The Buddhist culture in India is a very mysterious and interesting culture. It began in North West India around 2,500 years ago. The teachings, Dharma, was brought by Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Buddha, himself. “Buddhism is not and has never pretended to be a “theory”, an explanation of the universe; it is a way to salvation, a way of life.” (Zucher, 2007,1) The Buddhist culture is something that a person is dedicated to, they conform their life to the practices and that plays in to the funeral practices too. They believe the setting of dying should be as peaceful and calm as possible, there should be no unique measures in a hospital setting. They believe that teachers or community members should be involved in the dying process because they are so highly respected in the community (The Buddhist Society, 2018, 1). Buddhism is the epitome of peace and harmony for all, especially when a death or funeral occurs. They are very connected with the dying process because it is only natural. This is very different from American culture because in America we are almost afraid of talking about death and funerals. While., Buddhism is a lifestyle that confides in the peace of all events taking place, the people that practice it are so in touched with the calmness and togetherness of even the most hectic events taking place in the world. Buddhist funerals are made to be peaceful and calm, instead of a crazy happening where a person feels as if they are losing control over everything. This is one of the many philosophies of this way of life.
Buddhism in India is different from how the other countries, it is the birth place of this religion and has changed over the years. Buddha, or Siddhartha Gautama was once royalty in a small area of Nepal, he had everything from money to kingdom he once will rule over, but he was not satisfied. He wanted meaning to his life and purpose and was not finding that in being a prince. He left his life of luxury and became a religious beggar, wanting more meaning to life. Gautama was known for his extreme ways of living sometimes starving himself but felt like what he was doing did not need this sort of attention. It was taking a toll on him and he needs to reach this state of enlightenment and torturing himself would not bring him there. He finally ended up under a tree in a forest in Bihar to figure out this secret of life he needed to solve. After some time, he came to the point he needed to be at to understand all the questions he had in his mind. He later called these “the Four Noble Truths: all of life is suffering; the cause of suffering is desire; the end of desire leads to the end of suffering; and the means to end desire is a path of discipline and meditation (Facts and Details, 2013, 1). This awakening turned Gautama to the Buddha and he needed to spread his astonishing new insight to the rest of India. He traveled and taught people what he had figured out and converted many people to this new way of thought (Facts and Details, 2013, 1).
Funeral practices in India having to pertain to Buddhism are very peaceful, calm and respectful. The people of India that practice Buddhism are comfortable with the idea and happenings of death, they do not fear it but embrace it. There are numerous traditions and beliefs that surround death and funerals for Buddhist, but the one key component is that they are to be delicate and have no distractions. There are many rituals and traditions Buddhist have for funerals, and all are very different depending on what part of the world a person is in. The most traditional way of a burial practice is the burning of the body, also known as cremation in this century. Monks are usually involved when a person is dying, and they are Buddhist, they say prayer and chants before the person dies. This is an example of a chant they would usually say to a person as they are about to die, ‘Even the gorgeous royal chariots wear out; and indeed this body too wears out. But the teaching of goodness does not age; and so, Goodness makes that known to the good ones.’ (Buddha Dharma Education Association & BuddhaNet,2018,1). They are also there to help the family and the decedent after the death has occurred. They attend the actual service with the family and are there to receive and food or gifts from the family to give “Goodwill, which helps the lingering spirit of the dead person” (Buddha Dharma Education Association & BuddhaNet,2018,1). In the next paragraph, I will further explain the different customs that go into planning and going through with a traditional Indian Buddhist funeral.
A traditional Buddhist funeral first starts when the death is looming, the family and close friends usually are there by the dying person to comfort and help them in anyway possible. In this religion, Buddhist really accept and prepare for death because they believe it is a part of a cycle called samsara; which is their version of reincarnation. Before the person passes, the people surrounding the dying person are to reflect and reminisce on his or her accomplishments or good deeds that they have done. Typically, a small Buddha statue is placed by the head of the person who is dying while their family and friends around them chant. There is usually a Buddhist monk with the dying person before and after the death has occurred as well. Once the death has occurred the body is not to be touched, moved or messed with, this is because the soul is still inside the body and they do not want to risk anything such as trapping or releasing the soul to early. In Buddhism, the body must be completely cold before any washing has begun, generally this is done by family or close friends.
In preparing the remains, Buddhism used to be cremation only because that is what the Buddha did but has since embraced the art of embalming in modern times and is used very frequently. During the process of cremation, Buddhist Monks are usually present and perform chanting while the cremation is taking place. If there are no monks present, then the family takes place and leads in the chants. If embalming is done, the body needs to be dressed this is frequently done by family or close friends. The deceased should be wearing their everyday clothes and nothing to extravagant like expensive jewelry. During the viewing or visitation, the body is never to have a person’s back to them, they are respecting them and honoring them, so they must watch the deceased be lowered into the casket or into the funeral coach. When approaching the deceased, the person should bow with prayer hands and take a moment to acknowledge the altar. Buddhist funerals are generally simple, so it does not call for fancy decorations or extravagant caskets. Everything should be peaceful and tranquil because that is what Buddhism is about. The deceased does not need expensive merchandise for the funeral, the whole point is to be at peace with what they have and where they will be going in their new life. Offerings at the service are allowed, they usually consist of food, flowers, and candles and are placed on an alter in front of the urn or casket with a picture of the deceased on it. Everything that is offered to the deceased should be in moderation and reasonable to give to them. A Buddha portrait will be set up in front or aside the alter to showcase that the deceased has connected with the Buddha and is safe.
Monks are usually invited to perform the Buddhist rites that relate to the occasion, in a traditional Buddhist funeral the Monks will be a huge part of the funeral service but in more modern funerals family and friends are welcome to perform the rites. The Monks should be at the front of the service and when they stand, everyone stands. They are there to guide and assure everything will be done to plan. Chanting is another major part of a Buddhist funeral service, from when the person is dying to during the service. Chants are usually done live, with the monks and family and friends join in but they can also be done on a recording in modern times. At the procession to the cemetery, if it is a short distance, mourners will walk behind the hearse to show the respect and honor to the decedent. This is another time where everyone will participate in the chanting. The chanting symbolizes the preparation for meditation and is also used in a ritualistic way such as for funerals. It is not considered to be a form of prayer, though very similar to it. The goal for reaching enlightenment requires mediation, so the chanting is very special when a funeral takes place hoping the body will find that enlightenment.
At the beginning stages of planning, the funeral director will meet with the family in an arrangement; this is where the funeral director finds out the religion, if they already do not know. That really sets the mood for how the arrangement will go; whether it be a traditional Buddhist funeral or a more modern-day service. The funeral director should have some knowledge about the traditions and practices that are incorporated in the Buddhist religion, but also not be afraid to ask questions because they need to make the service as up to standards as possible. They gather all the information they can from the Next of Kin or whoever the informant is, and they begin the process of planning and arranging things. They must see if the family wants Monks and ask if they have a preference. The funeral director must make calls pertaining to the service to make sure everything is set up, they must order the casket or urn, make any special accommodations, and book the location the funeral will be held in if it is not at the mortuary. The funeral director is there to help the family make sure everything they need is present and the service goes smooth. They want to leave a lasting impression on the family, so they are pleased with the services the funeral home provided. The funeral director has a huge duty to preform for making the memorable to the family, they want to honor the decedent as much as possible and still be respectful of the wishes of the family. Prior to the final disposition, the funeral director must reserve a time that is suitable for the family and there serve. They need to make sure the decease has a plot at cemetery or not, if they are being placed in a cemetery. At the disposition, they are there to consult and validate that what the workers at the cemetery are doing exactly what they should be doing. Even after the funeral is finished they still should stay in touch with the family every so often to keep that lasting impression on them that they care so much about the family they served.
Some of the more well-known Buddhist funerals that have recently happened are Bhadant Galgedar Pragyanand who was one of the monks to initiate Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar into Buddhism who is a well-known business man, he was 88 and died in 2017. His funeral was huge in India, he was embalmed so his followers could come and have their last moments with him. He was very respected in India having dedicated 75 years of his life to Buddhism and education. This is the most recent death of someone who was Buddhist from India that has passed.
As is it obvious, as years go by a lot of traditions change and this is no different for the Buddhist religion. The old ways are embraced but they are also changed, people fall out of traditions and begin new ones in each family. A quote from Buddha goes, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” (Sources of Insight, 1). What Buddha is saying here is that do not stay focused on what can happen or what has happened, it is best to know what is taking place now and that will bring you successfulness. I relate this the funeral industry because if a person does not deal with what is happening now in the present then they will never be satisfied. A funeral is about having that time to say good bye and especially at a Buddhist service every person needs to go up to the casket or urn pay their respects and make it a peace of mind. The funeral process that the Buddhist have are very simplistic and, in a way, pure. They believe in having a modest service that does not flaunt their wroth because they do not define themselves by what they own. In the funeral, they will be surrounded by family, friends, teachers and other people who are important in the community because that is what the deceased deserve. The Buddhist culture is a way of life and not just a typical religion, it changes a person into a better human being is what they believe in. It puts in perspective what is worth it in life and what is not for them. Buddhism is something that is not just a label it is how a person is and acts. It truly describes someone rather than just being a religion that is based on small things that do not matter. The Buddhist way of life is peaceful, calm and content and is very well respected.
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