Borobudur cremation

Buddhist generally cremate their dead. Buddhist believe the ancestral spirit remains in the bone remains. The ashes are often kept on the family alter until 49 days after the cremation, when the spirit is believed to pass on to the afterlife, and then buried. Important ceremonies are held on the 7th day and the first year after someone dies. Memorial services continue for up to 33 years after the death. These are regarded as necessary to guide the soul to paradise.

Buddhists give a lot of thought to death and what happens afterwards which is perhaps why such importance is placed on funerals. Buddhist priests in many places spend more time presiding over funerals than they do performing other duties. Temples contain sacred family boxes, where ancestral tablets (thought to contain the spirits of dead ancestors) and prayers are placed.

According the Buddhist customs, family members stay in the same room with the body of the deceased on the night before the funeral. Often they don't sleep the whole night, and sometimes there are big wake-like parties with family members and friends. In many places, the body of the deceased is prepared by placing cotton under the nose, putting gauze on the face, cutting off the clothes; washing the body, wrapping it in a shroud and placing it in a coffin.

Buddhist funeral are often happy affairs with bands playing and drummers drumming during the funeral processions and mourners exchanging prayers sticks while the corpse burns. In Thailand the family of the deceased buys a temple-like bier made of wood and crepe paper. After the casket is placed on the bier a two-day outdoor wake with music, gambling and barbecues is held. Gifts are piled on top of the casket. Thai funeral music is very upbeat partly because birth and death are regarded as a continuation of a cycle and happiness and sorrow are considered the same thing.

Afterward the casket is carried by men with long bamboo poles to the cemetery. After the family the family says it final goodbyes and photographs are taken off the bier and the remains of the deceased are burned by the cemetery keeper.

During a Korean funeral, women wail before the body and family members weeping and express emotions before a picture of the deceased. The body is taken to a family graveyard, often in the mountains somewhere, with people attending the funeral piling into buses or cars and follow the vehicle carrying the coffin to the grave site. The body or the remains are carried from tto the grave. After the remains are buried in a mound a few feet high, mourners place pieces of sod on the grave.

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index

Buddhist Funerals in Japan

Western view of 19th century
Japanese funeral procession
After a Japanese person dies he or she is usually honored with a Buddhist funeral, cremated and buried. Funerals are held in Buddhist temples or at the Japanese equivalent of a funeral home, a complex with a crematorium and a meeting hall with a traditional wooden edifice where the body is laid in state. Details of the funeral service vary somewhat in accordance with the Buddhist sect that oversees the service. In a typical funeral hall service Buddhist monks chant sutras before a wooden altar adorned with rows of chrysanthemums and other flowers.

Its is ironic that most funeral services are Buddhist because Buddhism in its original form did not place much importance on such matters. The Japanese religious scholar Sachiya Hiro told the Daily Yomiuri, “Today's funerals are actually shaped by Shintoism. Buddhism doesn't have a conventional role in funerals. Buddhist thinking follows that whatever happens after death happens and people after they die should be left alone."

Buddhism did not play a big part in funeral services until the Edo Period (1603-1867) when the shogun forced all people to register as Buddhists as part of an effort to eliminate Christianity to counter an upsurge in religion's popularity. Before the Edo period must funerals were conducted in accordance with Shinto traditions. Under the shogunate, all families were required to register with a Buddhist temple and have that temple take care of rituals for the dead. People that didn't go alone with the scheme were assumed to be Christian. The Buddhist monks put in charge of funerals in many cases had never carried out a funeral ritual before so they simply copied Shinto rituals or used rituals — such as creating posthumous names for the afterlife — performed for their fellow monks.

After World War II the monks were striped of their land holdings and turned to funerals as their primary source of income. That and tourism have helped temples stay alive.

Buddhist Funeral Customs in Japan

After someone dies a notice of mourning is written on white paper inside a black frame. It is placed on the door or gate of the house of the deceased throughout the mourning period.

Kyoto cemetary
According the Buddhist customs of otsuya (a sort of Buddhist wake) family members stay in the same room with the body of the deceased on the night before the funeral. Often they don't sleep the whole night and party and mourn and light incense sticks for the deceased throughout the night and finish with a meal of meatless dishes and sake. These days many people observe a half-otsuya that begins around 6:00pm and ends at 10:00pm.

At Japanese funerals, one is expected to wear black from head to foot with no shiny ornaments such metal buttons or belt buckles and jewelry, with an exception made for pearls. During the funeral the eldest son or some other senior family member wears a white kimono; other male mourners wear black suits, white shirts, and ties; and women mourners wear black dresses. The outfits are often rented and many mourners wear black arm bands.

The casket is a plain pine box covered with beautiful cloth. On top of casket are small vertical tablets with Chinese characters that spell out the name of the deceased and are believed to preserve his or her memory.

Mourners bring "condolence money" in white enveloped tied with silver and white strings. The amount depends on closeness to the deceased. Relatives usually give $200 or more. Acquaintances and friends give between $50 and $100. The money helps pay for the funeral. In custom similar to what takes place a wedding, guests are later given a thank you gift..

Traditional Japanese hearses are designed to look like portable shrines and mechanical floats. Some are decorated with engravings, gold bas-reliefs and images of pagodas, dragons and flowers and often have a roof covered with gold leaf. Over the years these have been replaced by American-style hearses. Sometimes family members take a purification bath, a custom that Japanese have observed for some time. A Chinese visitor to 8th century Japan wrote: “When funeral ceremonies are over, all members of the family go into the water together to cleanse themselves in a bath of purification."

Ideas About Death, Suffering and Funerals in Buddhism

According to buddhanet.net: “Funeral 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. The 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. [Source: Buddha Dharma Education Association, buddhanet.net

“The 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 Nirvana 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.

Books: Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? by Kenneth Iverson M.D., descriptions of funeral customs in different cultures; A View of Death and Mourning (1996) by Matt Cartmill, a professor of anatomy and anthropology at Duke University.

nirvana of Buddha after his death

Immediately Before Death and the Washing Ceremony After Death

In accordance with Buddhist 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. According to buddhanet.net: “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 Nirvana" 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 neighbours who will then come to be of help. [Source: Buddha Dharma Education Association, buddhanet.net]

After 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 coloured lights are suspended about the coffin. Richard Barrow wrote on thaibuddhist.com: The Bathing Rite takes place on the evening of the first day. You would only attend this if you knew the deceased personally. The body is laid out on a table and covered with a cloth. Only the head and the right hand is showing. People then take turns to pour some scented water over the exposed hand. You can take this opportunity to make a blessing or to ask for forgiveness for past misdeeds. A sacred white string, called sai sin, is then tied around the ankles and wrists. The hands are held together in a prayer-like gesture holding a lotus flower and incense sticks. A coin is also put in the mouth.The body is then placed in a coffin and placed on a high table. It is then surrounded by flowers. A portrait of the deceased is also prominently displayed. [Source: Richard Barrow, thaibuddhist.com August 5, 2011]

Monk Chanting Sessions for the Deceased

Sometimes the cremation is deferred for a week to allow distant relatives to attend or to show special honour 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. The food offered in the name of the dead is known as Matakabhatta from mataka ("one who is dead"). The formula of presentation is: “Reverend 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.” [Source: Buddha Dharma Education Association, buddhanet.net

Richard Barrow wrote on thaibuddhist.com: “Four monks are invited to chant daily for the deceased. This usually take place over a period of seven days. However, this might be shortened if the cremation needs to take place on a certain day, like the weekend. If the chanting sessions are shortened to say five days, the same amount of merit still needs to be created for the deceased, so on two nights the chanting sessions have to be done twice. Notice the ribbon in this photograph. It goes all the way to the coffin which is how the deceased receives the merit. [Source: Richard Barrow, thaibuddhist.com August 5, 2011]

“In Bangkok, the daily chanting sessions for the deceased will probably start at 7 p.m. and last for about an hour. Upcountry these are often done at the house and may go on all night as they are social events. It is not a completely sad affair. There are four main chants with regular breaks in-between. During the breaks people chat or listen to some traditional Thai music. There is also often a break with some Thai dancing. The hosts are always generous and you will find that you are also given drinks and snacks. Even full meals. Before my first chanting session I thought I would have to sit on the floor for hours. But, there are always seats and the time passes quickly.” [Ibid]

Buddhist Funeral Service in Japan

When the mourners arrive at the funeral service they bow to each other, saving their deepest bow for the senior family member in the white kimono. They enter a small room, sign a register, leave a name card and envelope with a cash offering and place a stick of lighted incense next to a picture of the deceased. [Source: Cindy Atoji, Washington Post, January 27, 1997]

The photograph of the deceased is draped in black and set on an altar in the front of the room. Around the picture are lanterns, and elegantly carved wooden bowls filled with offerings of fruit intended to feed the deceased on his or her journey to the next world. Above the alter is a scroll with an image of Buddha.

Close family members sit near the altar. Other mourners are further back. During the service mourners sit on tatami mats and listen to sutras recited by Buddhist monks and speeches about the deceased by family members and friends. Incense sticks are burned before the altar by the mourners and the priest recites sutras over the body. The caskets is then placed in the hearse and driven to the crematorium. At the crematorium family members often look on as the body is placed in the ovens and examine the ashes and fragments of bone when it is over.

These days more and more Japanese are eschewing traditional Buddhist funerals and instead are choosing a funerals that fits their personal tastes.

Buddhist Graves in Japan

Japanese Buddhist grave marker
Later the canister or white box with the ashes is placed in a grave in a place where family members have been buried for generations. Families make regular visits to the graves, particularly during certain holidays. Some people visit family graves in a somber mood and bow and pray. For others it jovial occasions with friends and relatives, treating the deceased as if they were still alive.

The family often spends several thousand dollars to get a Buddhist name of the deceased and have a tablet places with this name inside a Buddhist temple.

Japanese graveyards contain rows of small tower-like tombstones, often jammed between houses and apartment buildings. Offerings left at graves include flowers, incense and sake as well as the favorite foods, drinks and even brand of cigarettes of the deceased. The sake is often poured in a glass and cigarettes are removed from the packs and lit so they can be consumed at that moment.

A grave site in an urban area often costs between $20,000 and $40,000. Traditionally, the oldest son's family inherits the responsibility of taking care of a tomb with wife being responsible for her husband's family tomb. Families with only female children must burden their daughters with the chore of taking care of two tombs.

Taoist-Buddhist Funeral in China

On the funeral for his grandfather on his mother's side: Chihoung Chen told his son Leon Chen: When we went back that time, we didn't know much about funerals, so we had other people who worked for the funeral home perform the procedures. They cleaned his body and changed his clothes. They asked us if we had any money. We gave them some money. The people working for the funeral home took the money and put it in your grandfathers's hand, then gave it to us. They said that your grandfather gave the money to us, and they wanted us to keep it forever. Then we invited Buddhist monks, and they chanted sutras. [Source: interview of Chihoung Chen conducted by his son, Leon Chen; Freer Gallery of Art asia.si.edu ^^]

ashes of deceased after a Chinese t funeral altar

“This funeral was a combination of Taoism and Buddhism. After that the coffin was closed. A lot of people sent flowers. Your grandfather was the second most powerful general in the Taiwan navy. And then we went to the mountains. Traditionally, we would throw paper, but your grandmother was a principal of an elementary school, so we didn't throw that much as to not harm the environment. At the grave site, we waited. Chinese people believe that there must be a certain time for burial. It's all determined by a feng-shui master. He determines the time and the day and the angle. He has a special kind of compass and waited for the right time. I have one of those instruments. ^^

“Afterwards, we were grateful to those workers so we took them out to dinner. After several years, many people in Taiwan go back and collect the bones. It's not that popular among mainland Chinese, but it's done very often in Taiwan. After awhile, they go back and open up the coffin. The bones are then placed as to resemble the skeleton and they would spray wine on it. Some people would cremate the bones, while others would clean it, spray it with wine again, and put it into the coffin. The Chinese say that the more the body decomposed the better. If the body is not decomposed, then it's bad luck. It means the soul isn't willing to leave the body. Egyptians in old days want bodies to stay whole. In some cases, if the body can't be found, then clothes or a paper with their Sign would be placed in the coffin. If there's like a car crash and a person's in a coma, then people would take clothes and incense and call the soul back. ^^

“Sometimes there are two coffins. The body is placed in a coffin, then that coffin is placed inside a bigger coffin. Chinese beliefs are different from those of other cultures...In the past, there were shops with the body parts of the portraits all painted in. Once somebody died, family members would go to the shop and commission a painting and the artist would paint the head in. Nowadays, there are no ancestral halls to place the portraits. Your grandparents probably saw them." Do you think there are any more of those shops you were talking about? “No. First of all, the houses were too small, and the Cultural Revolution probably destroyed them. The Communists also dug up many graves, including those of your great-great grandfather and the great grandfather on your grandmother's side. Many graves were dug." ^^

Funerals in Thailand

Funerals in Thailand are regarded as important events because they represent rebirth and the passage from one existence to another. The older and more respected an individual is the more elaborate the funeral rites. Most Thais are cremated in accordance with a Buddhist ritual. The formal wake period is seven days. At that time the body is taken to a house of a morgue where it may be kept for days or even years until it is cremated.

Chan Kusalo cremation

During a Buddhist funeral in Thailand the family of the deceased buys a temple-like bier made of wood and crepe paper. After the casket is placed on the bier a two-day outdoor wake with music, gambling and barbecues are held. Gifts are piled on top of the casket. Afterward the casket is carried by men with long bamboo poles to the cemetery. After the family the family says it final goodbyes and photographs are taken the bier and the remains of the deceased are burned by the cemetery keeper.

Richard Barrow wrote on thaibuddhist.com: “Funerals for Thai Buddhists can go on for much longer than what you may have seen before in the West. It could last from anything from one week to a year or two. Depending on how close you were to the deceased, you probably won’t be expected to attend every part of the funeral. For the parents of colleagues at work I probably would only attend the cremation on the last day. For relations of friends you probably would attend at least one if not all of the chanting sessions. If you are close to the family then it might be appropriate for you to bring a wreath. Either that or give the family some money in an envelope. [Source: Richard Barrow, thaibuddhist.com August 5, 2011]

On the clothes worn to a Thai funeral Barrow wrote: “You should wear either black or white or a combination of the two. You should avoid any bright colours but you could get away with it if it is a muted colour. For example, I have seen some people wearing blue jeans but with a white or black polo shirt. For myself I usually wear a white shirt and black tie for the main events and a black polo shirt for other times. “

Cremation in Thailand

Richard Barrow wrote on thaibuddhist.com: “After seven days of chanting the cremation can take place. Some families will do this straight away while others might wait a year or more. Quite often a young family member, usually the grandson, will ordain as a novice monk in order to make merit for the deceased. They do this for only a day or two. Even though it is only for a short time, they still have to do the full ordination which includes the shaving of hair and eyebrows. It also should be noted that cremations cannot take place on Fridays as the name for that day sounds like the Thai word for “happiness”. [Source: Richard Barrow, thaibuddhist.com August 5, 2011]

“On the morning of the cremation there is more chanting and food is then offered to the monks. Once everyone has eaten, it is time to move the coffin to the crematorium. The coffin is carried outside and placed onto an ornate cart. A procession then takes place to the crematorium. Leading the way are family members carrying a portrait of the deceased. Behind them are a couple of monks holding onto a white thread that is attached to the coffin. The mourners walk behind the coffin. If you have ever done a procession around a chapel at a Thai temple on a Buddhist holiday you know that you have to walk around it three times in a clockwise direction. However, for funerals, you must walk anti-clockwise.

Chan Kusalo cremation

“The coffin is then taken up the steps and placed on a high table in front of the crematorium doors. The portrait of the deceased is also placed here. The crematorium itself is decorated during the afternoon with black and white cloth and beautiful flowers which were the favourites of the deceased. The cremation ceremony is often in the late afternoon. If you didn’t go to the Bathing Rite or any of the nightly chanting then the cremation ceremony is the one that you should really attend.

“At cremations you don’t get to see much of the ceremony. Most people are seated far away. During the ceremony, honoured guests will come forward with monk robes and place them on a pedestal in front of the coffin. As you can see here, the same ribbon is being used to connect the pedestal to the coffin. A monk then comes to receive the robe as if it was offered by the deceased. The monk here is saying a prayer before receiving the robe. During the ceremony someone will also give an eulogy about the life of the deceased. There is often also some kind of traditional dance performance.

“Cremation ceremonies are often over very quickly. Anything from 30 minutes to an hour. When you arrive you are given a flower made from wood shavings. You will need this for the last part of the ceremony. The monks at the cremation will go up the steps first with their “flowers”. These are placed under the coffin as if you were lighting the funeral fire. Once all of the monks have done this then it is the turn of the guests. What most people do is tap the coffin a couple of times with the flower then place it in a tray under the coffin and then give a quick “wai”. You are also supposed to say a short prayer telling the deceased person that you forgive them for any wrong doings in the past. On your way down, you will be given a kind of souvenir of the funeral to take home. Sometimes this a book about the life of the deceased person.

After a Thai Cremation

After the cremation Richard Barrow wrote on thaibuddhist.com: “most people would go home. They have paid their respects. Unless you were close to the deceased, you would go home too. It is mainly family members that stay for the actual cremation. What happens first is that the ornaments decorating the coffin are removed. The coffin is then lifted off its base and then carried towards the crematorium oven. The lid is then taken off. A coconut is cut open and the juice poured over the deceased person. The coffin is then pushed inside the chamber. This is the last chance for family members to pay their respects. The remaining sandalwood flowers are also thrown into the coffin. Everyone then goes down to the bottom of the steps where they gather around to watch the cremation. At some funerals I have attended, rockets are fired into the sky. However, this is banned in residential areas. [Source: Richard Barrow, thaibuddhist.com August 5, 2011]

looking through the ashes after the Chan Kusalo cremation

“The friends and relations don’t wait for the fire to finish. They will come back the next day to collect the ashes. A monk is present for this ceremony. Sweet smelling flower petals are mixed in with the ashes. Depending on the family, these might be placed in one urn or several. Once they are collected they are taken to the prayer hall where there is more chanting and robes and food are again presented to the monks on behalf of the deceased. What happens next to the ashes will vary. Most will keep the ashes at the temple as there will be further merit making ceremonies on the 50th and 100th days. Some people keep them at their home.

“A third option, which is seemingly becoming more popular these days, is called “loi angkarn” which means the floating or scattering of ashes over the water. However, they might keep some relics, like pieces of bone, in the shrine at home. It is not really a Buddhist tradition as it has been adapted from Hinduism where they often scatter ashes in the Ganges River. Some Thai people believe that floating the ashes of their loved ones in a river or in the open sea will help wash away their sins but also help them go more smoothly up to heaven. It doesn’t matter where you do this, but if you are in the Bangkok and Samut Prakan area then an auspicious place is the mouth of the Chao Phraya River at Paknam where I live.

“There are a set number of rituals that have to be done in the correct order before the main ceremony. This includes paying respect to the guardian spirit of the boat and then later the god of the ocean and the goddess of water. Next comes the prayers where the mourners request the spirits and gods to look after the deceased person. It is then time for the white cloth containing the ashes to be carefully dropped over the side. They don’t actually scatter the ashes, they just let the cloth float away and then sink. As they watch it go, they say their final farewells while at the same time scattering flower petals on the water.

Family Funeral in Thailand

Nattawud Daoruang wrote in his blog Thailand Life: “My grandmum and her daughters (my aunts and my mum) have their photo taken in front of my grandfather's coffin. Another picture shows the monks are chanting. Can you see the white string? It's call "sai sin" in Thai. It goes right to my grandfather's coffin when the monks are chanting. Sai sin is taking some of the monks good words to my grandfather. [Source: Nattawud Daoruang Thailand Life]

Buddhist funeral altar

My family and me went to the ceremony every day and on the final day, thousands and thousands came because my grandfather had lots of friends and lots of people liked him. He was always kind to every person. They are coming up to pay respect to my grandfather for the last time and they have a flower made from paper thin wood to give to him as well. I am sitting behind my grandfather's coffin watching those people come up to pay respect to my grandfather. And that time my brother and I were novice monks for my grandfather as well.

My mum's friends are coming to give a flower made from paper thin wood. This is called "dork maijan" in Thai. They are pretending to give the wood to the fire. Then they move the coffin inside the crematorium. They opened it up and my aunt poured some of my grandfather's favorite perfume on his body.

We are going out to scatter my grandfather's ashes on to the Chao Phraya River. One picture shows my mum and my aunt are getting ready by putting some of the flowers onto my grandfather's ashes. We are taught not to cry because it will make it harder for him to go to heaven because he will be worried.

Ordinary Funeral in Northern Thailand

According to buddhanet.net: “At an ordinary funeral in northern Thailand the cremation takes place within three days. The neighbours gather nightly to feast, visit, attend the services and play games with cards and huge dominoes. The final night is the one following the cremation. On the day of the funeral or 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. [Source: Buddha Dharma Education Association, buddhanet.net

“A 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 extend 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. [

Elaborate Funerals for a Wealthy Person in Thailand

cremation in Wat Khung Taphao

According to buddhanet.net: “Frequently 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 ceremonies. [Source: Buddha Dharma Education Association, buddhanet.net

“As along 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 behind 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.

“At 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 well.

Royal Funerals in Thailand

Royal family members are put to rest with an elaborate six-day funeral and honored with a 100-day mourning period. Thais wear black and stay quiet during the funeral period. White flags are flown at half mast. The ritual ends with a cremation, the collection of deceased’s ashes in a lacquered, diamond-encrusted urn and a procession with several hundred soldiers from a specially-built crematorium to the Royal Place in old Bangkok.

A royal funeral was held in January 2008 for King Bhumibol’s elder sister Princess Galyani Vadhana. Reuters reported: “The palace announced a 100-day mourning period and government offices lowered their flags to half-staff, as thousands of Thais placed garlands in the princess’ honor outside the hospital where she passed away. The princess’ body was to be transferred to the Grand Palace later in the day in a teak coffin. Thais were requested to “refrain from entertainment activities” for 15 days. A major golf tournament in Thailand was postponed to show respect for the princess after she died.

Chularat Saengpassa wrote in The Nation: “In Thai culture, a mourning period is traditionally followed by entertainment. In line with ancient beliefs, a royal cremation ceremony is a way to see the late royal off to heaven. The tradition for a royal cremation to be accompanied by major entertainment programmes can be traced back to the Sukhothai era. The entertainment serves to mark the end of mourning and also to honour the late royal. When the Rattanakosin period began, King Rama I followed the centuries-old tradition. At the king’s orders, various forms of entertainment such as khon (Thai classical masked drama), puppet shows and Chinese opera accompanied the cremation of his father. [Source: Anucha Thirakanont, Thai Khadi Research Institute director, Chularat Saengpassa, The Nation, November 18, 2008]

Entertainment at royal cremations continued until the reign of King Rama VI who decided to stop the practice because of the high cost. The ancient tradition was later revived by the current monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. One of his daughters, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, suggested having entertainment at the cremation of her grandmother, Princess Sri Nagarindra the Princess Mother, in 1996. The suggestion came because the Princess saw how sombre without any entertainment the atmosphere was at the 1985 cremation of Queen Rambhai Barni, wife of King Rama VII. In response to Princess’ suggestion from, the 1996 cremation of the Princess Mother was accompanied by khon, stage plays, shadow plays and Thai puppet shows. Similar performances were a part of the cremation of Princess Galyani Vadhana in 2008 More than 2,000 artists performed shadow plays, khon, music and Thai puppet shows as part of the Princess’s cremation.

Funerals in Myanmar

Burmese funerals typically last a week, with the body traditionally buried or cremated on the third day. Burial is common, but cremation, more common in the cities, is also practiced by orthodox Buddhists and monks in Burma. The funeral ceremony includes a procession of monks and mourners who accompany the coffin to the cemetery or crematorium, with the monks chanting and performing rites. Funerals for monks tend to be elaborate, while those who have died a violent death generally are quickly buried with very little ceremony, since their spirits are believed to linger as malevolent ghosts.

It is believed that the spirit of the dead remains near the body or near the home for up to a week after death. Therefore a wake is held during this time. If the death occurs before the new year an efforts is made conduct the funeral as quickly as possible so they event will not carry into the new year and bring bad luck.

Burmese monk funeral

When a person dies at home the body is bathed and dressed in the person’s best clothes. A monk will be invited to chant prayers. A tent-like structure is raised in front of the deceased’s house and the body is kept in that or in a mortuary. If a person dies in a hospital or elsewhere. the corpse is usually placed in a morgue. However, the wake will still be held at the home of the deceased. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information, Culture Shock Myanmar]

The funeral will usually take place three or five days after the day of death. During the interim period a wake will be held. During the wake, the doors of the house are left open and members of the deceased’s family keep vigil during the nights. Visitors who come to pay their last respects to the deceased are often served tea and black melon seeds. People drink endless cups of tea and play card games to stay awake during the all-night vigils.

The recitation of prayers by monks is part and parcel of a funeral. If one is informed of the death of the death of a friend it is necessary to send a letter, or telegram if one is unable to visit the deceased’s family or attend the funeral. Failure to do this is insulting to the deceased’s family. Donations are usually given if the deceased ‘s family is financially backward. When you are attending a funeral do not wear bright clothes.

A coin, called gadaw ga is placed in the mouth of the deceased person, to pay a "ferry toll" for crossing death. Before the actual interment of the body, an offering of turmeric-coated rice is given to appease the bhummazo , the guardian deity of the earth. During the actual funeral, gifts in the form of paper fans containing the deceased person's name, as well as Buddhist scriptures relating to the impermanence of life (anicca) and samsara are distributed to all attendees. In urban areas, flower wreaths and florals are typically given at a funeral, as well as money, for less well-to-do families. However, in villages, more practical gifts such as food items are given to the grieving family. For seven days, the windows and doors of the house in which the person died may be left open, in order to let the deceased person's consciousness or "spirit", called leippya , lit. "butterfly") leave the home, and a vigil may be kept at nighttime. On the seventh day, called yet le , a meal is offered to monks, who in turn recite blessings, protective parittas and transfer merit to the deceased, concluded with a Buddhist water libation ceremony. [Source: Wikipedia]

Paper fans are still distributed at funerals. The name of the deceased. his or her parents names are printed on one side of the fan and the other side carries extracts from Buddhist teachings. The fan also doubles as an invitation card because it invites the members of the cortege to a morning reception where monks are fed in memory of the dead and then the invitees are treated to a breakfast.

Phongyi - Pyan (Cremation of a Monk) in Myanmar

The cremation of a monk is celebrated with great fanfare. The coffin is first loaded onto a gold sheathed carriage. Then in a rambunctious display men with ropes line up on either side of the coffin and push and pull the coffin towards, then away, and then again towards the funeral pyre, as if they are trying to give the monk one more chance at life. At the cremation ceremony for important Buddhist abbots, songs and dances are performed beginning at dawn and the abbots coffin is swung in a hammock while monks perform scenes from life of Buddha while children watch. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]

When the incumbent of a Kyaung (monastery) dies the body is embalmed so as to allow the devotion of several months to the preparations for the funeral. The corpse is swathed like a mummy and laid in a solid dug-out coffin of hard wood. (much less pomp is displayed at the funeral of a sojourner). Then the coffin is covered with the decorative stately bier called Thanlyin. It is made of velvet and richly embroidered with silver and gold threads. Sequins and colored semiprecious stones are also used to portray attractive designs and princely figures. Thanlyin inter woven entirely with gold threads was also once been in vogue. Mercury is poured in at the mouth and honey is applied externally. A support for the coffin is made in the form of a naga, with its head raised and portruding fiery tongue to guard its trust. =

Upon the coffin rests an effigy of the deceased. Beneath the naga is a throne decorated with gilded and colorful decorations. Sometimes the whole structure is of glass mosaic (thayo), and subsequently forms part of the catafalque. Such elaborate tala are not burned. but brought back to the kyaung, where they are kept, but not used again. Over all this is a royal canopy of corresponding magnificence. with the tibyu or royal ensign at the four corners. Thus the coffin lies in state in the kyaung, or in a special building, may be during the whole season of the rains, while the kyaungtaga (the lay patron) is occupied with the preparations for the grand funeral ceremony, which is called phongyi-pyan. =

The expenses are frequently shared and public contributions flow in. The catafalque is of the same design as the ordinary tala, but of greater dimensions—fifty to sixty feet high to the to of the pyatthat. It is solidly constructed and braced and strengthened in every direction. Nowadays. the catafalque is mostly erected on a stout platform on wheels. Long cables proceed from each end of the carriage for drawing it and to enable it to be controlled where the road descends. It is difficult to manoeuvre at the corners of streets and under telegraph wires even though these wires are raised on special posts where they cross the approaches to cemeteries. =

The pyatthat often fails to reach its destination in its original perfection; nevertheless it stands out brilliantly in the grand display in which it is frequently preceded and followed by subsidiary pyatthat erected over carriages which bear the largest offerings to the kyaungs. The Myimmo Daung with its denizens is built up on another carriage. Others are bright with nats and thagya, immense paper models of boats, ships and steamers, and similar freaks of the Thadindyut carnival. Life-size models of white elephants, caparisoned with red and tinsel, move in the procession. =

Uniform costumes are specially made and scores of young men are drilled for their parts in the cortege. The day is fixed long beforehand. and people throng in from all the neighbouring villages in their finest clothes. The streets are lined with gay booths. Pwe (entertainments such as dance, drama etc.) are staged and bands play. At noon the great catafalque begins its progress to the cemetery, drawn by the people, preceded and followed by regiments of masqueraders, endless lines of women carrying offerings, and sight-seers. =

Buddhist monk funeral

If the idea is to conjure up the greatest possible contrast to the life of the man who is being honoured. the object could not be more completely attained. When the bier has reached the cemetery the coffin is not set on a pyre like that of the layman, but is burned in the catafalque for which purpose the latter has been filled with combustibles. The fire is not lit in the common way; it is kindled from a distance by means of rockets. These are contributed by different villages or wards of the town. Each of them root for the honour of starting the fire with their rocket. =

In the lowland areas of Myanmar the great rockets are sent through the air guided by rattans to the catafalque. But it is one thing to reach and another to kindle. The paoe rockets, with the trunks of hard trees, hooped with iron for barrels, and mounted on stout carriages, are merely aimed at the catafalque. It frequently happens that none of them hits the mark; then the fire is kindled by hand. But the rocket that manages to get the nearest wins the day; great sums of money change hands. As they return home, some people’s spirits are higher than ever. while everybody else puts the best face upon it. De phongyi-byan kaung-de—it was a glorious phongyi-pyan, and the kyaungtaga will be congratulated upon it as long as he lives. =

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org, Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia, Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org , “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); “ National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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