What to expect at a Buddhist funeral and cremation
Last updated: 29 November 2017
Buddhist beliefs about death
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 reach a state of nirvana.
Many Buddhists prefer cremation to burial. Traditionally, Buddhist cremation may take place on an open air pyre, but as this is prohibited in the UK, most Buddhists choose a cremation service at a local crematorium. The cremation ashes may be scattered, buried or kept at home in an urn.
In some Buddhist cultures, such as in Japan, the family may want to watch the cremation process take place. This may be possible at your local crematorium – ask your funeral director if this can be arranged.
However, burial is not unheard of in Buddhist funerals. Some Buddhists may opt for a woodland burial, as an environmentally-friendly way to return to the earth.
Buddhist funeral traditions
Organ and body donation for transplant and research purposes are acceptable within Buddhism. Embalming is generally not encouraged, unless it is completely necessary or the individual expressed a wish to be embalmed.
Buddhist funeral services
Normally Buddhist funerals are simple and dignified, and take place at a Buddhist monastery or at a family home. The number of mourners expected can vary, often depending on the size of the venue.
There is no prescribed procedure that Buddhist funerals follow, so the funeral service may occur before cremation, after cremation or before burial. Depending on the arrangements, there may be an open coffin at the funeral service.
On arrival, mourners may be see an altar decorated with an image of the person who has died, an image of Buddha, flowers, incense, candles and fruits. Mourners often present the bereaved with flowers, usually placed alongside their loved one or the decorated altar.
Once all the mourners have paid their respects, monks and other members of the Buddhist community will read sermons and deliver eulogies.
Chanting by monks regularly features in Buddhist funeral services, 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 beliefs.
After a Buddhist funeral
Buddhism is a very diverse religion, existing in many different cultures. Whether or not there is a reception after the funeral may depend on the traditions of the family. Usually, if there is a reception, mourners will be invited to attend to pay their respects.
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.
What to wear to a Buddhist funeral
When attending a Buddhist funeral, you should dress in simple clothing, as displays of wealth are deemed inappropriate.
The appropriate colour to wear to a Buddhist funeral can depend on the bereaved's heritage. For example, Japanese Buddhists may wear black to a funeral, but other nationalities wear white. It is best to check with the bereaved if you have chance, or the funeral director may be able to tell you. In either case, wearing bright colours such as red is usually inappropriate.
Buddhist funeral etiquette
When entering the service, mourners should approach the altar and bow with their hands together in a 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.