Meaning of Funerals and Memorials

By Rev. Ken Yamada

When a person dies, many people don’t know what to do, having before never thought about it.  In this regard, I’d like to clarify our Jodo Shinshu Buddhist traditions, death rituals, funerals and memorial services.

If a person is terminally ill or otherwise at the end of life, families typically contact their temple’s minister about the person’s condition. If possible, the minister will make a visit, but there is no “last rites” ritual.

Once a person passes away however, the minister performs a simple bedside service called “makurakyo.” Oftentimes, it’s impractical or impossible immediately to do a makurakyo, especially if the person is in a hospital, the hour is late and no family members are present. If so, a short service may take place the first opportunity family members meet.

The family then plans a funeral with the minister’s guidance. Depending on timing, the funeral may be followed by a seven day service. Nowadays, funerals often take place past the seven day period so it may be combined with the funeral.

Afterwards, there is a 49 day service, along with other services held on certain memorial date anniversaries, such as the first year, third year, seventh year, 13th, 17th, 25th, and 33rd year.  Of course, it’s entirely up to the family how strictly they want to follow or ignore these traditions.

Instead of a service, I’ve seen instances where families held a “Celebration of Life” banquet in honor of the deceased, including pictures, toasts, and remembrances. I’ve also known cases where nothing was done at the deceased’s last request, leaving family and friends feeling a lack of closure.

Toasting to a recently deceased friend at a dinner is nice but from a Buddhist perspective, our worldview stays the same. We’ll go back to our daily lives without any deeper understanding of life and death. I think that’s a lost opportunity. Confronting a loved one’s death is perhaps the most painful experience we face. It’s a time when important questions slap us in the face, and it’s a time when answers lay within our reach.

To clarify, memorial services aren’t conducted for the deceased’s benefit, to somehow send a person to the Pure Land. Rather, it’s a time to remember and honor a person, and also a way to express our appreciation. And there’s a bigger reason.

In Buddhism, any service is an opportunity to hear the Buddha dharma, or Buddhist teachings. We are asked to reflect on our lives and deepen our understanding of who we are and what this life is all about. We are encouraged to follow this path through the rituals and chanting, and especially by the dharma talks. Our everyday thinking is challenged. By shifting our perspective, we may gain a new way of seeing the world.

These services also help people feel a sense of connection with a person, help them deal with feelings of loss and loneliness, and help them find a sense of peace.

In my experience, many people hold funerals, 49 day services, and even one year services, but after that, the number of people holding memorial services determined by the traditional anniversary dates drops drastically. Perhaps they’re busy, they forget or don’t think it’s important, which is unfortunate because I think memorials provide families with a strong spiritual foundation. Often, it’s the only time when family members come to the temple, and done over time, they at least provide an opportunity to hear the Buddha dharma, the Buddhist teachings. In this way, we are encouraged to reflect on our karmic connection to one another and feel a sense of appreciation for our lives.

Following this tradition over decades is a way for children and grandchildren to feel a sense of connection with their parents, grandparents, great grandparents and with the Buddhist teachings.

Many people, especially parents thinking about their children, wonder how they can cultivate a more spiritual life. Our memorial service tradition was handed down to us through countless generations for just that reason.

If you would like to plan and schedule a funeral or memorial service, please contact one of our temples.

Rev. Ken Yamada is editor at Shinshu Center of America.

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