Funerals from around the world: Buddhism

Charles 7 Comments

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Is it uncharitable to start a brief discussion of Buddhist funerals by alluding to Mark Juergensmeyer’s recent book, Buddhist Warfare, which shows another side of a religion widely seen in the West as purely peaceful? 

This other side includes the recent example of armed monks in southern Thailand defending their communities from attacks by the drug trade and Muslims. For centuries, Buddhist monks have been directly involved in conflict across Mongolia, Tibet, Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, but successful propaganda since the 1900s presented mystical aspects of their traditions while leaving out the violent history.

Juergensmeyer simply illustrates that Buddhists share the human spectrum of emotions which include anger and violence. It nevertheless shatters the fiction of a religion seemingly without shortcomings.

Buddhist writer Thupten Tsering welcomes this reality check. ‘They see Tibetans as cute, sweet, warmhearted. I tell people, when you cut me, I bleed just like you,’ he says.

Buddhism is a way of life that concerns itself with moral conduct and quest for enlightenment. It keeps regulated ritual to a minimum, seeing it as being applicable mainly for the discipline of its monks.

Often credited with more common sense than other religions, Buddhism teaches that upon death what is left is only matter and how remains are treated is of no consequence to the well being of the departed.

However, they, of course, act respectfully towards the bodily remains of loved ones, giving them a dignified send-off, whether or not they invite monks to conduct rites at their cremation or burial ceremonies.

As an act of gratitude they perform rites such as carrying out meritorious deeds in their memory. Rather like the earning/buying of indulgences of Christendom past, they hope charity giving and other wholesome deeds in the name of the deceased will share merit and lead to good rebirth.

They also claim the good and bad deeds (kamma) of the deceased play a part in their next life, a belief that might be loosely compared with Heaven and Hell, but on Earth. 

A Buddhist funeral tends to be simple, with lavish spending eschewed in favour of donations to earthly causes, with the merits transferred to the departed.

However, they ensure the place where the body lies is serene, the open coffin accompanied by a portrait of the deceased placed in front of an altar and a statue of a Buddha.

When paying respects, guests bow in silence, and join in any chanting. Family members and friends may conduct the ceremony but, if monks are invited, they chant suttas, after which pamsukala robes are offered, and the merits transferred. The casket is then sealed. 


  1. Charles

    I agree Richard, there is a misconception about Buddhism in the west, particularly Thai Buddhism that it is totally non violent and gentle. They have a hell which rivals anything Hieronymous Bosch had to offer.

  2. Charles

    It depends exactly what you mean by Buddhism. If you are talking about some of the more heavilt syncretised forms of Mahayana Buddhism, such as Tibetan, then ritual can get very elaborate indeed. It is also only the Mahayana School that acknowledges the possibility of shared merit (for the benefit of ‘all sentient beings’… a phrase I have always liked.

    Funerals are actually very difficult to tie down from a Buddhist perspective, because they are dependent on the culture that the Buddhist is living in, in other words there is no established liturgy. It is certainly true that the body is only seen as physical remains (as is the case in most religious traditions) and there is therefore no real issue about what happens to it and burial and cremation are equally acceptable. In parts of Tibet where the soil is thin and the ground rocky and there are few trees that could be used as fuel for cremation pyres, the tradition of sky burial has developed. The body is, in effect, fed to vultures and other animals. WHile thi seems disrespectful and brutal from a Western perspective, it is regarded as the final act of dana (generosity or charity) by the person who has died and has now offered their body as food. Again, merit is gained through this act.

    It is not quite accurate to say that kamma affects the next life, either. Nearly but not quite. This is far more representative of the Hindu notion of reincarnation rather than the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth. On of the central tennants of Buddhism is anatta (that there is no enduring self) There is no ‘soul’ (to use a very clumsy Western term) to be reborn. What they do believe is very difficult to explain but sort of boils down to the idea that a life can be caused by a previous life (just as a lamp flame is caused by the flame that lit it) but is not identical to it. Unresolved kamma from a life may be worked out in a future life (kammic seeds) but the second life is not the same ‘person’ as the first.It is therefore quite possible, particularly within the Theravada tradition, to be a Buddhist and not believe in life after death at all.

  3. Charles

    Thanks all, very very enlightening!

    I had my eyes opened to the rather grisly side of ancient Buddhism on a visit to the Har Paw Villa in Singapore… A sort of Madame Tussauds featuring the Ten Bloody courts of hell.
    Apparently parents like to take their children there as a warning… You’ll go to hell…..if you don’t do as you’re told.

    I often fancy a visit to the pavilion of forgetfulness.

  4. Charles

    Again, Evelyn, only Mahayana Buddhism realy includes a belief in the ‘hell realms’. Even in Tibetan Buddhism (origin of the famous book of the dead) not all Buddhists see them as acyual places that you go to after death. For some they are states of mind that are experienced in this life.

  5. Charles

    Maybe the Buddhist tradition which most clearly seems to turn its back on an afterlife is Zen, derived from Chinese Cha’n, which in turn was influenced by Taoist elements. (Or so I understand, I’d better add in this learned company!) Maybe that’s why Zen appealed to many Westerners who wanted a path that was not entirely materialistic and secular, but which didn’t demand a belief in the soul and heaven/hell concepts which they had turned their back on. Then of course they found that the meditative disciplines of Zen are very demanding. So many of them just got stoned instead. . .but others hung on and adapted and adopted.
    Haw Par Gardens are indeed full of that rich mixture of Buddhism, Taoism of the magical sort, and other lurid stuff of which I know not what. They indeed present us with a heaven and hell, and relate in my mind to the Hungry Ghosts festival, burning paper money and motor cars at funerals etc, the sort of colourful and in a strange way pragmatic world you see in a thriving Chinese temple like the one I visited in Hong Kong a year ago, all incense and glitter; cf the austere calm of a Buddhist nunnery a mile or two away.
    The big mistake is to see one or the other as the “real” Buddhism.
    Almost as silly as refusing to accept that there is much in all this for us Westerners, if we choose to consider it.

  6. Charles

    There are many different types of Buddhism practised in Malaysia, mostly by the Chinese population…hence the Taoist and Confucian influences, and the mythological ‘hell’ elements which are typical of the highly syncretised Chinese Buddhism.

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