All traditions of Buddhism practice cremation. However, in some Buddhist cultures burial is preferred if a child precede a living parent This is more of a cultural practice than one with any Buddhist meaning.
Cremation symbolizes a sense of detachment in that, the soul of the departed is set free from bondage. Buddhists believe that attachment towards the dead is detrimental to the progress of the soul in seeking a new life after death. Buddhists believe in Samsara (cycle of birth and death) until they attain salvation through Nirvana.
In the event of a death, the relatives and friends of the bereaved family would gather at the funeral home to help the Family deal with the loss of the loved one. Though funeral parlors are becoming the preferred option especially among the affluent, it is still common practice to conduct funeral ceremonies at home. However, the preparation of meals is not undertaken within the household for hygienic reasons. Instead, friends, relatives and neighbors would undertake to supply food to the funeral house with the exception light refreshments.
The coffin is placed with the head pointing towards the West while an oil lamp is lit beside the coffin. Often a photograph too is placed beside it.
On the day of the funeral, before the cortege leaves the residence, Buddhist monks would perform funeral rites and the chief monk will conduct the funeral oration. Normally the chief monk would say positive things about the departed and console the loved ones by explaining the inevitability of death according to the Buddhist teachings.
A white cloth (Mataka Vastra) measuring six yards is also draped around the coffin by the monks while chanting the sutras. Later, the Pansakula (a blessing for the departed) is performed where close family members seated on the floor beside the coffin would pour water from a small pot into a dish while the chanting continues. The purpose of Pansakula is to transfer merit to the departed. Soon after the funeral cortege leaves the house, women will boil a small pot of fresh cow’s milk at the spot where the coffin was kept. Its believed that boiling milk absorbs impurities emanated by the dead body. This is more of a cultural practice than a Buddhist tradition.
At the crematorium its customary for a close relative or a friend to say a few words about the departed. In days gone by, villagers would build a funeral pyre with logs for the cremation. Nowadays bodies are cremated at the crematorium. Most cities and towns would have a crematorium managed by the local authorities.
After the cremation the funeral attendees are invited to partake in a special alms-giving at the funeral home. The meal would comprise of rice, pumpkin, salt-fish and a few vegetables. Its believed that pumpkin is good for grieving hearts while the salt-fish would replenish the body’s natural salts, lost from tears. Thus, the combination of pumpkin and salt-fish is never cooked at Buddhist homes except at funerals for this combination is considered a bad omen.
The day following the funeral, the remains (ashes) are collected in an urn and sprinkled over a river by the loved ones. Some however prefer to inter the ashes at a cemetery.
On the 6th day of the person’s death, a sermon is delivered by a Buddhist monk at the home of the departed. Generally, the family would invite a monk well known to the family for this purpose. The following day, (which is the 7th day after the death) an alms-giving is offered to Buddhist monks to transfer merit to the departed. Often, favorite dishes of the departed are offered to the monks. Beef and pork are not offered to monks especially in Sri Lanka. After the alms-giving, friends and relatives would partake in the meal.
The same alms giving is repeated on the 3rd month’s death anniversary followed by the 1st year’s death anniversary. After which the mourning period is officially considered over. However, some men and women continue to wear white clothing for years to come while women refrain from wearing any form of jewelry.