what is a buddhist funeral?

There’s a lot that could be said about how best to organise and conduct a funeral in general. And an awful lot of what’s written about buddhist funerals falls into the category of general information. Fair enough. I do it myself in the handout I produced for when I run a workshop oh how to plan your funeral. I’ve organised and conducted a few funerals myself and you do need to think about an awful lot of things, especially if you don’t use conventional services. Aside from dealing with transport, flowers, venue, decoration etc etc what is it exactly that makes a funeral Buddhist?

Google ‘buddhist funerals’ and a plethora of information pops up. Some of it is helpful such as the Network of Buddhist Organisations guidelines (www.nbo.org) though much of that is also in the ‘general info’ category. There are other sites that are specific to various Buddhist and/or cultural traditions, Chinese, Thai, Tibetan, that didn’t speak to me or really answer my question. Some of the information offered strays into broader issues around death such as how to be with a dying person.

Other sites that came up were from funeral director’s doing their best to offer a multi faith service. One tells me that “there are very few traditional methods of funerals as they are seen as non-religious events.” Another funeral director’s site writes that “among Buddhists death is regarded as an occasion of major religious significance”. Both these statements are true.

When I cut to the chase these are some of the pointers that I offer.

The Buddha made no rules or guidelines on proper rites of passage. Neither did he prohibit people from expressing their respect and gratitude.

To press the first of these points a little further, the third of the ten fetters (that “bind us to the Wheel of Life” and are an obstacle to spiritual progress) is the fetter of attachment to religious observances as ends in themselves.

The definition of death that tends to rule in the West is the medical one. The point at which the heart stops is not the moment of death from a Buddhist perspective. It’s the beginning of the inner dissolution. In an ideal Buddhist world it’s thought best to leave a body undisturbed during the period in which the consciousness is losing its connection with the body for several hours, and optimally for three days.

This is why some of the information and advice on funerals goes into issues to do with dying and stress the importance of a quiet and calm atmosphere. This is why continuing to relate to the ‘body’ can help, by saying prayers, or readings, by chanting, by reminding the person of all the good they did in their life, and encouraging them to let go and move on. Some feel that this principle and these practices are still relevant at the time of the funeral and should shape its programme ie that the funeral is primarily for the dead person.

In practice, of course, it’s very difficult for most ‘corpses’ to lie undisturbed for three days, or even three hours. And many teachers advise not to worry about this too much at all and that most people are ‘out of here’ in a moment, though some may take up to twenty minutes. The exceptions are adept meditators who can remain stable in the Clear Light for a looonng time, and people who have a very strong attachment to their body. It seems most of us are well designed to die.

So where does this leave us in terms of the funeral, and defining a buddhist funeral?

Perhaps it’s worth making the point that there’s no legal requirement to have a funeral in Britain. I had this experience for the first time recently when I took an elderly neighbour to another elderly neighbours…well, what to call it? It was like a reception after a funeral but there’d been no funeral. It felt strangely empty and lost, to me. Most of the food remained uneaten.

Ceremony, ritual, is important to me. I value it highly and experiment with it form. It plays a regular part in my life, both alone and with others. Ceremonies are helpful at times of transition. They help acknowledge what’s happening. They lend meaning and direction to the process that everyone is in, those who’ve died and those who remain.

The growing trend is for funerals to be a celebration of the deceased’s life (rather than an occasion for mourning). The most powerful, uniting, honest and joyous part of some funerals I’ve attended has been the ‘open mike’ section, when people speak, often spontaneously, from the floor and share their memories and appreciation. For me, there’s a balance to be struck between involvement and informality, and a dignified sense of occasion that feels ‘held’.

A Buddhist funeral has no need of any inappropriate or alienating rites or rituals, there’s no liturgical text demanding its place. It can take a wide range of needs into account in terms of who’s attending. Indeed this is congruent with its values of tolerance and generosity. All that’s really needed is for there to somehow be acknowledged that the person was committed to and practised a buddhist way of life. A reading on the Buddhist understanding of life and death may be enough. A light touch and beauty are also congruent. I’ve witnessed non-Buddhists enjoying making an offering of fresh (not for long) rose petals on the coffin and the shrine, during a period of chanting at a funeral. It’s powerful to live on a path and in a tradition that is over 2,500 years old – most people will appreciate the sense of depth and connection with that.