by Buddhist temples. As a result, cremation was seen as a Buddhist practice. In the 17th century, a Confucian scholar urged cremation to be used in more than 60 Japanese provinces.
Nearly a thousand years after Jito had been cremated, the Japanese aristocracy ended this practice. In 1654, Emperor Gokomyo buried his body instead of burning it. Confucian scholars were already firmly ingrained in Japan’s elite.
In the latter part of the 19th century, there was a conflict over incineration. Emperor Meiji, who took the throne in 1868, began to transform Japan into a modern nation state. The Meiji Restoration was a period of dramatic social and political change. It saw the end of feudalism in favor of capitalist economics. Andrew Bernstein, a scholar, wrote that “Fire and Earth”: The Forging Modern Cremation in Meiji Japan was incompatible with “Buddhism”.
Government officials tried unsuccessfully to ban cremation in the late 1860s
In the late 1870s, several unsuccessful attempts were made by government officials to ban cremation. Their first real chance came in 1873 when Tokyo’s police asked the government to order crematoria outside the “red line” around the city. They argued that the smoke from the dead bodies was harmful to public health. Japan outlawed incineration on July 18, 1873, in spite of public opposition. Officials claimed that burning bodies was disrespectful and a violation of public morality. The resulting smoke was also a health risk for Tokyo’s residents.
Opponents focused their attention on the obvious problems that the ban caused. Full bodies took up more space than ashes, and separating ancestral remains from the family was a moral and emotional burden for families. Cremation was actually more safe than in-ground burial, especially during epidemics of disease.
Conflict erupted in urban areas, which were easier to enforce and had the greatest and most immediate adverse effect on residents. Japan’s urbanization increased in the latter part of the 19th century, which meant that cities saw a greater number of people. This put pressure on the temple cemeteries’ limited space. While some families kept the ashes of their loved ones at home, most placed them in family plots. Families were able to intergenerationally inter their ancestors’ cremated remains using very little space because the ashes of one person take up so much room. Because of limited space in cities, families started to bury their loved ones outside the city limits. This made it difficult for city dwellers and their relatives to visit their remains. The disruption caused by the ban was especially disappointing considering the government’s claims that cremation would lead to a corruption of Japan’s moral center. Family is very important in Japanese culture. There was not enough space for burials and the overwhelming opposition of the ban, so something had to go.
European scientists also praised the health benefits of cremation, including the ability to control disease spread. Japan’s ban opponents framed Europe’s increasing interest in incineration as a positive sign. They rejected the claims that it caused more pollution than burial and effectively separated cremation from Buddhism. People began to see it as a sanitary practice rather than a spiritual one.
The ban was repealed in May 1875, just two years after its passage. In 1897, the Japanese government declared that any person who had died from a communicable illness must be cremated. This was two decades later. Ironically, officials in government began to promote the healing power of fire and its ability to destroy diseases.
Japan’s 1890s incineration rate was around 40%. It fluctuated between a few points each year. It was not until 1930 that the rate surpassed 50 percent. It grew from 54 percent in 1950 to 91.1 percent between 1980 and now it is at an all-time high of 91.1 percent.
Japan is a country with no space
Japan has very little space. Japan’s islands cover less than 4 percent of the United States’ total area. They span less than 150,000 miles. Today, Japan’s population, just over a 127million, makes up nearly 40% of America’s 319 million.
The Cremation Society of Great Britain published a 2012 report that found Japan’s highest cremation rate at 99.9%. With 90.8 percent, Taiwan is second. Hong Kong (84.6 percent), Switzerland (84.6%), Thailand (80%), and Singapore (79%%) are close behind. The United States’ incineration rate is expected to surpass that of burial in 2015 for the first-time.
Do Buddhists want to be cremated?
Because they believe in reincarnation Cremation is the best option for a loved one’s death. . According to Buddhism, the physical body is not important. It is simply a vessel that holds the soul. Organ donation is also believed by Buddhists as a good deed.
Is cremation forbidden in Buddhism?
Buddhists prefer incineration. However, embalming can be done. Families make their own decisions. There are no regulations regarding when burials or cremations take place. Chanting is used, and monks can be invited to perform the funeral ceremony in accordance with Buddhist funeral traditions.
What do Buddhists do with cremated remains?
Cremation is when someone dies. Their remains are made into ashes. There is no burial. Many Buddhist traditions say that the ashes of a loved one are scattered over a sacred place. This allows you to connect with your loved one’s memories.