Common questions

What is the proper way to conduct funeral services for deceased Buddhists?

 Services for deceased Buddhists should include rites such as sutra chanting, Buddha name recitation, and the like. However, in Chinese communities today, monastics are only tasked with chanting sutras and are not considered to play a central role in the service. Memorial services involving family members and the public are conducted by ritual masters from the funeral service providers. Therefore, actual Buddhist rites have become something of an embellishment in funeral services.

 In a proper Buddhist funeral, besides ritual masters, monastics who recite sutras for the dead should be central to the service. Attendees should have a copy of the sutra and participate in the recitation. It would be better if the recitations consist of short sutras and verses, such as the Heart Sutra, the Mantra for Rebirth in the Pure Land, Praise to Amitabha Buddha, and the Transfer of Merit Verse. There is no need to sing; reciting would be fine enough; otherwise, those who cannot sing might feel left out. After the recitation, a monastic could eulogize the deceased emphasizing their deeds, works of charity, and practice of Buddhism, followed by a short sermon. On the one hand, these will serve to deliver the dead towards rebirth in the Pure Land, and on the one hand, console and enlighten the family, relatives, and friends. 

 If both a memorial service for family members and a memorial service for friends and the public are to be held, it would be better to have them on the same day, when everybody is present. It is not necessary to arrange these services on separate days as that merely prolongs the funeral and heightens the importance of some individual or organization. If such memorial services are to be held on the day of funeral, they should be conducted prior to the formal burial rite.

 A Buddhist burial rite should be simple yet solemn; it should not last more than an hour-and-a-half. One hour should be enough. As to having Chinese or Western musicians or honor guards, that is an extravagance and a vanity; for non-Buddhists, this may be a way to console the deceased, but for Buddhists, it may disturb the deceased in their single-minded quest for rebirth in the Pure Land.

 Since ancient times, there have been no specific rites regarding Buddhist funerals. Yet in China, there were sets of rules and rituals to be conducted in the dying moments and after death, such as bathing, changing clothes, setting up memorial plaques, keeping company with the deceased, moving the body into the coffin, funeral, burial, and holding seven-day and 100-day memorial services. 

 According to the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism, starting from the dying moments, it would be good if practitioners whether lay or monastic, could keep company with the dying person, speak about Dharma, recite sutras, and chant Buddha’s name. This is zhunian – assisting the dying to focus on Dharma. This should be done for twelve hours after the person passes away. Afterwards, the body would be moved, bathed, dressed and zhunian should continue to be done in place of the traditional practice of keeping company with the deceased. In addition, whenever a rite is performed, it is important to teach Dharma to the deceased to help them focus on attaining rebirth in the Pure Land. Certainly, it would be best if monastics could speak about the Dharma to the deceased. If not, lay practitioners who are more experienced and versed in the Dharma could do the same. 

 The body of a deceased Buddhist can be handled in different ways: 1) zuokan, in which the body is placed in a seated position inside an upright box and cremated. Rites for this method include sealing the box and igniting it at the time of cremation; 2) zuogang, in which the body is placed in an urn and buried in the earth. Sealing the urn constitutes the major rite for this method; 3) keeping the body in a coffin, to be later cremated or buried, with the sealing of the coffin constituting the major rite. If there is a cremation, the urn containing the ash is placed in a stupa in a monastery or cemetery. Some choose to have the urn buried in a gravesite. Whether cremation or burial, the process should be accompanied by sutra recitation, chanting the Buddha’s name, and transferring merit, to replace the custom of family members taking turns to show their grief, and playing funeral music.

 In the agrarian society of the past, people would prepare for elders a coffin (“longevity wood”) and burial garments (“longevity clothing”) for their use in the future, believing that doing so would bring blessings, longevity, and good luck to the family. In today’s industrial society and urban environment, it is no longer practical or necessary to have this kind of custom. 

 A Buddhist funeral should be simple, solemn, and dignified. Especially through the duration of funeral, animals should not be slaughtered to feed family and relatives, and liquor or meat should not be placed on the altar for the dead. Hence, in my hometown in Jiangsu province, meals served during a funeral were referred to as “tofu meals” because we offered to relatives and friends who came, strictly vegetarian meals with bean-curd variances as the main ingredients. 

 Fresh flowers, fruits, and vegetarian dishes can be placed on the altar. Flower garlands, baskets, and banners should be limited to avoid extravagance. It would be enough to have only a few flower baskets, banners and plaques expressing the condolences of family members, friends and relatives. There is no need to be lavish or extravagant. 

 When relatives and friends make offerings of money, if the family is destitute, they could keep just the needed amount for the funeral and livelihood, and offer the remainder to the Three Jewels, which would support promoting the Dharma, and benefitting sentient beings. They could also donate to charities. The merits would benefit the deceased, helping them move on, be liberated from sufferings, and attain higher rebirth in the Pure Land. 

 When people pass on, it is natural for the survivors to feel grief. When Shakyamuni Buddha was approaching parinirvana, except for the enlightened great arhats, many of his disciples wept. However, the custom of crying and weeping to honor and glorify the deceased is often insincere. It would be better if Buddhists conducted Buddhist rites instead of grieving insincerely.