Buddhist Traditions for Funerals

by Jason Cristiano Ramon

For Buddhists, death is a significant and essential stage of life. In particular, death symbolizes the transient nature of life and life's suffering, the latter of which is one of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Although tenets such as the Four Noble Truths are believed by practitioners of all Buddhist sects, funeral ceremonies and rites differ between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists as well as from culture to culture.

Pre-Funeral Events

Mahayana Buddhism is most prevalent in Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Mongolia and Tibet. In Japan, pre-funeral events include the "otsuya" -- meaning "transit evening" in Japanese -- which is similar to a wake, as loved ones come to pay their respects to the deceased. In Southeast Asian countries, where Theravada Buddhism is most prevalent, family members show their filial piety by washing their deceased family member's body. The deceased's body is dressed in simple, everyday clothes and placed into the casket.

Ceremony

In Japan, the funeral ceremony that takes place before the cremation is referred to as the "ososhiki." A small altar comprised of a framed photograph of the deceased along with flowers and wreaths is placed In front of the deceased's casket. Funeral attendees pay their respects by paying a modest monetary "fee" to the deceased and his family before entering into the funerary room. Chanting takes place led by priests and is soon followed by the "Nobe no Okuri," which is when the deceased's body is shown for the last time.

China has an elaborate funeral ceremony, which commonly lasts for 49 days, with the first seven days being the most important. The number of prayer ceremonies held within this 49-day period is dependent on the family's financial situation.

In Southeast Asia, monks frequently play an integral role in funeral ceremonies by leading the funeral rites. The ceremonies begin with the chanting of sutras, which can be delivered by monks or loved ones of the deceased. Visitors then pay their last respects to the dead by standing next to the altar, which is usually placed in front of the casket. The casket is then sealed and the body is either buried or cremated.

Burial or Cremation

In Japan, the deceased is usually cremated after the funeral ceremony. Loved ones head to the chosen crematorium and wait for the body to be cremated. After the body has been cremated, family members place the bones in an urn with ceremonial chopsticks. A staff member then presses the bones into ash. The family is given the remains along with a cremation certificate. In Southeast Asia, families can either choose to have the deceased cremated or buried. Cremation usually takes place within the first three days, although wealthy families can choose to keep their loved ones in a temple for more than a year to show their love and respect for the dead before the deceased is cremated. In China, funeral ceremonies customarily last for 40 or 49 days; following this period, the body of the deceased is either cremated or buried.

Post-Ceremony

In most Mahayana Buddhist-practicing countries, such as Vietnam and Japan, the 49th day of a person's passing is celebrated as it marks an important transition within the cycle of life and reincarnation, as the deceased's soul has arrived at her next destination within the cycle of life. In Tibet, the 49th day is often celebrated via a "purification" rite led by monks. Monks walk to the deceased family's home, accept an effigy of the deceased usually made from butter and dough and walk back to the monastery in a choreographed "dirge" dance.

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About the Author

Jason Cristiano Ramon holds a doctorate in political science and a master's degree in philosophy. He has taught political science in China.