The dead, with the exception of Christians, are generally cremated. Christians have traditionally been buried. The body of the deceased is often kept at a family member’s home until the funeral. At the cremation the oldest son generally lights the funeral pyre. At Buddhist funerals the mourners generally wear white.

Both Buddhists and Hindus tie white funeral flags along fences and poles to help guide the spirit of the deceased. There is a common belief that someone who dies without fulfilling a long sought-after dream returns as a mean spirit and haunts the living.

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “Both aspects of death — the message of impermanence, and the opportunity to help the departed loved one — find expression in the Buddhist funeral rites of Sri Lanka. Naturally, the monastic Sangha plays a prominent role in the funeral proceedings. One of the most important parts of the funeral rites is the ritual called "offering of cloth on behalf of the dead" (mataka-vastra-puja). This is done prior to the cremation or the burial of the body. Monks are assembled in the home of the dead person or in the cemetery. The proceedings begin with the administration of the Five Precepts to the assembled crowd by one of the monks. This is followed by the recitation in chorus of the well-known stanza: Anicca vata sankhara, uppadavayadhammino. Uppajjitva nirujjhanti tesam vupasamo sukho. [“Impermanent alas are formations, subject to rise and fall. Having arisen, they cease; their subsiding is bliss.] [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Upasampada (monk oridnations) and funerals (cremations) “are the only formal rites of passages observed in the sangha. At the cremation of a famous monk, an orange (robe colored) paper hut may be constructed over the body and the funeral pyre before incineration. Often, solemn testimonies are read and passages from the Pali scriptures distributed throughout the congregation before the pyre is lit. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

On Tamil ideas about death and afterlife, Bryan Pfaffenberger wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Westerners who believe Hindus are focused on a better life after reincarnation are inevitably surprised by the almost complete disinterest that Tamil Hindus show in the afterlife. It is thought, though, that someone who dies without having fulfilled a great longing will remain to vex the living. Cremation is the norm and is followed, for most castes, by a period of death pollution lasting thirty-one days; subsequently there is an annual death observance with food offerings. For the few highly educated Hindus familiar with the Saiva Siddhanta tradition, an expressed goal of afterlife is reunification with Shiva. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Beliefs About Death of the Sinhalese Buddhists

Sinhalese Buddhists do not believe in the existence of a soul, Rather they believe that a human is a composite of five elements. At the time of death, these elements are dispersed and the most important one, consciousness, becomes reborn in a new existence according to the laws of karma. If possible, bhikkus (Buddhist monks) are called to the bedside of a dying man to chant from the Buddhist scriptures. [Source: D. O. Lodric, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Bryan Pfaffenberger wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The possibility of enlightenment and freedom from rebirth is restricted to those who have withdrawn from the world; a layperson hopes for a more advantageous rebirth based on a positive balance of bad and good acts (karma ) and performs meritorious acts (such as supporting the sangha) toward that end. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “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 kammic 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. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

Rituals After A Person Dies in Sri Lanka

After a Sinhalese person dies, the deceased's face is covered with a handkerchief and the big toes are tied together. Oil lamps are lit, flowers are spread on the bed, and religious books are read during the night. Bodies are prepared for cremation. Funerals for non-monks are preceded by a three-or four-day period in which family, friends, coworkers and neighbors visit the home of the deceased', where the body can be seen in an open coffin. [Source: D. O. Lodric, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009; “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Before the funeral the body of the deceased is never kept in isolation. At night at least one or two persons stay awake the whole night with the deceased, sometimes taking turns to catch some sleep. This is done to break the monotony of the night and the silence that pervades it. In the old days, mostly in rural areas, the renowned classic 'Vessantara Jatakaya' was recited in the most melancholy tone.

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Death ceremonies are quite elaborate in Sri Lanka, usually conducted by the families of the deceased in conjunction with religious officiants. Bodies are first embalmed in a secular, medical process and then returned to the families for funeral rites involving the gathering of extended family and the sharing of food, followed by either burial or cremation. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Among Buddhists and Hindus the body is kept in the ancestral home for as long as a week while a variety of rituals are performed to give merit to the deceased in order to ensure a good rebirth. A series of purification rituals are also performed to protect the family members from the pollution from the body. White is the color associated with funerals, except for monks whose death is marked with yellow. Following a death, white banners, flags, and other decorations are put up according to the status of the deceased.

Death Customs in Sri Lanka

When a person dies in a Buddhist home, the body is laid with its head facing towards the West. The belief is that it is the direction of the abode of god Vesamuni alias Vysravana, the chief of the evil horde. He is under the direction of Yama, also known as Vemanika Pretaraja, who is the overlord of the under-world. Yama is believed to decide on the merits and demerits of the deceased, and whether he should be punished or rewarded for his activities during his life on earth. [Source: Aryadasa Ratnasinghe, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Yama is identical with Kuvera of the Vedic scriptures or Pluto of the Greeks. His messengers are said to be the birds 'polkichcha' and 'kanakoka', and even today people fear to listen to their cries with awe and repugnance foreboding evil or which portends death.

In any funeral house, the family photographs hanging on the walls are kept over-turned, also those of the close relatives of the dead, and, perhaps, of others known to him when alive. This is done to prevent any one of them being possessed by the spirit of the dead, which is considered more harmful than useful, because the familiarity between two human beings and that between a human being and a spirit is not equal.

It is the custom to take the dead body out of the house with legs first. This is done with a purpose, although most people are unaware of it. It is to prevent the spirit returning back home, if taken head first, which, it is believed, helps the dead to trace the path taken by the cortege from home to cemetery.

Funeral Oil Lamps and Coffins in Sri Lanka

It is a common sight to see flickering oil lamps kept burning throughout day and night, until the corpse is removed out of home. Even in houses where electricity is available, these lamps keep burning as usual. The practice in the old days was to light up a few 'vilakkus' (small 'pandams' or incandescent torches) around the bier, instead of oil lamps. Whatever the mythical conception be, it creates a healthy atmosphere within the house, because the obnoxious effluvia emanating from the decomposing body is absorbed with oxygen and burnt by the flames. [Source: Aryadasa Ratnasinghe, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Therefore, the lighting of oil lamps has a scientific significance. Some people who suffer from skin diseases become allergic to such polluted air, and even those who have wounds and ulcers, do not attend funeral houses as a precautionary measure.

In selecting a coffin, every care is taken that it conforms to the size of the dead person. When brought home, if it happened to be bigger in size, an egg is placed near the feet, to overcome the superstitious belief that it would be the forerunner of another death in the family. The egg is supposed to neutralise the evil influence for a 'nara billa' (the sacrifice of a human being), caused by the additional space in the coffin.

Funeral Practices by Different Religions in Sri Lanka

Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims observe different funeral rites when it comes to burying or cremating their dead. Some beliefs have a religious basis while others are rooted in cultural and customary practices. Sri Lankan of all religions feat the spirits of dead and their associaton with black magic, malignant spirits, ghosts and apparitions that bring harm to people or possess them and their often measures taken in funerals to placate these worries. In keeping with the saying "Never despise the dead", even the worst criminals and offenders are praised and blessed highly mainly out of respect for the departed but also to prevent probelms created by unappeased ghosts. [Source: Aryadasa Ratnasinghe, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

A funeral is a simple, solemn and dignified ceremony, sometimes with superstitious beliefs woven in. Some bury the dead and others cremate. It is said cremation is preferred for hygienic reasons, in not allowing the corpse to become putrified and ridden with colon germs. Buddhists and Hindus prefer to cremate their dead and collect the ash to build tombs in memory of the departed. The Christians bury their dead to facilitate resurrection (rising from the dead). influences The Holy Bible says "And have hopes towards God that there shall be a resurrection of the dead both of the just and unjust" (Acts 24: 15). The Muslims too bury the dead, and do not keep the corpse for more than a day, in keeping with their customary practices and religious beliefs. Neither do they lay their dead in a coffin.

The doctrine of rebirth is not widely embraced by Tamils. Some Tamils have traditionally been buried rather than cremated and been buried under or near the home. Ceremonies are usually held within castes. At middle caste funerals the corpse is wrapped in a cloth and lowered in the ground while male relatives carrying pots of water circumambulate the grave in counterclockwise direction (an inauspicious direction). Death pollution lasts for several days, and is recognized with special foods and ritual cleansing of the body and the house where the deceased lived. The usual period or mourn after a funeral is 35 days.

Buddhist Funeral in Sri Lanka

Bhikkus (monks) preside over the funeral ceremony and high-ranking bhikku delivers a brief sermon. Those who attend the funeral are expected a bath to rid themselves of the pollution of death. Relatives have a simple meal. Close relatives wear white clothes.. [Source: D. O. Lodric, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

An important ritual consists of the offering of a length of new white cloth to the monks. The cloth, called a pamsukula — literally, a dust-heap cloth — is intended to be cut into pieces and then stitched into a robe. A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “After offering it, the close relatives of the deceased sit together on a mat, assume a reverential posture, and together they pour water from a vessel into a cup placed within a plate until the cup overflows. While the water is being poured, the monks intone in unison the following stanzas extracted from the Tirokuddha Sutta of the Khuddakapatha: Unname udakam vattam yatha ninnam pavattati evameva ito dinnam petanam upakappati. Yatha varivaha pura paripurenti sagaram evameva ito dinnam petanam upakappati. [ “Just as the water fallen on high ground flows to a lower level, Even so what is given from here accrues to the departed. Just as the full flowing rivers fill the ocean, Even so what is given from here accrues to the departed.] [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

“The context shows that the pouring of water in this manner is a ritualistic act belonging to the field of sympathetic magic, symbolizing the beneficial inheritance of the merit transferred by the living to the dead, as a kind of dakkhina or offering. The entire ritual is hence an act of grace whereby merit is transferred to the departed so that they may find relief from any unhappy realm wherein they might have been born.

Funeral Customs in Sri Lanka

In some parts of the country, there is the custom of isolating the corpse within the house, for about five minutes, until it is taken out of the house for cremation or burial. Every one vacates the house and all windows and doors are closed, to enable the evil horde to take possession of the dead body and leave with the cortege, without lagging behind. Evil spirits are said to be active in the dark and it serves the purpose. [Source: Aryadasa Ratnasinghe, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Buddhist funeral processions often feature drum beating. On the way to the cemetery, a cart carrying sand goes before the cortege and the sand is thrown on to the road, in keeping with the ancient custom of guiding the cortege to the cemetery. Sometimes small coins are thrown with the sand for purpose of charity to anyone who picks them up. 'Pori' (fried paddy) is also thrown in view of the belief that evil spirits are attracted by them.

In the old days, it was customary for people of the household to accommodate the kith and kin who had come, to pay their last respects to the departed, from distant villages, and as they could not return before dusk, a meal is supplied to compensate for dinner. This practice is still followed and the meal is known as 'mala batha', which is a simple meal of rice served with curries cooked with dry-fish and pumpkin. But, today, in some homes biscuits and cool drinks are served, as the alternative to the 'mala batha', as a token of gratitude for attending the funeral.

On the other hand, in those days when transport facilities were poor, people who came to attend the funeral, could not get back in time. So, they stayed during the night and left in the following morning. They made best use of the 'mala batha' to overcome hunger. In regard to this offering of food, the Christian Bible says: "A devout man and one that feared God gave much alms to the people and prayed to God always" (Acts 10: 2). This refers to charity performed in the name of the dead.

After a Buddhist Funeral in Sri Lanka

After the funeral food is not prepared in the house of the deceased for seven days. That period ends with the ritual chanting of scriptures by monks and a merit transfer rite performed by the family of the deceased for the deceased. Merit-making and commemorative rites are performed three months after the funeral and on each annual anniversary thereafter. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

In conjunction with acts described above Buddhists offer 'dana' (alms) to bhikkus on the seventh day and on the third month and at the end of one year, which is considered compulsory. The merits of these offerings are transferred to the dead to help them escape the woeful state of the afterlife. Buddhists say “Death is certain, life uncertain” is a natural phenomenon, and every person born has to die one day. This is the end of life.

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: For the mataka-bana or "preaching for the benefit of the dead" rite, “the usual practice is for a monk to visit the house of the dead person, generally on the third day (or occasionally on any day within a week) after the funeral and to request him to preach a sermon suited to the occasion. Accordingly he preaches a suitable sermon for about an hour's duration to the assembled audience, which inevitably consists of the deceased's relatives and the neighbours of the household. At the end of the sermon, the monk gets the relatives to recite the necessary stanzas to transfer to the deceased the merits acquired by organizing the event. Following this, a gift is offered to the monk, and the invitees are also served with refreshments. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

“Three months from the date of death, it is customary to hold an almsgiving (sanghika dana) in memory of the deceased and thence to repeat it annually. As in the case of the rituals mentioned earlier, here too the purpose is to impart merit to the deceased. Hence it is called the offering in the name of the dead (mataka-dana). The basis of the practice is the belief that if the dead relative has been reborn in an unhappy existence (i.e., as a peta or unhappy spirit), he or she would expect his or her living relatives to transfer merit in this manner as these departed spirits or petas are incapable of performing any meritorious deed on their own. Even their hunger and thirst, which is perpetual, subside only in this manner. Hence they are referred to as "living on what is given by others" (paradatta-upajivi). This custom can be traced to the Buddha's own time when King Bimbisara was harassed by a group of his departed kinsmen, reborn as petas, because the king had failed to give alms to the Buddha in their name. Once this was fulfilled as requested by the Buddha, the petas became happy and ceased to give any more trouble (KhpA. 202f; PvA.19ff). This was the occasion on which the Buddha preached the Tirokuddha Sutta referred to earlier, which further says that once these rites are performed, these contented spirits bless the donors in return.

“These rites, it may be mentioned here, resemble the sraddha ceremonies of the Hindus in some ways. And it is also significant that, according to the Buddha himself, only the dead relatives who have been reborn as petas are capable of receiving this benefit (A.v, 269ff.). Anniversaries of a death are also marked by rituals performed by family members.

Death Customs in Sri Lanka in the 19th Century

T. B. Parnatella wrote in 1908: “When a death occurs in a village, the other villagers on hearing the news should go to the house and condole with that household. If one has an aversion to go to a house where there is a dead body, he should go at any rate as far as the stile, speak to the head of the house, and condole with him. [Source: T. B. Parnatella, The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, 1908]

Assistance should be rendered towards the cremation, or the interment, of the corpse. If one has anything necessary for the funeral, it is customary to give it free of charge. As soon as the ceremony is over, all wash their heads (applying limes, &c., either green or boiled), bathe well, and go to their several houses; after which each neighbour brings a covered basket of rice to the mourning house and returns home.

Thus there is no need of kindling a fire in the house of mourning for a day or two. Some postpone bringing the rice until the second day, and some even to the third. After this the relatives at a distance begin to visit the mourning family day after day with baskets of rice. It is an inviolable custom to pay a visit to such a bereaved household, even if there be slight enmity. In the case of serious disease also the neighbours come and lend assistance in various ways. They go in search of physicians, fetch drugs, and so forth. Such assistance is not rendered only when there exists downright hatred.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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