Buddhist Funeral Symbols

Buddhist funeral symbols differ according to cultural context.
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Buddhism is a major world religion that boasts about 350,000,000 followers worldwide. Although Buddhists live throughout the world, they are concentrated in South, Southeast, Central and East Asian countries. Due to the diverse contexts in which adherents practice Buddhism, funeral rites and symbols are not identical everywhere. Many are specific to a region or variant of Buddhism. Most aim to ease the deceased person's transition to the next life, which may only happen before cremation.

1 Incense

Buddhist funerals use incense in many different Buddhist cultures.
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Incense is a symbol of the life cycle and of ethical living in Buddhism. Though Buddhists burn incense at funerals in many countries, the practice is specifically associated with Zen Buddhism in China, Japan and Korea. Adherents believe incense cleanses both deceased and mourner, rendering a location suitable for religious ceremony. Incense also functions as a conduit between the deceased and the living. Adherents believe this can ease transition into the next life.

2 Flowers, Fruit and Stones

Mourners arrange an altar around the casket to honor the deceased.
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At most Buddhist funerals, family members erect an altar around the casket that includes fresh flowers and fruits. These represent wisdom and virtue, respectively, as well as the transience of earthly life. Because of this, they are considered "sacred objects" in Buddhism. Sometimes participants offer stones along with flowers and fruit. Adherents believe the objects can help raise the deceased person's level of reincarnation and bring him closer to enlightenment in the next life.

3 Juzu Beads

Juzu beads help prepare participants for a heightened spiritual state.
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Juzu beads, rosaries consisting of 108 beads, are associated with prayer services in both Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism. Participants use them during repetitive prayer to reach a heightened spiritual state. They symbolize the rigor and discipline needed to assist the deceased in the transition between lives. The beads differ in appearance and design across regions, but generally function to center funeral guests so as to prepare them for intercession on behalf of the dead.

4 Offering of Cloth

The cloth offering is a symbolic gesture.
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In Southern and Southeast Asian Theraveda Buddhism, the cloth offering is a central component of the funeral. At the ceremony, mourners hand a white cloth to monks conducting the ceremony. The monks proceed to reenact a story about the Buddha taken from sacred texts, in which the Buddha crafts a robe from white cloth and uses it to shroud a dead body. The offering constitutes an intervention on behalf of the deceased person, which may help ease the soul's transition.

5 Water, Earth and Tree

Water for hand-washing is found at the front of the sanctuary.
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After the cloth offering, a lay leader selected in advance pours dedication water on his index finger while reciting a blessing for mourning family members. At the end, this water is taken outside and poured over the roots of a large tree. Adapted from acts of the Buddha recorded in scripture, these actions underscore the public nature of righteous living. They also serve as a reminder of the lasting influence a dead person can have on those left behind even after this life cycle.

Christina Lee began writing in 2004. Her co-authored essay is included in the edited volume, "Discipline and Punishment in Global Affairs." Lee holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and politics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a Master of Arts in global affairs from American University and a Master of Arts in philosophy from Penn State University.