Should We Follow New Funeral Trends?

Question: On 9th January 2016 in ‘The Straits Times’ was an article titled, ‘Want to wash and dress body of loved one after death?’ (http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/want-to-wash-and-dress-body-of-loved-one-after-death) Are the new trends mentioned sensible for Buddhists to follow?

Answer: Here are some key parts of the article with 15 comments on them, as considerations we should have about these funeral trends.

Re: ‘Washing someone’s hair and body, and dressing them in their favourite attire… children and relatives can do the same – one last time – for their dead parents and loved ones.’

Reply: [1] If the deceased’s hair and body are reasonably clean already, unless the deceased used to be very attached to cleanliness, it is better not to clean, but just let them be. This is so as needless and often excess touching of the deceased can be experienced as pain magnified by nine times, if the consciousness is still habitually attached to the body. Such disturbances can severely torment and distract one from urgent Nianfo (practice of mindfulness of the name of Amitabha Buddha – ‘Amituofo’).

[2] If cleaning is still preferred by surviving family members, it should done after at least eight hours of post-death support-chanting. Simple and gentle wiping with clean or slightly scented water will do. Washing is physically much too harsh.

[3] Before any touching of the body, inform that the body will be touched. Accompanied by Nianfo, hair on the crown of the head should first be tugged at (but not pulled out, or with area patted if bald), so as to stimulate the consciousness to depart from there to reach Pure Land swiftly. Handling of the body should be gradual, from above to below parts of the body, instead of from below to above, to minimise premature accidental stimulation of the consciousness to depart from lower regions, which correspond to lower rebirths.

[4] Ideally, when dying, one should already be reasonably clean and in one’s preferred attire. This would remove the need (or wish of family members) to clean and re-dress one after death. For laypersons, it is simplest to dress in the Haiqing (black Buddhist lay robes), as it is loose and easy to slip on. This minimises touching of the body too.

[5] Only one or a few close to the deceased, who are mindfully deft in action, and are careful to minimise touching of the body should be tasked with the cleaning and dressing. These should all be done in the midst of continual Nianfo too. Otherwise, handling by the unfamiliar, unskilful, grievous or fearful might severely disturb the deceased.

Re: ‘Such procedures are usually carried out by funeral professionals behind closed doors for Buddhists, Christians, and Taoists…’

Reply: [6] It is NOT true that Buddhists, especially those with right understanding, see it as a ‘standard’ practice for funeral parlour workers to clean and dress the deceased privately. It is less intrusive and more assuring for the deceased that their bodies are handled by the familiar instead of strangers. Some parlours wash bodies by hosing them before wiping dry, which can cause great pain. (This is an important reminder NOT to blindly believe everything reported or printed.)

Re: ‘… a funeral company which caters to all groups besides Hindus and Muslims, hopes that this “therapeutic activity” can help people get through their grief and find closure earlier.’

Reply: [7] As explained above, such activities of washing and dressing by many people might be traumatic for the deceased. This is so even if it seems ‘therapeutic’ for the survivors. We should take note that a funeral should always have the priority of helping to guide the deceased to reach Pure Land swiftly, with as few distractions as possible. True closure comes from knowing one has done one’s best to facilitate reaching of Pure Land; not from having done anything else, that probably benefits only oneself.

Re: ‘… family members sit in a private room in front of the embalmed body, which is covered with towels. They can help to wash the hair, wipe the hands and feet, or apply moisturiser to the hands and face. They can also help to dress the body, buttoning up the jacket or putting on jewellery.’

Reply: [8] The more there are present, the greater the possibility of there to be uncontrollable and ‘infectious’ emotional outbursts, of crying or even tugging (and hugging) of the deceased’s body. This might, as mentioned, severely disturb and distract the deceased from Nianfo. It might spur the rise of attachment and/or aversion. If the quality of the last thought before taking actual rebirth is based on these poisons, the destination of rebirth will not be ideal.

[9] The article wrote of embalmment as if it is a ‘standard’ procedure, with no option of opting out. It is NOT true that Buddhists prefer embalmment, as it involves touching of the whole body, especially on the inside, due to blood being pumped out of veins and embalming fluid (based on several chemicals) being pumped in the arteries, bearing in mind that they pervade the entire body. Also, parts of the body, including the legs (as extremis) will be squeezed to feel for whether the fluid has reached them. Again, this is excess touching, of the lowest regions of the body too. (This is ANOTHER important reminder NOT to blindly believe everything reported or printed.)

[10] Shaving, putting on of make-up for beautifying, and setting (or rather, ‘forcing’) of features to look ‘natural’ are also drastically disturbing ways to touch the body to be avoided. There should be a sealed casket if there is fear of seeing the face of the deceased. However, those who have reached Pure Land often look blissful and rosy.

[11] Covering the body with towels imply much wiping, which is touching too, of the body from head to toe. Again, this is discouraged. Application of moisturiser is pointless as the body does not need it at all, while it involves even more touching. Such actions might promote vain attachment in the deceased to the body and its appearance, when the truth is, the body will be buried or cremated in a matter of days.

[12] Jewellery should not be put on as the deceased this can create attachment to these material possessions. What more, they will be wasted when buried or cremated. It is better to donate (or cash) them for charitable purposes, such as for offering to the Triple Gem, so as to create merits in the name of the deceased to facilitate a better rebirth.

Re: ‘It gives people a chance to take part in the final process and have a safe place to cry or say things they want to say to the departed…’

Reply: [13] As mentioned above, crying is a severe form of disturbance to the deceased. Even if the emotional release offers the grieving some peace, it does NOT offer ANY peace to the deceased; only serving to destroy the potential for peace of mind. Crying should be done out of sight and earshot, reasonably far from the body of the deceased.

[14] Eulogies (speeches that pay tribute to the deceased) with or without accompanying music (or dance) should not be conducted during wakes. Memorial services with speeches can be conducted, but after 49 days of the passing. This is so as rebirth for the average person occurs within 49 days, while any moving words and music might spur attachment, that interferes with sincere and focused Nianfo to swiftly reach Pure Land.

[15] There might also be additional use of customised ‘rituals’ or ‘symbols’ (items representative of, or dear to the deceased), to commemorate or ‘honour’ the deceased. For example, objects created by the deceased (such as photographs), that showcase their hobbies might be displayed. These are not only useless to the deceased, they are dangerous – with high potential for stirring up attachment, that deters sincere Nianfo.

To conclude, a funeral should NOT become either extreme, as a creative celebration, or as a ritualised grieving ceremony. The passing of anyone should be celebrated ONLY if there are clear and unmistakeable auspicious signs of having reached Pure Land. Of course, even in such cases, there is usually still respectful Nianfo done as much as possible. Collective grief of survivors can easily become grief of the deceased, especially if there are many grieving together, with their grief expressed and further magnified by rituals designed to be unhealthily ‘touching’ (physically and emotionally) in nature.

As the consciousness of the deceased is safer assumed to be present, time and efforts should remain focused on offering sincere guidance to encourage sincere Nianfo, to swiftly reach Pure Land, along with the creating and dedicating of more merits to aid the same purpose. As rebirth can take place at any time, time should not be wasted on distracting efforts. There is no need to follow changing funeral trends, or be ‘updated’ on new trends, especially if they are not aligned to the core Buddhist principles mentioned above. These were already adequately taught by the 13th Patriarch of the Pure Land tradition’s Great Master Yinguang in his famous teaching on ‘The Three Great Essentials When Approaching Death’. Once they are mastered, the course of right action is clear!

Related Course On Right Course Of Action:

Destination Pureland: How To Have The Best Rebirth

Related Articles:

The Three Great Essentials When Approaching Death

The Importance Of Not Touching The Deceased & Not Crying

What Should Be Chanted During & After A Funeral

Please be mindful of your speech, Amituofo!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.