Why Do Buddhists Cremate the Dead?

Weeks of ceremonial prayer play a central role in the Buddhist funeral tradition.
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Cremation is one way to honor the dead by incinerating their physical remains. Buddhists have practiced this form of death ritual throughout centuries and across continents. Although variations within the cremation ceremony differ among geographical regions, the importance of honoring the dead and comforting grieving loved ones remains the same throughout the religion.

1 A Brief History of Buddhist Cremation

Some aesthetic Buddhist ritual tools.
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Although modern Buddhists practice both cremation and burial, cremation has long been the preferred method of ceremonial release from the physical form. Gautama Buddha, the spiritual leader of the Buddhist religion was cremated. His funerary pyre self-ignited, it is said, after many visitors were able to pay their last respects.

When the fire ceased, all that was left were his bones. These remains were divided into eight sutras, which were dispersed to different areas. Some of Buddha's remains are said to exist today. In Sri Lanka, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is said to house Buddha's tooth, one of the few remains from his cremation. In veneration for their leader, the majority of his followers practiced cremation in subsequent generations.

2 Cultural Differences in Cremation Within Buddhist Countries

Buddhist funeral ceremonies often take place in a temple.
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Throughout the Buddhist world, cremation is employed both as a way to honor the dead and as a sanitary human funeral practice. However, some differences in the cremation ceremonies exist within different countries where Buddhism is practiced.

In Tibet, a recently deceased person will have the "Tibetan Book of the Dead" read to him. Tibetan Buddhists believe this will help the deceased navigate through the period of transition, or bardo, the state between lives. Within Tibetan Buddhism, the dying process and karmic return in the next life figure prominently in the religion.

Cremation in Japan was, until recently, available only to the wealthy few who had the resources to pay for the expensive ceremony. However, after World War II, Japanese Buddhists weren't the only people practicing cremation in Japan. By the dawn of the 21st century, nearly all deceased people were cremated rather than buried for reasons of both sanitation and physical space. As in all Buddhist ceremonies relating to death, the rituals are just as important for the deceased as for the family members and friends left behind, and although the rituals vary from country to country, their significance remains the same.

3 Two Main Traditions in Buddhist Cremation

Mala beads are used to create blessings.
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When death occurs, family members bathe and dress the corpse in clean, simple attire. Ideally, the ceremony is conducted by monks, but family members and loved ones can also perform the service in the event that a monk cannot attend. Much of the duration and intricacy of the ceremony has to do with the resources and wealth of the family of the deceased, although Buddhist funeral ceremonies tend towards simplicity. If possible, the head of the family is expected to play a prominent role, and daughters of the deceased often bear the funeral expenses.

According to Urban Dharma's "Buddhist Funeral Guide", the third, seventh, 49th and 100th day after death are traditional days for performing religious services. During the ceremony, prayers, mantras, meditations and quotes are recited in honor of the deceased. Afterwards, it is appropriate to offer quiet condolences to the family and loved ones of the deceased. However, one should not offer food or go to the home of the grieving family unless invited to do so.

4 Buddhist Cremation Customs and Etiquette

Buddhist cremation customs vary from country to country.
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Guests of the funeral procession are not expected to take part in the actual rituals, but rather sit or stand quietly. If the ceremony takes place in a temple, participants remove their shoes. The family of the deceased often wears white, while the rest of the funeral party can wear black. A temple ceremony involves prayer and sitting on the floor during meditation, so comfortable formal attire for men and women is preferred. While variations exist in the Buddhist funeral rites, all are solemn, dignified and ceremonious, and most often officiated by a monk.

Nicole Seaton has been a freelance writer since 2001. Her work has appeared in "The Reno News and Review" and "The Flow," a trade publication for the flame-working community. Seaton earned a Bachelor of Arts in international relations and Spanish, and has studied in Argentina and Spain.