Buddhists practice cremation as the final rite. Although in some Buddhist cultures, burial may be preferred over cremation if a child precedes a living parent in death. However, this is more of a cultural practice than one with a religious significance.
Cremation represents detachment, where the soul of the deceased is freed from bondage. Buddhists believe that attachment to the deceased is detrimental to the soul’s progress in seeking a new life after death. Buddhists believe in Samsara, the cycle of birth and death, until they attain salvation through Nirvana.
In the event of a death, relatives and friends of the bereaved family gather at the funeral home to help the family deal with their loss. Although funeral parlors are becoming the preferred option, especially among the affluent, it is still common practice to conduct funeral ceremonies at home. However, the preparation of meals is not undertaken within the household for hygienic reasons. Instead, friends, relatives, and neighbors supply food to the funeral home, with the exception of light refreshments.
The coffin is placed with the head pointing towards the West while an oil lamp is lit beside it. Often, a photograph of the deceased is also placed beside the coffin.
On the day of the funeral, Buddhist monks perform funeral rites, and the chief monk will conduct the funeral oration. The chief monk will typically say positive things about the deceased and console loved ones by explaining the inevitability of death according to Buddhist teachings.
Buddhist Funeral Rights
A white cloth (Mataka Vastra) measuring six yards is draped around the coffin by the monks while chanting the sutras. Next, a blessing for the deceased (Pansakula) is performed, and close family members seated on the floor beside the coffin pour water from a small pot into a bowl while the chanting continues. The purpose of Pansakula is to transfer merit to the deceased. After the funeral cortege leaves the residence, someone would boil a small pot of fresh cow’s milk at the spot where the coffin was kept. It is believed that boiling milk absorbs impurities emanated by the dead body. This is more of a cultural practice than a Buddhist tradition.
At the crematorium, it is customary for a close relative or friend to perform a eulogy. In the past, villagers would build a funeral pyre with logs for the cremation. Nowadays, cremations are carried out at the crematorium. Most cities and towns have a crematorium managed by local councils.
After the cremation, funeral attendees are invited to partake in a special alms-giving at the funeral home, equivalent to the wake at Christian funerals. The meal comprises rice, pumpkin, salt-fish, and a few vegetables. It is believed that pumpkin heals grieving hearts, while salt-fish replenishes the body’s natural salts lost from tears. Thus, the combination of pumpkin and salt-fish is never cooked at Buddhist homes, except at funerals, where this combination is considered inauspicious.
The day after the funeral, the remains (ashes) are collected in an urn and sprinkled over a running river by the loved ones. Some, however, prefer to inter the ashes at a cemetery.
Alms Giving (Offering of food)
On the 6th day of the person’s death, a Buddhist sermon is delivered by a monk at the home of the departed. Generally, the family would invite a monk well known to the family for this purpose. The following day, (which is the 7th day after the death) an alms-giving is offered to Buddhist monks to transfer merit to the departed. Often, favourite dishes of the departed are offered to the monks. Beef and pork are not offered to monks especially in Sri Lanka. After the alms-giving, friends and relatives would partake in the meal.
The same alms giving is repeated on the 3rd month’s death anniversary followed by the 1st year’s death anniversary. After which the mourning period is officially considered over. However, some men and women continue to wear white clothes for years to come while women refrain from wearing any form of jewellery.