Customs and Rituals

How do Buddhists deal ritually with death and mourning?

Practice varies according to denomination and cultural setting, but there are a number of common elements. These include: prayer at the deathbed and preparation of the body; a wake that includes final viewing; funeral service typically in a mortuary or funeral home; interment, usually of cremated remains but with full burial in some circumstances; and a series of memorial services at intervals beginning immediately after death and then in anniversary years calculated in various different ways. Viewing the body at the wake is a powerful reminder of the universal fact of impermanence. Funeral ceremonies center on recitation or chanting of appropriate sacred texts chosen to help mourners to see the event in the context of the full sweep of human existence. An officiating priest, monk, or minister may offer a eulogy, and participants make offerings of incense. In some places, like Japan, families inter the cremated remains either in a columbarium connected to a temple or in a cemetery on temple grounds.

Memorial services are important in virtually all Buddhist denominations, especially when Buddhism intersects with ancient traditions of ancestor veneration. Many Mahayana Buddhists observe memorials seven, thirty-five, forty-nine and one hundred days after death, and after one, three, seven, thirteen, seventeen, thirty-three, fifty, and one hundred years. Some consider the forty-ninth day especially important, since at that point the soul ceases its wandering. Theravada practice often includes memorial services two days after death at the home, two or three days after that at the funeral establishment, and again seven days after interment. The object of the last ceremony is to transfer merit from the living to the dead to ensure a good rebirth. Many Buddhists also offer a meal in the home or elsewhere for mourners after funeral services or interment.


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