Funeral Traditions of the Laos Buddhist Culture

Because the Buddha's body was cremated, Laotian Buddhists also follow this ritual.
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Although Buddhism, introduced to the Southeast Asian country of Laos in the eighth century, shapes many aspects of Laotian life, Theravada Buddhism -- the sect of Buddhism present in the country -- as practiced in Laos does not generally mark significant life cycle events. Death, however, is an exception. Laotian Buddhist funeral ceremonies can range from simple to elaborate, but always end with the cremation of the deceased's body.

1 Moment of Death

In Theravada Buddhism, family members believe it is important for the deceased to be focused on Buddhist scripture before her death. As she is approaching death, loved ones encourage her to repeat Buddhist scripture or the Buddha's name. If she is too ill to mouth the words, a family member will whisper the words to her ear. After death, the deceased's body will be taken and cleaned during a bathing ceremony, which involves family members and close friends pouring water over a hand of the deceased's. After the washing ceremony, the body is placed in a casket.

2 Procession

After placement of the deceased's body into a coffin, the funeral procession to the crematory begins, led by Buddhist monks. A monk leading the procession holds up a photograph of the deceased. Any male relative who was close to the deceased will shave his head and wear a monk's robe for the funeral procession. White-robed nuns follow the monks and together, as they walk in a line, hold a ceremonial white cloth. Family members walk behind the nuns, while the funeral car holding the deceased's coffin and friends of the deceased follow closely behind.

3 Service and Cremation

After the procession has entered the crematory, the coffin is laid on top of a raised gravesite or pyre. After a funeral tower, called the "mam" (funeral pyre) in Laotian, has been placed over the raised coffin, the funeral is ready to begin. The white ceremonial cloth that nuns were holding during the procession is tied to one of the corners of the mam. It is then placed in front of the female family members and nuns, who sit adjacent to the mam on the ground. The monks begin a longer prayer and chanting session, followed by an offering of flowers and candles to the deceased by the monks. The monks close this part of the ceremony with a final prayer.

Buddhist monks play an integral role in Laotian Buddhist funeral rites; they officiate and lead funeral ceremonies, as well as lead the chanting of sutras. It is one of the central services monks offer to the community.

4 Cremation

Family members then offer candles and flowers to the deceased. The ceremony ends with the lighting of the pyre by female family members. After the pyre has finished burning, the bones and ashes are gathered and placed in an urn. After the funeral, memorial services are held 100 days and a year after the death.

No pregnant women are allowed to attend the cremation service. It is believed that the spirit of the dead might try to reincarnate into the body of the unborn baby.

Jason Cristiano Ramon holds a doctorate in political science and a master's degree in philosophy. He has taught political science in China.