Buddhists believe that death is a major transition between the present life and the next, and therefore an opportunity for the dying person to influence their future birth. Family and friends try to support the dying person before, during and after death to develop a positive state of mind in order to ensure a good rebirth. Because of this and because of the restriction on their participating in parties and the like, funerals are the only major life rite in which Buddhist monks and nuns are actively involved.

Buddhist funerals are not completely sad occasions, as Buddhists believe that the dead person has passed into the next rebirth and hopefully will experience a happier and more fulfilled life. The family hope to improve the future birth of the dead person through prayer and offering food to the monks.

Ceremonies are held for the benefit of the deceased person but also for the benefit of friends and family left behind. There may be a sermon which will emphasise the Buddhist teachings of impermanence - (anicca) and non-self - (anatta) and of the inevitability of death. The ceremony will also be concerned with developing merit which will then be transferred to the deceased person so that it can benefit them in their new circumstances.

Different Buddhist traditions

Theravada Buddhism

Buddhists in Theravada countries think that rebirth takes place immediately after death.

In Sri Lanka, a Theravada country, at the funeral the family will give cloth for making new robes to the monks. The funeral ceremony will include chanting of verses about impermanence. About a week after the person died, monks will come to the family home to deliver a sermon. Thereafter, at three months and one year, there will be special merit-making ceremonies for the benefit of the deceased person.

Mahayana Buddhism

When Buddhists in Mahayana countries are dying, someone whispers the name of the Buddha into their ear so that this is the last thing the person hears before they die. After death, relatives wash the body. They then place the body in a coffin surrounded by wreaths and candles. The funeral often takes place a few days after the death to allow the first bardo state to happen. This is the time when the dead person becomes conscious of being dead and the next form of rebirth is decided. Buddhists in Mahayana countries think that rebirth takes up to 49 days (7 weeks) after death.

In Tibet, a Mahayana country, as a person dies and for 49 days afterwards, they will have detailed guidance read to them from an appropriate text. For one lineage of Tibetan Buddhists, this is the Tibetan Book of the Dead. During this period, the dead person is understood to be going through a series of confused intermediate bardo states, and is capable of being influenced.

Because Tibet is mountainous it is not easy to bury a corpse. By preference the body is either cremated or broken up and fed to vultures. This is called a 'sky burial' and is performed by monks or specialists who do this job. This is regarded as a lesson in impermanence for the dead person in the bardo state and for the relatives, and also is a last act of generosity whereby the dead person helps feed the vultures.

Prayers are offered for the deceased at different stages after death, sometimes 30 days or a year later.

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