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In Buddhism, death marks the transition from this life to the next for the deceased.

Among Buddhists death is regarded as an occasion of major religious significance, both for the deceased and for the survivors. For the deceased it marks the moment when the transition begins to a new mode of existence within the round of rebirths. When death occurs all the karmic forces that the dead person accumulated during the course of his or her lifetime become activated and set about determining the next rebirth. For the living, death is a powerful reminder of the Buddha's teaching on impermanence; it also provides an opportunity to assist the deceased person as he or she fares on to the new existence.[1] A guidance article about the subject has been published by BuddhaNet [2] and the different traditions from various buddhist schools have also been discussed [3]. Academic reviews on this subject have been extensively undertaken and published [4], [5].

Theravada traditions

For the non-Arahant, death is a time of transitioning to a yet another rebirth; thus, the living participate in acts that transfer merit to the departed, either providing for a more auspicious rebirth or for the relief of suffering in the departed's new existence. For the living, ceremonies marking another's death is a reminder of life's impermanence, a fundamental aspect of the Buddha's teaching.[1][6]

In Sri Lanka, funeral customs include:

  • "Offering of cloth on behalf of the dead" (mataka-vastra-puja):
    Prior to a cremation, at the deceased's home or cemetery, the funeral's presiding monastics are offered a white cloth to be subsequently stitched into monastic robes. During this ceremony, the following verse is recited:
Impermanent alas are formations,
subject to rise and fall.
Having arisen, they cease;
their subsiding is bliss.[1]
Aniccā vata saṅkhārā,
Upapajjitvā nirujjhanti
tesaṃ vupasamo sukho.
In addition, as relatives pour water from a vessel to an overflowing cup, the following verses are recited:
As water raining on a hill
flows down to the valley,
even so does what is given here
benefit the dead.
Unname udakaṃ vaṭṭhaṃ yathā
ninnaṃ pavattati
evameva ito dinnaṃ
petānaṃ upakappati.
As rivers full of water
fill the ocean full,
even so does what is given here
benefit the dead.[8]
Yathā vārivahā pūrā
paripūrenti sāgaraṃ
Evameva ito dinnaṃ
petānaṃ upakappati.
  • "Preaching for the benefit of the dead" (mataka-bana):
    Within a week after the funeral (usually on the third day after), a monastic returns to the deceased's home to provide an appropriate hour-long sermon for surviving relatives and neighbors.
  • "Offering in the name of the dead" (mataka-dana):
    Made three weeks after the funeral and then annually afterwards, the deceased's survivors hold an almsgiving on their behalf.[1]

Mahayana traditions

See also: Japanese funeral.

In China, numerous instructive and merit-transferring ceremonies are held during the forty-nine days between death and rebirth. For most Chinese funerals, the practice of recitation of the Amitabha Sutra and the name of Amitabha is an important part of the average Chinese funeral.[10] Along with cultural practices, such as the burning of joss paper (which is discouraged by most practicing Buddhists), practitioners are often cremated.


While mummification does occur as a funeral custom in a variety of Buddhist traditions, it is not a common practice; cremation is more common. Many Mahayana Buddhist monks noted in their last testaments a desire for their students to bury them sitting in a lotus posture, put into a vessel full of coal, wood, paper and/or lime and surrounded by bricks, and be exhumed after approximately three years[11]. The preserved bodies would be painted with paints and sticked with gold. Many were so respected that they were preserved by their students. They were called "Corporeal Bodhisattvas", similar to that of the Roman Catholic incorruptibles. Many were destroyed during the cultural revolution in China, some were preserved, such as Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Ch'an Buddhism and Kim Kiaokak, a Korean Buddhist monk revered as a manifestation of Ksitigarbha, and some have been discovered recently. One such was the Venerable Tzu Hang in Taiwan, another was the Venerable Yuet Kai in Hong Kong.

Other notable examples of Buddhist mummification (Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov in Siberia, Loung Pordaeng in Thailand, and a 15th-century Tibetan monk from Northern India examined by Victor Mair in the documentary "The Mystery of the Tibetan Mummy". While the documentary suggests that the monk may have consumed poisonous matters on purpose, there is no proof of such practice for any of the mentioned persons, so the poisonous substances occasionally found in their remains may have been applied to their corpses by their followers.

Tibetan traditions

A person who is dying and who is recently dead will have for example the "Tibetan Book of the Dead" read to them (in the Nyingma tradition) to help guide them through the transition period (Tib.: bardo) between lives, easing attachments to this life and deepening bodhisattva wisdom. The corpse is either cremated or dismembered and fed to vultures (Tib.: jhator).[10]

Other Tibetan traditions have other special texts read and rituals performed, which may also be personalized to the specific (vajrayana) practice a person focussed on during his/her life. As the bardo is generally said to last a maximum of 49 days, these rituals will usually last 49 days also. Death and dying is an important subject in Tibetan Buddhism as it is a most critical period for deciding which karma will ripen to lead one to the next rebirth, so a proper control of the mind at the death process is considered essential.

Great meditation masters can even stay a long period (sometimes weeks or even more) in a state between what we would call clinical death and the separation of the mind and the body (the moment of death in the Tibetan tradition), during which they meditate on the special appearance of the 'clear light mind'. Using this special, very subtle state of mind, it is said in the Vajrayana teachings that great spiritual progress can be made, if one has the capacity to be clearly aware of it. In this state of meditation, the body will not show any ordinary signs of death, decay or even smell. After this prolonged meditation, the meditator continues into the bardo or even towards enlightenment. Great masters are often cremated, and their ashes stored as relics in stupas.

In Tibet, firewood was scarce, and the ground often not suitable for burial, so the unusual practice of feeding the body to vultures or other animals developed. Known in Tibetan as jhator and literally translated as "Alms to the Birds", this practice is known as Sky burial. One can see this also as an offering to these animals, a last act of generosity and detachment to one's own body.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Kariyawasam (1995), ch. 5, "Almsgiving and Funerals."
  2. BuddhaNet. "A Guide to a Proper Buddhist Funeral". Retrieved 14 October 2008. 
  3. BuddhaNet. "Ceremonies and Funeral Rites for the Dead". Retrieved 14 October 2008. 
  4. Kuew, Shin Shie. "The Sacred and the Profane: Contemporary Development of Funeral Rituals in Taiwan from the Perspective of Buddhist Funeral Rites Reform". Retrieved 14 October 2008. 
  5. Yagi, D. K.. "Protestant Perspectives on Ancestor Worship in Japanese Buddhism : The Funeral and the Buddhist Altar". Retrieved 14 October 2008. 
  6. See also, for example, in the Pali Canon, awareness of another's death is often referred to as one of the "messengers" from the lord of the Underworld meant to spur one onto a more wholesome life.
  7. Ja i.392; Ap i.64; Ap ii.385 (retrieved 2008-09-04 from "Bodhgaya News" at
  8. Khp 7 (trans. Thanissaro, 1994).
  9. Khp. 7, Tirokuḍḍa Sutta, vv. 7, 8 (retrieved 2008-09-04 from "Bodhgaya News" at and, respectively).
  10. 10.0 10.1 Harvey (1990), p. 212.


  • Harvey, Peter (1990). An introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, history and practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University. ISBN 0-521-31333-3.

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