A Buddhist approach to death, dying and funerals

Lama Zangmo, Buddhist practitioner, lighting candles

Five minute read

Preparation for death is central to Buddhist practice. Lama Zangmo from the Bardo group at London Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Centre for World Peace and Health (Kagyu Samye Dzong) explains how they support people on their journey of death and rebirth.

What do Tibetan Buddhists believe happens when someone dies?

Buddhists talk about the dissolution process. First, there is the ‘coarse dissolution’. This is when their bodily elements — earth, water, fire and air — stop functioning, their consciousness collapses and eventually their breath stops.

There is also the ‘subtle dissolution’, which continues after physical death. It is important not to disturb this process. This means you should not touch the body for at least four hours after death.

There are practical things which need to be done after death, but we ask people not to wash or touch the body immediately. If they have to touch the body, touch the crown of the head first.

How do Buddhists prepare for death?

If we can, as Buddhists, we should prepare for our own death. We see all of life as part of the preparation for death.

It’s not a depressing attitude. Knowing that we will die means we can live more fully. You don’t know how long you will live — you could die tomorrow, so make the most of your life.

You might not think it is fortunate, but if you know that you only have a certain amount of time to live, then you can focus on preparing for death.

You have time to make practical preparations, to plan your own funeral, to leave a clear will and to make sure you do not leave problems behind for your loved ones.

You can use your time to do positive things — to use your wealth to help others, by feeding the homeless or giving to charity. These good actions are dedicated to your future rebirth and so that you can leave happiness behind for others.

As well as the practical preparation, there is the mental preparation. Be as present and awake as possible, so that when death does come, you are not overwhelmed by fear.

Why is this preparation for death so important?

Familiarity helps to overcome fear. If you contemplate impermanence, death and dying during your life, then you will not be so terrified by it. Your body is only temporary, it is on loan to you, eventually it will die, as everything dies.

Dying without regrets means making peace with anyone that you need to. If someone has wronged you and you are carrying resentment, forgive and let go of past burdens.

You don’t know what the circumstances of your death will be, but you can reduce mental distress if you have had some training in life to prepare for death. Reducing mental distress can help you cope with physical distress.

Preparing for death means you can die without fear. It can even be joyful because you can feel that you lived your life well. This cannot happen in the last minute before dying — Buddhist practice means preparing for death throughout your whole life.

How would you suggest supporting a Buddhist practitioner who is close to death?

When someone is dying, you should create an environment that is as peaceful and soothing as possible. Don’t express any distress, sorrow or crying, before or immediately after the death, because this disturbs the dying person.

People worry about what they should say or do. Just sit and be present, bring them what they need, play gentle soothing music, surround them with the things that they like, be comforting and avoid disturbing them.

Above all, people should as much as possible show loving-kindness and compassion in words and actions.

The dying person is looking to the future, to the next rebirth. The best gift you can offer them is to be calm. Your suffering will make them suffer. You need to let them go, without grieving or attachment that will disturb them or hold them back.

What does a Buddhist funeral look like? If I am attending as a non-Buddhist, what do I need to know?

A Buddhist funeral is not so different from any other funeral — there will be speeches about the person, celebrating their life. There will also be Buddhist chanting and prayers of loving kindness and compassion.

Apart from that, each funeral depends on what the person wanted and what their family and friends prefer.

For non-Buddhists attending a Buddhist funeral, it’s important to keep a pure and positive mindset in how you think about the person. Appreciate and be grateful for the time you spent with them.

In Buddhist teaching, after someone has died, there will still be attachments to those left behind. Your loved ones’ thoughts will affect you in the afterlife. So avoid negative or uncaring thoughts.

After the funeral, how do you remember someone who has died?

In the 49 days after their death, we pray for the person who has died.

At our main temple in Scotland, there is a big structure surrounded by a walkway, where people meditate as they walk. Glass cabinets along the walls of the walkway contain the urns of people’s ashes, with their names, their picture, their dates.

When I walk there, I remember those people. It’s a holy place, like a cemetery, where you can go and visit and reconnect with your loved ones.

What is the bardo group and how did it start?

Bardo means ‘in between’ — the state between death and the next rebirth.

The bardo group started when a member of our community got cancer. She was dying, yet she still found it important to come to the centre for meditation. It was an eye opener for all of us.

We’re a key point within the centre, or anyone connected to us, who wants support in dying. We visit people at home and provide support for funerals.

The group exists so that people know they are not alone — there’s someone they can call on who is not a stranger. They can talk about their wishes, what they want for the funeral, things that need doing — all as part of their Buddhist practice.

We also educate the community about death and dying, on how to listen well, learning the death process and the prayers. We hold an annual open day on embracing death and dying, which includes talks, exhibitions and poetry.

How does this approach to death express core Buddhist beliefs?

Impermanence is a central topic of teaching in Buddhism — nothing external to you can be relied on completely. Everything comes to an end, even your own body.

There is birth and rebirth in every moment, there are always new chances and new beginnings. Every time we go to sleep, there’s an end and then a new beginning.

Find more resources on death and dying from the London Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Centre

Read more interviews on Talking Death, including with Aama Sade Shepnekhi on Rastafarian funerals and with Soul Midwife Krista Hughes.

To stay in touch with all the latest news and updates from Poppy's by email, sign up here or contact us if you need help planning a funeral.

Discover more articles