Buddhist Death Rituals and End of Life Traditions

Updated February 10, 2022
Buddhist monk putting flowers on coffin

Buddhists believe that a person goes through a process called samsara, or reincarnation at death. At the end of the process, a rebirth occurs in the form of a god, demigod, human, animal, hungry ghost, or hell creature, depending on one's thoughts and actions during life. While Buddhism doesn't require specific practices at death, the rituals that do take place focus on helping the individual achieve a better station in the next life. In Buddhism, burial and cremation are both practiced.

Buddhist Rituals Before Death

Buddhists believe that death is a natural part of life and that those final moments of life can significantly impact the individual's rebirth. When death is imminent, Buddhists focus on caring for the individual's mental and spiritual state, rather than unnaturally prolonging life, to encourage a good rebirth. To that end, Buddhist's end-of-life rituals focus on keeping the person calm, peaceful, and centered on the good deeds performed during their lifetime.

Creating a Peaceful Environment

Relatives will place images of Buddha and flowers around the room of the dying to keep the person calm in the face of death. Not only does this practice create a peaceful environment, but it helps maintain the focus on religious thoughts and the good deeds performed during a person's lifespan. A mandala blanket, commonly used during meditation, may also be added to the environment as a visual to help keep the person focused on good deeds and religious thoughts.

Presence of Monks

In the face of impending death, family or friends may ask a monk to come and chant verses or read prayers. Family and loved ones can choose to chant along with the monks, or they can sit quietly. The monk can also encourage the dying person to focus their last energies on all the good that the person has achieved in their lifespan. It is not uncommon for the dying or the family to bestow gifts to the monastic community to curry good favor.

Performance and Transfer of Good Deeds

Family and friends may perform good deeds in the dying person's name (if possible, the person should acknowledge the actions). These good deeds are transferred to the dying person with the hope of achieving more merit at death for a better rebirth.

Buddhist Funeral Rituals

Buddhist monk putting lights on coffin

Even though there are many forms of Buddhism, all share the belief in reincarnation. It is believed that death is merely the transition from this life to the next. Buddhist funeral customs vary between Buddhist sects and differ from one country to the next. The funerals themselves can be traditional and ritualistic or dignified and straightforward. Regardless of the sect, country, or preference of funeral style, the most crucial aspect is that the customs and rituals of the Buddhist death ceremony are hallmarked by peace and serenity. Some traditions and rituals often witnessed at a Buddhist funeral include:

  • A wake in which mourners pay their respects to the deceased and offer their condolences to the family.
  • There may be an open casket funeral before a cremation or a memorial service after burial/cremation.
  • There is often a portrait of the deceased serving as the altar's centerpiece in front of the casket.
  • An image of Buddha will be near the altar according to Buddhist tradition.
  • The altar is adorned with candles and incense burning.
  • Offerings of fruit and white or yellow flowers are acceptable. No red flowers, since the color red symbolizes happiness.
  • Donations made to the family are acceptable, but gifts of food are considered inappropriate.
  • Buddhists prefer cremation, believing that it releases the soul from the physical form.
  • Buddhists may follow the tradition of cremation on a funeral pyre, which is the burning of a pile of wood on which the corpse has been placed.
  • Embalming is also allowed.
  • There are no rules or a specific timeframe determining when the burial or cremation should occur.
  • The funeral rites are conducted on the morning of the burial/cremation ceremony.
  • Verses will be chanted.
  • Monks or family members may conduct the funeral rites according to Buddhist traditions and the family's wishes.
  • Buddhism allows organ donation and autopsies. It is preferred to be done three to four days after death, which is believed to be when the soul has left the body.

Funeral Etiquette

Mourners should exhibit a quiet, respectful behavior appropriate for a somber occasion. Typical Buddhist funeral etiquette includes:

  • When arriving at the funeral or wake, you quietly proceed to the altar.
  • Mourners should pay their respects with a slight bow and hands folded in prayer. May pause at the casket for a quiet moment of reflection.
  • Mourners may walk with sticks to signify the support needed from their grief.
  • Mourners find a seat and wait for the service to begin.
  • If monks are leading the service, follow their cue as to when to sit and stand.
  • There will be sermons, prayers, chanting, and eulogies.
  • You may chant or sing the appropriate sutras (prayers). If unable to chant, you may sit quietly.
  • There may be group meditation.
  • There may be gongs or bells rung.
  • The service will last approximately one hour.
  • Mourners should not record the service.

What Colors Are Worn at a Buddhist Funeral?

Since Buddhism is practiced by a diverse range of people across several cultures, the attire will differ accordingly. That said, some traditional colors worn will be the same, which include:

  • The family typically wears mostly white or wears a white cloth over their clothing. This is worn in the Buddhist tradition to symbolize grieving and is a sign of respect for the deceased. The family may wear a headband or armband as well.
  • Friends of the deceased may wear black attire.
  • Bright colors or displays of wealth in clothing choices are not appropriate. Specifically, no red attire should be worn, as it commonly symbolizes happiness.

The color of the clothing worn at a Buddhist funeral is more important than the attire itself. While the dress should be simple and respectful, it should not be too informal, such as black jeans and black t-shirts.

Post-Death Rituals

Like rituals performed pre-death, post-death rituals and Buddhism burial practices are intended to aid in attaining a desirable rebirth and give merit to the deceased. Some rituals are general to Buddhism, while others are practiced only by specific cultures.

Chanting

Buddhists believe that chanting texts from Buddhism will generate merit that can be transferred to the deceased and help them in their rebirth. A few examples of chants for the dead are:

  • Chenrezig Mantra (Avalokiteshvra Mantra) : "Om Mani Padme Hum." This means praise to the jewel in the lotus.
  • The Heart Sutra Mantra: "Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha." This means the heart of the perfection of wisdom.

  • Medicine Buddha Mantra: "Tayata Om Bekandze Maha Bekandze Radza Samundgate Soha." This means may the many sentient beings who are sick, quickly be freed from sickness, and may all the sicknesses of beings never arise again.

Cloth of the Dead

Theravada Buddhists (those from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia) can incur good favor for the deceased by offering the monks white cloth to be used in the creation of robes. The merit generated by this deed is transferred to the deceased by pouring water into an overflowing cup while performing chants.

Southeast Asia Rituals

Buddhists in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries practice these rituals.

  • Bathing Ceremony - The deceased's family and friends pour water over one of the deceased's hands before placing the body in a coffin surrounded by wreaths, candles, and incense. A photo of the dead is often placed alongside the coffin, and colored lights are hung above. If the body is to be cremated, the cremation is often postponed for a week, so distant relatives have a chance to show honor to the deceased. In these instances, monks come daily to chant over the body.
Performing bathing ceremony for the dead
  • Offering of Food - Before the body is buried or cremated, relatives offer food to the monks who visit the home in the name of the deceased. Like other offerings, this helps bring merit to the deceased to help in his rebirth.

Sri Lankan Rituals

In addition to the offering of cloth to the deceased practiced by Theravada Buddhists, Sri Lankan Buddhists have several other death rituals to aid the deceased in their rebirth.

  • Preaching - In the week following the funeral, Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka return to the deceased's home and preach an hourlong sermon with relatives and neighbors. Family, friends, and neighbors enjoy a meal together afterward.
  • Offering - Sri Lankan Buddhists make offerings in the name of the deceased three months after the funeral and every year after that. The purpose is to continue to gain good merit that can be transferred to the deceased to aid in the rebirth.

Tibetan Rituals

Tibetan Buddhist death rituals follow the tradition of earning merit for the deceased, but they were also born out of practicality.

  • Sky Burial - A sky burial is the practice of leaving the body out to be eaten by vultures or other animals. It is another way for the deceased to earn merit posthumously, as it is considered a final act of generosity to the animals. The sky burial came about because of practical reasons. The scarcity of firewood in Tibet made burning the corpse difficult, and the ground is not always suitable for burial.
  • Reading of Texts - During the Bardo, the 49 days between death and when rebirth is thought to occur, relatives read texts specific to any practices the deceased focused on. The readings help the deceased in the journey to rebirth.

Ghost Month

Ceremony table during Ghost Festival

Chinese and Laotian Buddhists celebrate Ghost Month, a time when the gates of hell are opened, and hungry ghosts are thought to walk the earth in search of food and gifts. During this time, friends and relatives offer food, incense, paper money, and other gifts to the deceased spirits to garner good merit for their loved ones. Paper lanterns in the shape of lotus flowers are also placed in lakes and rivers to guide the way for the spirits.

Achieving Enlightenment

The ultimate goal of Buddhism is for every individual to become free of samsara and achieve enlightenment, or nirvana. This state can take many lifetimes to achieve. Until then, Buddhist death rituals help those practicing the faith attain a good rebirth to aid them on their journey toward the ultimate goal.

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Buddhist Death Rituals and End of Life Traditions