Care of the Dying - Buddhism

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Death-related religious rituals

Essential Practice Point 4

Generally, Buddhist teaching views life and death as a continuum, believing that consciousness (the spirit) continues after death and may be reborn. Death can be an opportunity for liberation from the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

Rituals and in some cases precise beliefs surrounding death vary among Buddhist traditions. Tibetan Buddhism has defined practices and protocols that should be followed in times of death. For example, special prayers are said before death, during the dying process and for several days after death. The Mahayana (Chan/Zen, etc.) and the Western Buddhist approaches are relatively less defined; in these traditions prayers are held during the dying process, while the stages at which prayers are held and the length of these prayers vary.

In addition, individual Buddhists, even within the same tradition, may have specific wishes for the time of death, depending on their level of practice.

Tibetan teachers have provided specific clarification and protocols for this section and clarification has been given for other traditions based on feedback received.

Where possible, discuss individual needs with the person and clarify requirements with a spiritual contact. In an emergency follow these protocols:

  • Buddhists from all traditions are likely to prefer to have a clear state of mind approaching death. As part of their preparation for death, the person may wish to reduce medication that clouds the mind and will want to be fully involved and consulted at all stages.
  • Prayer and meditation are an important support for a Buddhist who is sick or dying.
  • If death is imminent the spiritual contact identified by the person should be called so that the appropriate prayer practice can be initiated.
  • Preferably a dying Buddhist should be moved to a private area to allow prayers to be conducted in privacy.
  • All Buddhist traditions believe that awareness is retained for some period after clinical death. In the Tibetan tradition awareness may be retained for up to three days. The manner in which the body is treated is very important so that the spirit is allowed to leave correctly. In all circumstances maintain a calm, stable and compassionate atmosphere around the person before, during and after clinical death. Buddhists consider this highly important in facilitating the consciousness (the spirit) to leave the body.
  • Friends and family may want to sit by the person to pray immediately after death, so facilitating this will be very much appreciated.

(Return to Summary of Essential Practice Points)

 

Cleaning and touching the body

Essential Practice Point 5

  • Delay moving and laying out the body for as long as possible. The minimum should be at least four hours to allow for prayers necessary to be conducted.
  • Buddhists believe that the spirit should be allowed to leave gently via the crown of the head. In some traditions they facilitate the departure of the spirit by tapping the crown of the head in a specific way and in a very specific frame of mind. Clarify with the spiritual leader if this practice is necessary and if so it should be attended to before moving the body and before any cleaning is conducted. The practice should be carried out by the spiritual leader or another Buddhist.
  • When the body has to be moved it should be done with care and gentleness.
  • Some Buddhist teachers have requested that the head of a Buddhist is not touched at any time during the post clinical death process by healthcare staff. A healthcare worker not touch the head at any time unless given permission to do so by a spiritual adviser, and then under guidance given by the adviser or another Buddhist.
  • Do not wash the body unless it is essential to do so. Conduct only essential cleaning, for example clean excretions such as blood or excrement. Use as little touch as possible in any cleaning/washing that is done.

(Return to Summary of Essential Practice Points)

 

Postmortem requirements

Buddhists are likely to request that a postmortem be carried out only if required on compelling medical or legal grounds. In such circumstances a postmortem should be delayed until awareness has left the body. Unless directed otherwise by a spiritual adviser, a postmortem should be delayed for a minimum of four hours and preferably for three and a half days.

 

Interment ritual

Cremation or burial takes place after a period of time. In the Tibetan tradition interment takes place after three and a half days while the time varies across other traditions.

 

Bereavement

There will be a period of saying prayers, often throughout the day and night, in most Buddhist traditions. The traditional Tibetan practice involves a forty-nine day prayer ritual during which the spirit moves through the afterlife and decisions are made regarding rebirth.