Connecting People Through Goodwill and Friendship

The Buddha’s Cremation and Its Legacy on Thai Funeral Practices



A map illustrating the major ancient cities (Mahajanapadas) in India, featuring the location of Kusinara (now known as Kushinagara or Kushinagar) within the Malla republic where the final days of the Buddha took place. (Credit: Mahajanapadas)


1. Introduction

The term “Buddha” is a revered designation used in ancient India over 2,500 years ago to refer to the “Prince-turned-ascetic Siddhattha” or “Siddhattha/Siddhartha”. This title signifies profound reverence, admiration, and worship for his exceptional wisdom and intellect, and his application of reasoning to address fundamental questions of the time. These inquiries centered on whether humans can transcend suffering and attain happiness after birth, and if so, by what means. Additionally, they explored whether there is an end to the cycle of birth and death, and how to achieve it.

At the age of 35, Siddhattha attained enlightenment, discovering that humans can replace suffering with happiness and cease to be reborn after death. He gained the knowledge of cultivating happiness and avoiding further cycles of birth and death, which he generously shared with humanity with utmost compassion. His teachings, now known as “Buddhism,” have benefited over 500 million people for over 2,500 years, guiding them towards inner peace, self-understanding, self-control, and societal harmony.

Drawing inspiration from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (see here, here and here), this article delves into significant events in the last days of the Buddha’s life, illuminating his far-reaching vision, unwavering selflessness, and boundless compassion. It also explores the rich cultural heritage the Buddha bequeathed, particularly the profound impact on Thai funeral traditions. In Thailand, the Buddha’s cremation has evolved into a significant cultural observance known as “Wan Atthami Bucha,” exclusively commemorating the cremation of the Buddha’s remains. The day is a time for reflection, remembrance, and expression of gratitude for the Buddha’s teachings. Some Buddhists gather at temples to participate in merit-making activities, such as offering alms, making donations, participating in meditation practices, and performing a replica of the Buddha’s cremation.


A map highlighting the ancient Malla republic, with the locations of Pava and Kusinara. Pava is where the Buddha had his last meal, and Kusinara is where he attained parinirvana (passed away) and his cremation took place.

(Credit: aristocratic oligarchic Malla republic where the Buddha passed away)


2. The Buddha’s Last Meal

The Buddha’s final meal was graciously offered by Cunda, a metal worker, in the town of Pava, now known as Padrauna in Uttar Pradesh. This meal, referred to in Pali as ‘sukara-maddava,’ remains enigmatic regarding its precise nature and ingredients, evoking various interpretations:

  1. The tender parts of a pig or boar.
  2. Food enjoyed by pigs and boars, possibly referring to mushrooms, truffles, yams, tubers, or soft bamboo shoots—items known to be relished by pigs.
  3. Soft rice cooked with the five products of a cow.
  4. A special elixir of life (rasāyanavidhi).
  5. While these interpretations provide insights, the exact composition of ‘sukara-maddava’ remains uncertain.

In a comparative perspective, even globally renowned cuisines like Thai cuisine, exemplified by dishes like Tom Yum Gung, may face uncertainty about their ingredients in the future. Similarly, Buffalo wings in the United States are actually fried chicken wings, not wings from a buffalo. Hence, it is unsurprising that the true nature of ‘sukara-maddava’ continues to elude definitive determination.

On the same day, following the meal, the Buddha departed from Pava for Kusinara, located approximately 15 kilometers away.


3. The Buddha’s Final Day

The Buddha reached the Mallas’ Sala Grove near Kusinara at dusk, after the sun had already set that day. There, he asked Venerable Ananda, his closest relative and personal assistant, to prepare a couch for him between the twin sala trees because he was weary and wanted to lie down.

The Buddha is depicted reclining peacefully under the Sala trees during the time of his passing away. (Credit: Death of the Historical Buddha (in Mahayana painting), 14th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rogers Fund, 1912)


A Buddhist monk stands amidst a grove of Sala trees in India.

(Credit: Guide To Buddhism A To Z (


At that moment, the twin sala trees burst into full bloom, defying the season. Their blossoms cascaded upon the body of the Buddha, showering him with reverence and adoration.

In response, the Buddha emphasized to Ananda that the truest form of respect and honor lies not in material offerings, but in living a virtuous life in accordance with his teachings (Dhamma). Whether monk, nun, or layperson, those who embody the Dhamma, act with integrity, and tread the noble path demonstrate the utmost respect and honor for him. It is a widely held belief in the Buddhist tradition that worship through practice holds greater significance than homage through material offerings.

The sala tree was in full bloom at Parinibbana Temple in Kushinagar in March 2019. (Credit: Thai monk of Wat Thai Kusinara)



A close-up view of sala blossoms at Wat Thai Kusinara, which may symbolize the flowers cascading upon the body of the Buddha. (Credit: Thai monk of Wat Thai Kusinara) 


Lamentation of the Mallas

When the senior monks, possessing psychic powers, were certain that the Buddha would pass away during the last watch of the night (2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m.), they informed the ruling families of the Malla republic. The Mallas then went to the Sala Grove to pay their final respects to the Buddha during the first watch of the night (6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.).

The Last Convert

During that time, a wandering ascetic named Subhadda resided in Kusinara. Upon learning that the Buddha was resting at the Sala Grove, he approached the weary Buddha with profound spiritual inquiries. With unwavering compassion, the Buddha patiently addressed all his doubts, and Subhadda praised him for his ability to articulate ideas and reasoning: “Excellent, O Lord! It is as if one were to set upright what had been overthrown, or to reveal what had been hidden, or to guide one who had gone astray, or to illuminate a lamp in the darkness so that those with eyes might see—even so has the Blessed One expounded the Dhamma in many ways….”

On His Successor: His Teachings and Disciplines Will Replace Him

The Buddha foresightedly spoke to Ananda, saying, “Ananda, some among you may worry that with my passing, the teachings have ceased, and you no longer have a Master. But do not dwell on such thoughts. The teachings, the Dhamma, and the guidelines for virtuous living, the Discipline, that I have imparted to you will serve as your guide, your teacher, even in my absence.”


4. The Buddha’s Last Words

Then the Buddha addressed the community of monks, saying, “Some of you might have doubts or questions about me, the teachings (Dhamma), or the community of monks (Sangha), about the path to enlightenment, or the practice we follow. If you do, ask me now. Don’t wait and regret later that you missed the chance to ask me directly.” Despite his repeated inquiries, the monks remained silent, signifying their collective understanding and spiritual progress.

Finally, in Pali, the Buddha said, “Handa dani bhikkhave amantayami vo: Vayadhamma sankhara appamadena sampadetha.” The translation of these words is: “Listen carefully, monks. All conditioned things are of a nature to decay; strive to attain the goal by diligence.”

  For a deeper understanding of the Buddha’s last words, it’s essential to grasp the meaning of the Pali word ‘APPAMADA,’ usually translated into English as ‘diligently,’ ‘with diligence,’ ‘with earnestness,’ and ‘through heedfulness.’ According to the book Buddhadhamma (here pp. 1731-2), written by P.A. Payutto, a prominent Thai Buddhist scholar, ‘APPAMADA’ entails constant care, circumspection, and a clear awareness of one’s responsibilities. It represents a vigilant effort towards improvement and non-negligence, embodying the Buddhist sense of responsibility.

During his Parinibbana, the Buddha summarized his forty-five years of teaching, emphasizing the impermanence of all compound things and the importance of unwavering mindfulness in fulfilling one’s duties. In essence, his counsel resonates with the directive: “Realize that all compound things are subject to change, and accomplish your duties without allowing mindfulness to lapse.”

After that, the Buddha attained Parinibbana, the final passing away, during the last watch of that night.


The Buddha’s Parinibbana. (credit: Indo-Greek Buddhism Gandhara, 100-300 AD)


Parinirvana Temple, with the Sala tree on the left, was erected at the site of the Buddha’s passing away in Kushinagar.


Parinibbana Buddha Statue inside Parinirvana Temple, Kushinagar.


Tributes and Lamentations

The Mallas and some monks, who were not yet freed from passion, wept and lamented “Too soon has the Buddha come to his parinibbana! Too soon has he come to his Parinibbana! Too soon has the Eye of the World vanished from sight!

But the monks, who were freed from passion, mindful and clearly comprehending, reflected in this way: “Impermanent are all compounded things. How could this be otherwise?” and “The wise person takes their last breath, their heart calm and free from any longing. They are peaceful and untroubled by the pains of dying. Their mind, like a flickering flame that finally goes out, finds complete rest.”

At the same time after the Buddha’s parinibbana, Anuruddha, a very senior monk, and Ananda spent the remainder of the night, during the third watch, discussing the Buddha’s teachings.

Then Ananda went to Kusinara to inform the Mallas about the passing of the Buddha and asked them to handle the Buddha’s remains in whatever manner they deemed appropriate.


5. The Buddha’s Cremation

The Mallas conducted the funeral ceremony for the Buddha with utmost respect and reverence, adhering to the traditional rites and rituals prevalent in royal circles during the 6th century B.C. in India, summarized as follows:

5.1 Preparation and Respectful Handling of Buddha’s Remains

The Mallas gathered various flowers, perfumes, five hundred sets of cloths, and musical instruments, and approached the Sala Grove. There, they honored the Buddha’s remains with dance, song, music, flower garlands, and perfume. Erecting canopies and pavilions, they spent a week showing respect, honor, and veneration to the Buddha’s body.

5.2 Cremation of the Remains

The Buddha’s cremation occurred on the seventh day after his Parinibbana. The ceremony was presided over by the King of Malla and adorned with fragrances and flowers, along with musical instruments available in Kusinara. On the cremation day, the eight Malla royalty bathed, wore new clothes, and carried the Buddha’s body to the state’s cremation site, Makuta-bandhana (now Ramabhar). The entire Kusinara community joined the procession to carry the Buddha’s body.

For better understanding, refer to the pictures below, depicting the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paying his last respects in front of the coffin adorned with flowers of former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in a state ceremony before cremation took place in Delhi in 2018.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi lays a wreath on the mortal remains of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as he pays last respects at BJP headquarters.


In this photo, a procession is seen carrying the body of a renowned actor towards a cremation site in Southern India in 2022. The procession is attended by mourners, including fellow actors, politicians, and fans, who accompany the body to its final destination.


A map illustrating the location of the parinibbana site on the left-hand side, from where the Buddha’s remains were carried to the Ramabhar cremation site on the right-hand side. (Credit: KUSHINAGAR Description and Short History)


The thousands of monks who attended the cremation of the Buddha’s remains would have looked like this. This is a picture of Buddhist monks taking part in the funeral of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist monk, poet and peace activist who in the 1960s came to prominence as an opponent of the Vietnam war.


On the same day, as the Buddha’s remains were being prepared for cremation on the pyre, Venerable Maha Kassapa was on his way from the city of Pāvā to Kusinara to see the Buddha. Upon hearing the news of the Buddha’s passing, he and his 500 accompanying monks rushed to the cremation ground. Approaching the Buddha’s pyre, he paid respect with his hands clasped in salutation, walked three times around the pyre, keeping his right side towards the Buddha’s body, and finally paid homage at the Buddha’s feet. The five hundred monks with him did the same.

After Maha Kassapa and the five hundred bhikkhus had paid their respects, the Buddha’s pyre burst into flame.


Cremation of a former Indian prime minister with full state honor at Rashtriya Smriti Sthal in New Delhi in Aug, 2018 Telegraph India.


The status of Makuta-bandhana (now Ramabhar), the Buddha’s cremation site, can—in terms of its significance, and not its size—be compared to the national memorial, Rashtriya Smriti Sthal, in New Delhi, which is the cremation site of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

When the body of the Buddha had been burned, no ashes or particles were to be seen of what had been skin, tissue, flesh, sinews, and fluid; only bones remained.

And the Mallas of Kusinara laid the relics of the Buddha in their council hall, and surrounded them with a lattice-work of spears and encircled them with a fence of bows; and there for seven days they paid respect, honor, homage, and veneration to the relics of the Buddha with dance, song, music, flower-garlands, and perfume.

5.3 Partition of the Relics

Kings and rulers of kingdoms and republics, such as the king of Magadha (now Bihar), the King of Kapilwatthu (or Kapilvasthu, the paternal side of the Buddha), the Kolis of Ramagama (or Ramagrama, the Buddha’s maternal side), and rulers of the Licchavi, etc., believed that since the Buddha belonged to the warrior caste, and they did too, they were worthy to receive a portion of his relics. Therefore, they requested them.

After receiving the relics, they built stupas over them and held festivals in their honor. This practice was in accordance with the Buddha’s advice regarding four types of individuals worthy of having a monument built in their honor. The first type is a fully enlightened Buddha, the second type is an independent Buddha who discovers enlightenment on their own, the third type is a disciple of a Buddha who attains certain stages of awakening, and the fourth type is a righteous and just monarch. These monuments inspire people to believe in their teachings, do good deeds, and lead to a good rebirth.

Although Thailand was not initially a recipient of the Buddha’s relics, it obtained them from India after relics were unearthed at Piprahwa in Northern India, near the Nepalese border, in 1898. Some of them were subsequently given to Thailand, where they have been reverently enshrined in the large stupa of the Golden Mount Temple in Bangkok.

Cetiya enshrining the Buddha’s relics at the Golden Mount Temple in Bangkok.


5.4 Four Places of Buddhist Pilgrimage

The Buddha said to Ananda before his parinibbana that after his passing away, there are four places that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence, and whoever should die on such a pilgrimage with his heart established in faith, he or she will be reborn in a realm of heavenly happiness:

1. The place where the Buddha was born (Lumbini in now Nepal),

2. The place where the Buddha became fully enlightened in unsurpassed, supreme Enlightenment (Bodhgaya in Bihar State, India),

3. The place where the Buddha set rolling the unexcelled Wheel of the Dhamma (Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh, India),

4. The place where the Buddha passed away (Kusinara in Uttar Pradesh, India).

6. Atthami Bucha Day: The Buddha’s Cremation Commemorative Day in Thailand

The Buddha’s Cremation Commemorative Day, known locally in Thailand as Atthami Bucha Day, is annually observed at select temples across the country. It falls one week after Visakha (Wisak) Puja Day, typically in May each year.

On Atthami Bucha Day, some Buddhists participate in devotional practices, such as circumambulating the stupa with lighted candles. However, this tradition is not widespread throughout the kingdom and is limited to specific temples based on local customs.

One notable example of commemorative activities takes place at Wat Phra Borom That Tung Yang (วัดพระบรมธาตุทุ่งยั้ง) in Uttaradit (อุตรดิตถ์) Province. This nine-day event, starting from Visakha Puja and culminating in Atthami Puja, includes a sound and light show depicting the Buddha’s life from his parinibbana to the cremation ceremony. It attracts a large number of devotees from Uttaradit and neighboring provinces.


Replica Buddha’s Cremation Ceremony on Atthami Puja at Wat Phra Borom That Tung Yang.


Similarly, in the central region, Wat Mai Sukhontharam (วัดใหม่สุคนธาราม) in Nakhon Pathom (นครปฐม) Province upholds a tradition of over 130 years, making it the oldest and most enduring in the region. The local community organizes a procession carrying offerings, talai (ตะไล umbrella-like structures), and fireworks, followed by a procession depicting the Buddha’s life and teachings, culminating in the replica cremation ceremony. This event draws a large crowd of participants from the community and visitors.


Monks reverently offer artificial sandalwood flowers to the reclining Buddha statue at Atthami Bucha Ceremony at Wat Mai Sukhontharam, Nakhon Pathom Province.


7. The Buddha’s Enduring Legacy on Thai Funeral Practices

According to the Mahaparibbana Sutta, following the Buddha’s Parinibbana in the third watch of the night, senior monks engaged in Dhamma discussions for the remainder of the watch. During the seven-day funeral rites, the Malla rulers of Kusinara conducted proceedings with utmost reverence. They adorned the area with various flowers, garlands, and perfumes, and engaged in singing and dancing in front of the Buddha’s body. On the cremation day, they dressed in new clothes and paid their respects by circling the pyre three times, keeping their right side towards the Buddha’s body. Upon completion of the salutation rite, the pyre burst into flame.

Thai funeral practices often mirror the rituals observed during the Buddha’s funeral. The duration of the funeral rites typically lasts three, five, or seven days, with seven days being the most common. The deceased’s body is wrapped in white cloth and placed in a coffin adorned with flowers. Monks deliver sermons during the funeral, though traditional dances and songs as homage to the deceased have become less common due to Western influences emphasizing solemnity.

On the cremation day, the coffin is placed on a steel pyre in a crematorium, and mourners walk around it three times clockwise to pay their respects. Monks are invited to light the fire, and participants place artificial sandalwood flowers on the pyre as a final tribute. After cremation, the remains are collected and placed in an urn, either kept at home near a family altar or at a temple for remembrance and annual merit-making ceremonies. Alternatively, the ashes may be scattered into the sea.


A coffin containing a deceased person adorned with a beautiful array of flowers.


A monk delivering a funeral dhamma talk in front of a coffin. These talks, deeply rooted in Buddhist teachings, offer solace, wisdom, and guidance to the bereaved. Monks often reassure the deceased’s relatives by highlighting the merit accumulated through the deceased’s good deeds. This accumulated merit is believed to prepare the deceased for their journey to the afterlife, leading to a favorable rebirth in the cycle of rebirth, known as samsara. Monks also encourage mourners to prepare themselves for this journey by diligently accumulating spiritual provisions and necessary tools to aid their passage.



Thai music students perform a traditional wind ensemble known as wong pee part (วงปี่พาทย์) at a funeral, as part of a religious rite to honor the deceased person.



A Grand Entertainment Performance to Commemorate the Royal Cremation Ceremony of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Three Outdoor Stages in Sanam Luang (สนามหลวง) in 26 October 2017.


In a heartwarming tribute to their departed loved one’s wishes, family members organized a retro Ramwong (รำวง) dance performance in front of the crematorium during the cremation ceremony at a temple in Phitsanulok Province in 2022. This unique act of remembrance reflects the deep connection between the deceased and the Thai cultural tradition of Ramwong (รำวง), a lively circle dance that brings people together in celebration and joy.


Artificial sandalwood flowers: s symbol of respect and reverence for the deceased person are traditionally used in Thai funerals to pay homage to the deceased and serve as symbolic cremation objects. These fragrant blooms, imbued with deep cultural significance, embody respect, reverence, and a cherished connection to the departed.


Monks were walking up to the pyre to initiate the cremation of a renowned comedian. Following this, mourners approached to place artificial sandalwood flowers as a symbolic offering to the pyre. This event occurred in Bangkok in 2020.


8. Takeaways

As we commemorate the occasion of Atthami Bucha, numerous lessons emerge, but for lay people, one of the most crucial is embracing the Buddhist teaching of impermanence at a level appropriate for our daily lives. We are all aware that all compounded things or beings are impermanent and will eventually cease to exist, without exception. It is a natural law that spares no one. Just as the Buddha passed away over 2,500 years ago, we, too, will one day face death—most likely within the next hundred years. Therefore, we choose to spend our remaining time in this world engaging in good deeds, beneficial actions, and activities that are helpful to ourselves and others as much as possible. Each day, we strive to avoid harming ourselves or others and work towards maximizing happiness for ourselves, those around us, and society as a whole. By doing so, we believe that we can make the greatest positive impact on the world as individuals.

We can even draw inspiration from the essence of this Thai poem, which underscores the significance of doing good deeds as a lasting legacy of one’s life on earth: “When cows and buffaloes perish, their horns and tusks remain as a testament to their existence. When humans pass away, their bodies vanish completely. Only their virtuous and wicked deeds endure. Therefore, let us prioritize doing good deeds.”


พฤษภกาสร              อีกกุญชรอันปลดปลง

โททนต์เสน่งคง         สำคัญหมายในกายมี

นรชาติวางวาย          มลายสิ้นทั้งอินทรีย์

สถิตทั่วแต่ชั่วดี          ประดับไว้ในโลกา


***For those who are interested in learning Thai, you can register for free online courses at the Thailand Foundation’s Thai Language Courses.





Author: Paitoon Songkaeo, Ph.D.

Transitioning from a Buddhist monk to a diplomat, Paitoon Songkaeo is the Administrative Director of the Thailand Foundation. With a background of 16 years as a Buddhist monk, he later joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and retired as the Consul-General of Kota Baru in Malaysia in 2017. Additionally, he is a regular contributor to the Spiritual Values & Meditation section.

Uploaded on May 22, 2024