THE BUDDHIST DEAD: Practices, Discourses, Representations, edited by Bryan J. Cuevas and Jacqueline I. Stone. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007, 492 pp., with illustrations, $65 (cloth)

Buddhism has, at least in the public mind, monopolized death. In Japan, birth and marriage are usually Shinto sponsored, while Buddhism officiates at the less popular but equally inevitable funeral. Elsewhere, Buddhism may sponsor many a happier ritual, but from Sri Lanka through Tibet and China to Japan, it also holds hegemony over death. So much so that one Japanese lay Buddhist, Chigaku Tanaka, lamented that in the eyes of the laity the Buddhist clergy were little more than undertakers.

The connection between death and Buddhist belief began early — at the funeral of the Buddha himself. His death ritual became the model for many of the Buddhist deaths to follow — something that did not often occur in other religions, Christianity, for example. The funeral was not merely to mark the end of life and a presumed entry into Nirvana; it was also to ritualize the rite of passage during which the dead underwent a significant change of status. At least some of the dead.

As in other religions, dying is not a democratic proposition. There are, in the terms used in this collection of scholarly papers, two groupings. There is "the special dead" and, on the other hand, "the ordinary dead." All beings, however deluded, however enlightened, eventually vanish but their departure is to be understood in different terms.