Buddhism is a path, or set of practices and teaching, that does not include the idea of worshiping a creator god, so some people do not see it as a religion in the “Western” sense. In fact, Buddhism does not see itself as in conflict with other religions – for instance, many practitioners would tell you that it is possible from the Buddhist perspective to be both a Buddhist and a Christian or Jew.
Buddhism began in India more than 2,500 years ago. It is based on the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha or “enlightened one.” Since its inception, Buddhism spread across East Asia and is now gaining an increasing following in the West.
The basic tenets of Buddhist teaching are straightforward and practical: nothing is fixed or permanent; actions have consequences; change is possible. Mindfulness and meditation are an important part of Buddhist practice.
Because Buddhism spread so widely across Asia over such a long period of time, there are many traditions or offshoots to Buddhism: Zen, Tibetan, Theravada, and Pure Land are just a few examples. These traditions have influenced the culture of the regions or countries where they are found in a variety of ways, including funeral and cremation practices.
Buddhist Funeral and Cremation Practices
Buddhism is closely associated with cremation as a funeral practice. Because the Buddha was himself cremated, it follows that many Buddhist practitioners choose to follow in his footsteps.
However, Buddhism in general is not very particular about the exact funeral practices Buddhists are to follow. Although cremation is the most common choice among Buddhists, burial is also permissible.
Individual traditions or sects do have specific funeral practices that practitioners usually follow but unlike Christianity, none of these would have any impact on the soul or eternal destiny of the practitioner. Buddhism holds that after death, there is no connection between the consciousness of the departed person and the body or remains left behind.
This isn’t to say that Buddhists don’t care about funeral practices – indeed they do, but Buddhists don’t believe that anything like salvation is at stake. Buddhist funeral rites are typically solemn, meaningful, and dignified, but they exist primarily as a means of paying homage to the dead and making their transition easier, not to ensure entry into heaven.
Buddhists do, however, believe in reincarnation, or rebirth. They see death as part of a process of continual cycle of rebirth until one has achieved the highest state of consciousness. When highest consciousness is achieved the Buddhist reaches Nirvana, a state in which there is no pain or suffering, no desire or selfishness, all karmic debts are repaid, and the cycle of death and rebirth ends.
A Typical Buddhist Funeral
Buddhism encompasses a wide range of funeral practices and beliefs. However, a typical Buddhist funeral usually includes cremation, although this is not a requirement. In the Tibetan tradition, a waiting period of four days after death is usually observed prior to the funeral or cremation as many Buddhists believe that the soul is still “in transition” for a period of time after death.
Immediately prior to and at the time of death, Buddhist monks or teachers will lead the family in saying prayers to help ease the transition of the soul out of the body. This is the beginning of the funeral period, which in Mayahana Buddhism – from which the Zen and Pure Land Buddhist traditions observed in Japan and China originated – can go on for up to 100 days.
The first week following death is usually the most important as the body is prepared for cremation; prayers will continuously be said at this time by monks or by the family. Cremation is typically held any time after the first week. In some traditions it may not be held for up to a month. Often the deceased will be cremated along with a few items that they liked or that had meaning to them. Family members will often attend the cremation, and when it is over, they place the cremains into an urn.
Once cremated, the remains are often buried in a small family plot. Prayers will continue to be said during the mourning period, which can last from a month up to 100 days.
Special thanks to Greg Crouse, Service Manager of our Neptune Society Palm Harbor/Tampa, FL location, for his support and contributions to this post.
If you or a loved one is considering cremation, we at Neptune Society encourage you to consider carefully your own position on the subject, discuss your options with your religious leader, and make the choice you believe is right for you and your family. For more articles in this series, please see our religion and cremation article archive.