What Is Burned During a Buddhist Funeral?

Buddhist incense is burnt to purify the area around the deceased.
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Buddhist beliefs about life and death state that when an individual dies, unless they have achieved nirvana during their life, they will be reborn over and over again. To help ease their journey into the next life, personal possessions, food and money are burned at the funeral. Burning these items transfers them into the spiritual world where the deceased can use them until they are reincarnated.

1 Offerings

Most of the items burnt during a Buddhist funeral are offerings to the dead. Fruit and flowers are commonly burnt and allow the mourners to show their compassion for the recently deceased. In some forms of Buddhism the family will burn all of the deceased's favorite possessions so the individual may have them on his journey. This practice differs between denominations of Buddhism. For example, the Quang Minh temple website describes a Vietnamese funeral where relatives burn comfort items such as cigarettes, candy and other items 100 days after the funeral for the enjoyment of the deceased in the afterlife.

2 Incense

Incense is one of the most symbolically important objects burnt during a Buddhist funeral ceremony.The function of the incense is twofold. It helps calm the spirit of the deceased, and helps purify both the surroundings and the individuals at the funeral. All attendees must offer up incense during the funeral. It may come in the form of sticks, but is usually in powder form and burnt in a censer. Also, the smell of the incense helps sweeten the air.

3 The Body

Since there are many different forms of Buddhism, the various rites and rituals performed by the priest and family differ greatly. In some cases, the body itself is burned as part of the funeral in many ceremonies. According to Buddhanet, these Buddhists believe that because Buddha himself was cremated, he set an example that followers of Buddhism should follow. Although all the bodies of all early followers of Buddhism were burnt, many sects now choose to forgo cremation in favor of burying the body.

4 Flag

In some Buddhist ceremonies a flag is also burnt. This is another act meant to signify the spirit of the individual finally moving on. Buddhist lamas prepare a paper flag with the name of the deceased written on it. Members of the the family place the flag in the center of a ring of lamps and then begin to light each one. When the lighting is finished, the priest then burns the flag with the largest of the lamps. Buddhists also believe this purifies the house, allowing the deceased to move on both spiritually and emotionally.

James Stuart began his professional writing career in 2010. He traveled through Asia, Europe, and North America, and has recently returned from Japan, where he worked as a freelance editor for several English language publications. He looks forward to using his travel experience in his writing. Stuart holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and philosophy from the University of Toronto.