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Buddhist Funerals

Question:

Can you advise me please; what is a Buddhist’s preference when he/she passes: burial or cremation? Is it an individual choice or more like the Catholics who lean toward burial. I’d appreciate your comments on my question.

Answer:

Generally speaking, it doesn’t matter. Historically, cremation is usually the procedure, but that’s just the tradition in the East. In India, along the Ganges river, it is tradition to cremate the body and throw the ashes in the river. Holy men would be “buried at sea” in the river itself. Over thousands of years, this has built up to the point where the Ganges is one of the most heavily polluted rivers in the world.

A Buddhist spends his or her life trying to escape the confines and the limitations and suffering of the human body. When they finally leave the body, what is left is like the prison after the prisoner has finally escaped.

A dead body is just a shell, dispose of it however you want.

4 comments to Buddhist Funerals

  • I thought about this question recently, after visiting the site of my wife’s family graves. She’s Chinese, so her grandparents and uncle have graves in a massive, hilly cemetery. Chinese don’t (and legally cannot) bury bodies, so the graves usually house the ashes of the departed. Or, failing that, the grave is at least comprised of an engraved headstone with some biographical details and perhaps a photo.

    This visit got me thinking about what I would want — cremation or burial? In the end I decided that, as a Buddhist, it might be a final act of generosity in this life to ask to be cremated and have my ashes spread into a strong wind… Or something like that. Where would the generosity come in? It would be at least twofold:

    1) My family would not have to bear the (often ridiculous) expense of a funeral, or of maintaining a family plot.
    2) Perhaps I could stipulate in my will that my ashes be spread with a Buddhist blessing — if any being should be touched by a single ash, may it be sped along on the path to peace and enlightenment.

    So, while the body may just be a husk that can be disposed of without undue fuss on the part of its former inhabitant, I think it still represents an opportunity for a final act of giving.

  • I agree with the original point, that the dead body is ultimately a shell. My professor shared with me a Hindu analogy for the body and reincarnation: as switching bodies like a person changes clothes. Slightly different from the Buddhist perspective, but I love that analogy nonetheless.

    I also agree with Thomas, that the body can (and should) be a final act of giving. Point one is incredibly potent – the price of funerals and death-related expenses in general is absolutely, unjustifiably ridiculous, forgoing some of these expenses is a direct act of giving to those who would have to bear the burden. Point two is also a fantastic sentiment, however, it is ultimately an act of faith. When I say that, I mean for ME it would be an act of faith. I cannot speak for you – perhaps you have knowledge I don’t, all I know is that I don’t know what you know (!). And so, I must go with what I know will be of use.

    Based on my current levels of understanding, how I would like my body disposed of:

    1. Harvest my organs! Why would anyone not check the “organ donor” box on their driver’s license?
    2. Throw my body somewhere where it doesn’t smell horrible and gross people out, or anything of that ilk. In the middle of the desert, perhaps.
    3. Let the vultures pick at me! Let the worms and insects eat my flesh!
    4. If anyone should find my bones, turn them into art or something neat.

    And may anyone who gets a kidney, or a little worm that poops out my flesh, be sped on the path to peace and enlightenment.

  • Re: Majid, point 2 as an act of faith.

    It’s always a hard thing to discuss — what’s the place of faith in Buddhism? My perspective is similar to many others, that the action and its result are nowhere near as important as the intent behind the action.

    My ashes may not literally speed anybody on to enlightenment or happiness, but if that wish was developed in me as a manifestation of my way of life, then the merit that comes from it cannot truly go to waste. There’s also the possibility that carrying out my wishes could encourage others to think along the same lines of doing something positive. You never know! :) Since I don’t know what will happen here after I die, I suppose it is less about faith than it is about hope — hope that my last worldly act can have one last positive influence, somehow.

    To put it another way, a lot of Buddhists would say that every act, thought, and word should be in accord with one goal — the cessation of suffering. I suppose I see my physical death here as being one final opportunity, one that should not go to waste, to spread even a tiny bit of that relief from suffering. It’s not an attempt to make my life appear relevant through death; it’s more like not wanting to let any opportunity go to waste.

  • As a grateful practicing Buddhist (who attempts to remember Death at all times knowing that the only thing i really know for sure is that everyone i know as well as myself is going to die and we don’t know when so why not give Enlightenment a try?) AND as a cemetery worker who makes burial shrouds for a living (www.kinkaraco.com)i am delighted by this post!
    What better act of loving kindness than to become food for our friends beneath the ground in a biodegradable shroud?
    I actually prefer the idea of cremation but it is extremely polluting and uses tons of fossil fuel and electricity.
    As for the water we make sea shrouds so you can be fish food too!
    Om Kinkara hum hum phat!

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