Thai, Burmese, Laotian, Cambodian, Sri Lankan and Chinese Traditions.
Buddhists follow the Indian custom of burning the body at death.
The Buddhas body was cremated and this set the example
for many Buddhists, even in the West. When someone is dying
in a Burmese home, monks come to comfort them. They chant verses
to them, such as:
the gorgeous royal chariots wear out; and indeed this body too
wears out. But the teaching of goodness does not age; and so
Goodness makes that known to the good ones."
death, while the dead person is being prepared for the funeral
fire, the monks continue to chant in order to help the dead
ones good energies to be released from their fading personality.
monks come with the family to the funeral. The family and all
their friends give food and candles to the monks. Goodwill is
created by these gifts and it is believed that the goodwill
helps the lingering spirit of the dead person.
Tibet, a Mahayana country, the day of death is thought of as
highly important. It is believed that as soon as the death of
the body has taken place, the personality goes into a state
of trance for four days. During this time the person does not
know they are dead. This period is called the First Bardo and
during it lamas (monks) saying special verses can reach the
person to them.
is believed that towards the end of this time the dead person
will see a brilliant light. If the radiance of the Clear Light
does not terrify them, and they can welcome it, then the person
will not be reborn. But most flee from the Light, which then
person then becomes conscious that death has occurred. At this
point the Second Bardo begins. The person sees all that they
have ever done or thought passing in front of them. While they
watch they feel they have a body but when they realize this
is not so, they long to possess one again. Then comes the Third
Bardo, which is the state of seeking another birth. All previous
thoughts and actions direct the person to choose new parents,
who will give them their next body.
Chinese Funeral Arrangements
the passing away of the father, the eldest son becomes the head
of the family. If the eldest son passes away, his second brother
does not assume leadership of the family. Leadership passes
to the eldest son of the eldest son or the grandson of the father.
He must assume the responsibilities and duties to the ancestors
on behalf of the family.
of the Funeral Ceremony
are two main traditions that are observed:
The funeral ceremony, traditionally lasts over 49 days, the
first seven days being the most important. Prayers are said
every seven days for 49 days if the family can afford it. If
the family is in poor circumstances, the period may be shortened
to from 3 to 7 days. Usually, it is the responsibility of the
daughters to bear the funeral expenses. The head of the family
should be present for, at least the first and, possibly the
second, prayer ceremony. The number of ceremonies conducted
is dependent on the financial situation of the family. The head
of the family should also be present for the burial or the cremation.
In the second tradition, the prayer ceremony is held every 10
days. The initial ceremony and three succeeding periods of ten
days until the final burial or cremation.
100 days a final prayer ceremony is conducted, but such a ceremony
is optional and not as important as the initial ceremonies.
the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, to which most Chinese Buddhists
subscribe, it is believed that, between death and rebirth, there
is an intermediate period called Antarabhava in Sanskrit or
the Bardo in Tibetan. It is an important period which has an
influence on the form that the rebirth shall take. If the family
ensures that proper assistance in the form of prayer and remembrance
ceremonies are duly performed, the departed is better able to
take a favourable rebirth.
As practiced in Thailand and other South East
rites are the most elaborate of all the life-cycle ceremonies
and the ones entered into most fully by the monks. It is a basic
teaching of Buddhism that existence is suffering, whether birth,
daily living, old age or dying. This teaching is never in a
stronger position than when death enters a home. Indeed Buddhism
may have won its way the more easily in Thailand because it
had more to say about death and the hereafter than had animism.
people rely upon monks to chant the sutras that will benefit
the deceased, and to conduct all funeral rites and memorial
services. To conduct the rites for the dead may be considered
the one indispensable service rendered the community by the
monks. For this reason the crematory in each large temple has
no rival in secular society.
idea that death is suffering, relieved only by the knowledge
that it is universal, gives an underlying mood of resignation
to funerals: among a choice few, there is the hope of Nibbana
with the extinction of personal striving; among the vast majority
there is the expectation of rebirth either in this world, in
the heaven of Indra or some other, or in another plane of existence,
possibly as a spirit. Over the basic mood of gloom there has
grown up a feeling that meritorious acts can aid the condition
of the departed. Not all the teaching of Anatta (not self) can
quite eradicate anxiety lest the deceased exist as pretas or
as beings suffering torment. For this reason relatives do what
they can to ameliorate their condition.
to tradition, when a person is dying an effort should be made
to fix his mind upon the Buddhist scriptures or to get him to
repeat one of the names of Buddha, such as Phra Arahant. The
name may be whispered in his ear if the person is far gone.
Sometimes four syllables which are considered the heart of the
Abhidharma, ci, ce, ru, and ni, representing "heart, mental
concepts, form and Nibbana" are written on a piece of paper
and put in the mouth of the dying man. It is hoped that if the
last thoughts of the patient are directed to Buddha and the
precepts, that the fruit of this meritorious act will bring
good to the deceased in his new existence. In a village, at
the moment of death, the relatives may set up a wailing both
to express sorrow and to notify the neighbors who will then
come to be of help.
death a bathing ceremony takes place in which relatives and
friends pour water over one hand of the deceased. The body is
then placed in a coffin and surrounded with wreaths, candles
and sticks of incense. If possible a photograph of the deceased
is placed alongside, and colored lights are suspended about
the coffin. Sometimes the cremation is deferred for a week to
allow distant relatives to attend or to show special honor to
the dead. In this case a chapter of monks comes to the house
one or more times each day to chant from the Abhidharma, sometimes
holding the bhusa yong, a broad ribbon, attached to the
coffin. Food is offered to the officiating monks as part of
the merit-making for the deceased.
food offered in the name of the dead is known as Matakabhatta
from mataka ("one who is dead"). The formula of presentation
Sirs, we humbly beg to present this mataka food and these various
gifts to the Sangha. May the Sangha receive this food and these
gifts of ours in order that benefits and happiness may come
to us to the end of time.
an ordinary funeral in northern Thailand the cremation takes
place within three days. The neighbors gather nightly to feast,
visit, attend the services and play games with cards and huge
dominos. The final night is the one following the cremation.
On the day of the funeral an orchestra is employed and every
effort is made to banish sorrow, loneliness and the fear of
spirits by means of music and fellowship. Before the funeral
procession begins the monks chant a service at the home and
then precede the coffin down the steps of the house stairs,
which are sometimes carpeted with banana leaves. It is felt
that the body should not leave the house by the usual route,
but instead of removing the coffin through a hole in the wall
or floor, which is sometimes done, the front stairs are covered
with green leaves to make that route unusual.
man carrying a white banner on a long pole often leads the procession
to the crematorium grounds. He is followed by some elderly men
carrying flowers in silver bowls and then by a group of eight
to ten monks walking ahead of the coffin and holding a broad
ribbon (bhusa yong) which extends to the deceased. Often one
of the monks repeats portions of the Abhidharma en route. The
coffin may be carried by pall bearers or conveyed in a funeral
car drawn by a large number of friends and relatives who feel
that they are performing their last service for the deceased
and engaged in a meritorious act while doing so. If the procession
is accompanied by music the players may ride in ox carts or
in a motor truck at the rear. During the service at the cemetery
the monks sit facing the coffin on which rest the Pangsukula
robes. After the chanting the coffin is placed on a pyre made
of brick; the people then come up with lighted torches of candles,
incense and fragrant wood and toss them beneath the coffin so
that the actual cremation takes place at once. Later the ashes
may be collected and kept in an urn.
the bodies of prominent or wealthy persons are kept for a year
or more in a special building at a temple. Cremations are deferred
this long to show love and respect for the deceased and to perform
religious rites which will benefit the departed. In such cases
a series of memorial services are held on the seventh, fiftieth,
and hundredth days after the death. In one instance a wealthy
merchant did not cremate the body of his daughter until he had
spent all her inheritance in merit making services for
her. Another merchant spent the ten thousand baht insurance
money received on the death of his small son entirely for religious
long as the body is present the spirit can benefit by the gifts
presented, the sermons preached and the chants uttered before
it. This thought lies back of the use of the bhusa yhong ribbon
which extends from the body within the coffin to the chanting
monks before it. The dead may thus have contact with the holy
sutras. When the body is cremated the spirit is more definitely
cut off from the world, it is best therefore not to force that
spirit to enter the preta world finally and irrevocably until
it has had the benefit of a number of religious services designed
to improve its status.
cremations it is quite common for wealthy people to have printed
for distribution books and pamphlets setting forth Buddhist
teachings in the form of essays, translation of the sutras,
historical sketches and explanations of ceremonies. Such books,
numbering in the thousands, are not only a tribute to the dead
and a means of making merit but they have practical value as