Buddhist Funerals & Water

Buddhist monks collect water, which plays a symbolic role in certain funeral rituals.
... Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Buddhists regard death as a manifestation of the Buddha's beliefs in impermanence. They believe that after dying, the body returns to the four elements -- earth, water, air and fire -- while the soul reincarnates. Among the elements, water holds special significance in certain funeral ceremonies, such as the water burials of Tibetan monks.

1 Water

In Buddhism, water is a potent element, with the power to give life and to take it away. Many Buddhist references are made to flowing rivers as the "waters of life," and it also symbolizes longevity. But in addition, water is revered for its capacity to take life away and return the body to the elements, as in Tibetan Buddhist water burials, where the body sinks into a river.

2 Ritual Bathing

In the days preceding the funeral, friends and family perform a ritual bathing ceremony, repeatedly pouring water over the hands of the deceased. A special flask, or water pot, common to many Buddhist rituals dispenses the sacred water as a symbolic gesture of purification and blessings. Imagery in Robert Beer's "Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols" suggests this ritualized washing of the deceased cleanses away impurities and negative energy.

3 Water Burials

Buddhists rarely bury the dead, as they believe the departing soul may catch sight of the body and attempt to re-animate the corpse. Instead, they conduct open air ceremonies so that the body may decompose quickly. Water burial, performed as a dedication to the water deities, releases the soul of the deceased back into the world. The ritual takes place in a river, with body dismembered or cut into small pieces for fish to consume.

4 Class Divisions

In central Tibet, where trees for firewood are scarce, water burials are usually reserved for those who can't afford fuel for cremation. But in southern Tibet, a traditional water burial is highly sacred, and performed with chants, rituals and a host of monks in attendance. Like sky burial, where the body is laid out on a mountain for natural decomposition by vultures and weather, these funeral rites are practiced throughout Buddhist Tibet.

Taylor Echolls is an award-winning writer whose expertise includes health, environmental and LGBT journalism. He has written for the "Valley Citizen" newspaper, where his work won first- and second-place awards in sports and outdoor features from the Idaho Press Club. Echolls holds a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College.