Why Is the Family Dressed in White During a Buddhist Funeral?

Buddhism teaches that death is merely the end of our physical body, not end of our true, conscious self.
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Siddhartha Gautama, Buddhism’s founder, is known as the Buddha, or the Enlightened One. While he established the Four Noble Truths and modeled the practice of Buddhism as a lifestyle, he did not detail many specific rules and rituals. For this reason, there is not a rigid set of rites pertaining to Buddhist funerals. There are, however, deeply-rooted traditions that both honor the deceased and evoke the Buddha’s teachings on death, grieving and life’s cyclical nature.

1 Buddhist Beliefs About Death

Buddhism teaches that physical death is merely the end of the body’s journey and that a person’s consciousness, or true identity, lives on. In the three days immediately following death, Buddhists believe the mind to be disengaging from the body. Thus, creating a peaceful, loving environment surrounding the body aids the mind on its journey. These three days are so critical, in fact, that it is often preferred to postpone processes such as autopsy, cremation or burial until after this time period. For the deceased’s loved ones, the funeral is a time not only to show gratitude and to honor the departed, but also a reminder of the Buddhist belief regarding the transience of the mortal body.

2 Attire’s Symbolic Importance

While black or darkly colored clothing is traditionally worn at Western funerals, white clothing is commonly worn by family members of the departed at Buddhist funerals, though it is not required. White is symbolic of grieving within Buddhist tradition, thus white funeral apparel is an appropriate sign of respect and mourning for the deceased. Those in attendance not related to the deceased may wear any appropriately somber color. Red attire is generally deemed inappropriate, as it symbolizes happiness.

3 Shifting Traditions

The custom of family members donning white at Buddhist funerals has its roots in East Asian religions and cultures, however, this practice has been shifting in recent years. Black funeral attire with white accents has become more popular, and dressing entirely in black has risen in popularity among mourners, especially those not related to the deceased.

4 Funeral Customs

The deceased person’s family plays a critical role during the funeral proceedings, and friends or family may present the eulogy if a monk is not present. During the funeral itself, the family usually sits in a place of honor at the front of the room and receives the other mourners’ condolences. They are also responsible for lighting the incense, an important act of presenting an offering to Buddha and a symbol of emptying the mind in order to receive Dharma. The family also arranges one of the most crucial components of the funeral, that of giving a donation to the poor on behalf of the deceased. This act of charity towards those less fortunate is integral to the proper practice of Buddhism and promoting good karma.

Elise Medina writes and cooks in northern Virginia, where she works as a nutrition consultant. She holds a B.A. in political science and Spanish from Virginia Tech, as well as a master’s degree in political science from George Mason University.