Addressing death and the impermanence of life is very important in Buddhist philosophy. Rather than being born and dying, Buddhism believes that death simply leads to rebirth. They do not consider death to be the end, but a new beginning. This belief in reincarnation – that a believer’s spirit remains close by and seeks out a new body and new life – makes up the core tenet of Buddhism. It is reflected in their teachings, practice and customs, especially in funeral matters.
The concept of karma
There are several facets of Buddhist teachings, and one of its fundamental principles revolves around the law of karma. It teaches that the responsibility for every action is borne by the individual that commits them. It is then believed that every action throughout a person’s life, either good or bad, will be brought forward to their next life.
The only way to break this cycle is to reach enlightenment, or Nirvana. This is done by letting go of all material desires and possessions, and accruing good karma throughout one’s lifetime. Otherwise, one will reincarnate into their next life.
Buddhists believe how they chose to live their life can also affect their death. You will be punished for a life filled with wicked deeds while a kind soul gets to reincarnate and live a blessed life. This belief plays a critical role in the way they approach their funeral.
How reincarnation impacts Buddhist funeral services
In Buddhism, death marks the moment when the transition begins to a new mode of existence. All the karmic forces accumulated during the deceased’s lifetime will be activated and will determine the next rebirth. This responsibility does not solely fall on the deceased’s shoulders – their family members and friends can help them reincarnate and live a blessed life. By following funeral customs and rites closely, they are able to ease the deceased’s journey into the next life.
However, such funeral customs and rites are not universal across all Buddhist teachings. As with other religions, Buddhism has its various school of thoughts and denominations. A few examples being Zen, Theravada and Mahayana. In Singapore, most believers follow the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, one of the two main existing branches of Buddhism. As such, many Buddhist funerals in Singapore have incorporated Mahayana practices in their funeral processions and rites.
Mahayana funeral traditions
When a death has occurred, the relatives of the deceased are tasked with washing the body. Afterwhich, the body will then be placed in a casket surrounded by lit candles and wreaths.
Traditionally, the wake will last for 3 to 5 days. The long wake is to give way to the bardo state, otherwise known as the “in-between state”. This state is where the deceased becomes aware of their death and readies themselves for the next stage of the rebirth that has been decided for them. In addition, this wake gives the grieving parties to pay their final respect to the departed, and to express their condolences to the family.
Buddhists who practice the Mahayana faith believe that reincarnation takes up to 49 days after death, which is why the funeral ceremony will last for the same number of days as well.
Buddhist funeral rites
The first week following the death is the most critical period as the body has to be prepared for cremation. As mentioned, a wake will be held in remembrance of the departed where friends and family can pay their final respect. Praying ceremonies will be held during the first day and last night of the wake. The belief is that these prayers can rid the deceased of any bad karma. A monk will lead the praying ceremony, chanting a few Buddhist scriptures to ease their journey to their next life or Nirvana.
Another prayer will be held on the cremation day before the body is transported to a crematorium. After the cremation ceremony is over, the deceased’s ashes will be placed in an urn and stored in a columbarium.
The concept of death and reincarnation is important to Buddhism. While the thought of a better new life for the departed can be comforting, grieving is a natural part of the healing process. It is vital to give the family time and space to come to terms with their loved one’s death in this challenging time.
We offer a comprehensive Buddhist funeral package as part of our available funeral services in Singapore. We aim to provide guidance and support to ease the family’s burden during this difficult period.