Understanding Religion

When a death occurs a variety of things impact the traditions, customs and practices observed that relate to the funeral, burial, memorial service, grieving process and honoring the departed. One of the strongest influences for the rituals of the funeral and the process of healing from grief is the religious background of the individual and respective level of observance.

Religion often helps to provide a context by which to understand and cope with the loss. Faith in a religion generally offers structure and guidance for the grieving process. In many religions, faith answers the reasons why death occurs and points to a hope beyond the death. The religious group or affiliation creates a community between those with similar ideals and points of view for support, strength and encouragement.

Many religions provide structure and guidance on funerals, burial and mourning. As such, religious belief systems may have different traditions, rituals and customs on how to honor and bury the dead, how to mourn, and how to comfort the surviving family. The traditions may include how mourners act and dress, words and music that should be used, along with other ritualistic acts that can be performed at the funeral or burial.

Role of Religion

Religious traditions often provide an explanation for the role death plays in life. In some traditions, death is explained as a door or passage to another life, either an eternal one or a re-incarnated one on earth. Other religions see death as a transition from mortality to immortality.

Religion attempts to answer the question, “Is there life after death?” Some faiths emphasize a new existence after death. Religions may portray a community in the after-life which reunited loved ones who have passed before. Some faiths see renewal or rebirth as the future. To these religions, death is the turning point in the endless cycle of life.

Religion provides a community to support the loved ones who are left behind. Many faiths make special provisions to care for widows and surviving children. The community of faith often provides meals and support to the family during the period of grieving. They stand beside the family during the days that follow the burial, to give comfort and strength during the difficult days ahead.

BUDDHISM

Buddhism consists of many sects or denominations, which may vary some of the traditions. It is common for Buddhists to believe that life and death are a part of a cycle known as samara. The actions of an individual in one cycle, along with the summary of all of the previous incarnations, will lead to further reincarnations. The ultimate goal for most Buddhists is to live a pure life to free the soul from the samsara and ultimately attains enlightenment and nirvana.

Because death is a natural part of these cycles, Buddhists are encouraged to accept death rather than fear it. If circumstances permit, family and friends often gather and sit with the person as death approaches. The mourners try to make the dying person feel calm and peaceful, often reflecting about the good deeds of the person’s life. It is believed that these good deeds may have the power to determine the next incarnation. A small statue of the Buddha is often placed by the head of the dying person.

Following the death, friends and family members will clean and prepare the body. Rather than dressed in fancy clothes, the person will be dressed in normal, everyday attire.

In the Buddhist religion there is a viewing where people go to pay their respects to the family and to honor the deceased. Some denominations believe that the number of mourners helps dictate the next incarnation. Visitors are encouraged to greet the family and offer condolences, then go to the casket and bow. When attending a Buddhist funeral, mourners are encouraged to wear white clothing to symbolize grief and a somber spirit.

The room for the visitation or wake is prepared to be calm and peaceful. The body will lie in a simple casket which remains open during the period of visitation. Everything connected with the service, including the casket and body, is generally plain and reserved. An altar may be placed near the casket displaying an image of Buddha and an image of the deceased. Candles, flowers, fruit and incense may also be placed on or around the altar.

Buddhist tradition does not dictate the final resting state of the body. In fact, organ donation is encouraged, as well as donating the body to medical and scientific research. Burial or cremation is acceptable. If the body is cremated, monks may be present at the crematorium to lead in readings and chanting. The ashes of the body may be kept by the family, enshrined, or scattered at sea.

Memorial services are held on the third, seventh, forty-ninth and one hundredth day after the death. The services may be held at a family home or at a monastery. The family may invite the larger Buddhist community to attend the services, or may limit the mourners to close family and friends.

CHRISTIANITY

Protestant Christianity has many denominations, including Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Baptist. The practice for types of services may be set forth by the denomination or left to the discretion of leadership of the local congregation. Many of the rituals and customs for honoring the deceased are shared throughout Protestant Christianity.

A portion of one or two days will be set aside for visiting the family to express condolences. In some traditions this visitation period is also called a wake. The body of the deceased is often present at the visitation in a casket, though some denominations discourage this tradition. If the casket is present, tradition, along with the circumstances of the death, will determine whether the casket is open for viewing or is closed.

Usually a funeral service led by a member of the clergy is held for the deceased. The service may be held in either the church or the funeral home. Eulogies from family members or close friends are often shared. The service generally includes music, Scripture readings and a message of consolation and hope presented by the clergy. Some denominations stress the need for an evangelistic message at the funeral to invite the surviving family and friends to make peace with God before their own death occurs. Afterwards, the family and friends often gather somewhere to share a meal, tell stories and remember the deceased.

HINDUISM

Following the death, a service is ordinarily conducted by a Hindu priest or the oldest male in the family. Hindu tradition provides that a funeral ceremony takes within 24 hours of the death. While some Hindus may bury their dead, many choose cremation as the means of the final resting state of the body.

Hindu faith places little significance in the physical body and does not believe in resurrection from the dead. In fact, the Hindu goal is to avoid reincarnation or rebirth so that the individual soul unites with the Supreme Soul. This final state of moksha or liberation is achieved by living a peaceful, spiritual life.

The Hindu funeral service is usually informal. Mourners at a Hindu funeral wear casual white clothes. The service often includes prayers, hymns and readings from the Hindu scripture, called the Bhagavad Gita. The deceased’s body is usually covered with flowers. Family, friends and supporters may send flowers to the family or funeral home before the service, but flowers a generally not encouraged to be brought to the funeral itself.

It is customary to come forward and speak with the bereaved following the cremation, offering words of comfort and empathy. Sending food to the home of the bereaved is another appropriate method of expressing condolences to the family. Hindu tradition does not usually have an official reception following the cremation.

On the fourth day following the cremation ceremony, the ashes of the deceased are scattered by the immediate family. Tradition often has the ashes dispersed over a sacred body of water, or at a place that had special significance and meaning to the deceased or family.

Many families celebrate the life of the departed twelve or thirteen days following the funeral. A large meal is prepared and shows appreciation and honor for the life of the deceased. The feast is held at this time because tradition held that on the twelfth day the soul travels through a spirit world to the land of the ancestors.

ISLAM

The two primary sects within Islam, Shi’a and Sunni, hold very different views on most matters of doctrine and practice, including traditions on life and death. In general, Isalm believes that there is an afterlife which is determined by the good deeds one does during life on earth. Dying for the cause of Allah is considered to be the greatest deed one can perform.

When circumstances permit, family members and close friends are encouraged to be present as a Muslim approaches death. Those present may offer prayers and encourage the dying person for a future hope. It is customary that the mourners assist the dying person in saying the shahada, a statement confirming faith that there is no God but Allah.

Following the death, individuals present close the eyes of the deceased and cover the body with a clean white sheet. The family and friends often offer prayers to Allah for the forgiveness of the sins of the deceased. A local Islamic community is generally contacted to make arrangements for the funeral service and burial.

Generally Islamic law and practices provides that routine autopsies should be refused by the family because they are a desecration to the body. According to the religion of Islam, embalming of a deceased is traditionally not performed unless government law requires it. Islamic law forbids cremation as a means of final interment for the body. Rather, the body is to be buried as soon as possible following the death. An imam or Muslim leader should be consulted if there are questions about the preparation or transportation of the body.

Consoling a mourner in the Islamic culture is a grand act of kindness; however, there are certain rules and traditions on how to do so, depending on the degree of devoutness of the grieving family. Because of the urgency for burial, there is no viewing of the body before the funeral.

The Muslim funeral service is a time of prayer offered by all of the family and friends of the deceased. The prayers will be given in a prayer or study room, or the courtyard of the mosque, but not inside. Those praying will form at least three lines, facing toward Mecca. The first line will contain the men most closely related to the deceased, followed by men, children and women.

Following the time of prayer, the body is transported to a cemetery for burial. Tradition often dictates that only men are present at the burial, though some are now allowing the closest women in the family to be allowed at the gravesite. Prayers and recitations are offered as the body is placed into the grace. Once the body has been lowered into the grace, each mourner places three handfuls of soil onto the grace. While a small marker may be placed at the grave for identification purposes, large monuments on the grace are prohibited. It is also against most traditions to decorate the grave in any way.

After the burial, the immediate family gathers in a home and accepts visitors to offer their condolences. It is customary for supporters to provide food and necessities for the family for three days. The traditional mourning period lasts 40 days. Widows are generally expected to observe a longer time of mourning, often 4 months and 10 days. During this time the widow is prohibited from interacting with any man. Exceptions can be made if the health of the widow is at stake.

JUDAISM

Judaism has a variety of levels of observance from what is referred to as traditional, orthodox, to conservative, reform or reconstructionist. Traditionally in Judaism the funeral and burial take place within 24 hours of the death, but exceptions can be made to allow those traveling to be present.

According to traditional Jewish law there are rituals and customs provided to govern the preparation and handling of the body of the deceased. In most instances, there is no public viewing of the body. The funeral service is generally a private time for the family, but friends and community are welcome to attend. The funeral service may be held in a synagogue, at a funeral home, or at the grave site. The funeral often consists of prayers, Scripture readings, a eulogy and reading of psalms. Eulogies offered by family, close friends or the rabbi are often delivered during the service.

Traditionally, the body is buried in a plain wooden casket, affirming the belief that all people are equal in death. To better understand the traditions and customs of shiva and Jewish mourning, visit shiva.com. Find a fully integrated resourced to learn, plan and send.

It is common for those making a shiva call to honor the deceased and express condolences to the family by sending a sympathy gift. Sending a shiva basket, which often includes baked goods, fresh fruit, dried fruits and nuts, or chocolate, is a very appropriate expression of sympathy. Tributes may include planting a tree in Israel in honor of the deceased or making a donation to a specified synagogue, charity or organization.

ROMAN CATHOLICISM

Roman Catholicism is the oldest strand of Christianity. According to Roman Catholics death is the point of passage from the physical world to the spiritual one. The Roman Catholic tradition teaches that the afterlife consists of three places where the souls of the deceased can live – heaven, hell or purgatory.

Like many of the Christian denominations, Roman Catholicism finds comfort and hope in the structure and traditions of the faith. The rituals before, during and after the ceremonies bring peace and assurance that God and the church leadership is pleased with the life of the deceased and mourners.

When a Roman Catholic is approaching death, a parish priest should be contacted. The priest will come to the dying person to administer a ritual known as the “Last Rites,” and offer Holy Communion to the person. If circumstances prohibit an actual visit, the priest may offer the Last Rites from a distance.

Before the funeral, Roman Catholics hold a time of visitation called the vigil or wake. It is customary for mourners to make a brief visit, spend a few moments in private prayer and then to visit with the family members. Traditionally, eulogies are offered during the vigil rather than at the funeral mass.

When the funeral service is held in the Roman Catholic church building it is known as a funeral mass. The funeral mass, also known as the Requiem Mass, and burial are usually held the next day following the wake, or at the very latest three days after the death takes place.

Funeral masses are generally not held during the Thursday through Sunday of Easter week. They are also generally not performed during the Sundays during Advent, which includes the four Sundays before December 25th. The Sundays during Lent, the 40 days before Easter, and the Sundays during the Easter Season, the 50 days after Easter, also may not have a funeral mass. A funeral mass may be held on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, but ashes would not be distributed by the church on that day.

Priests or a deacon may lead the funeral liturgy. Allowance can be made if a devout member of the family who is knowledgeable of the liturgy would like to lead the service. Only a priest or deacon can deliver the homily or sermon. Throughout the service, friends and family may participate in the reading of Scripture, bringing a prayer, leading or offering music, ushering or serving as a pallbearer. Non-religious music would not be considered appropriate at most Catholic funerals.

The final resting place for the body is given a Rite of Committal which is called the interment service. This service may take place at the gravesite, crypt or tomb. The priest will bless the site to make it a holy resting place and over a final prayer over the body. Often those gathered will recite the Lord’s Prayer together to end the service.

There is no set time of mourning following the funeral and burial of a Roman Catholic believer. Friends and family will often share a meal together following the burial service. Those wishing to offer condolences may send flowers to the funeral or to a home of the bereaved. Gifts, memorial baskets, and food are appropriate demonstrations of support and condolence.

THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS (MORMONS)

There are different degrees of commitment and orthodoxy within the Mormon belief system. The Mormon Church follows the practices of Christianity as outlined in the Bible, but also follows the writings of their leadership as presented in the Book of Mormon. Generally, the church teaches that upon death the soul is judged. Based on the good works of the individual, the spirit is either sent to a paradise or a prison, awaiting a final judgment.

If circumstances permit, family will gather as a Mormon dies to provide encouragement and hope for the dying and strength for those left behind. When a Mormon dies, a bishop of the church should be contacted. The bishop will help in making the arrangements for the funeral service, assist in finding a funeral home and provide comfort to the family. The funeral home should be one that is familiar with Mormon practices, but there are no exclusively Mormon funeral homes.

While the church is open to organ donation, cremation is not encouraged in the Mormon Church. While not technically prohibited, cremation prevents several key traditions in the preparation of the body for its final resting place. If the deceased has received the temple endowment, the body will be prepared in temple garments and clothing. For women, the clothing includes a white dress, floor length with long sleeves. White stockings and white shoes are also a part of the attire. Men are dressed in white pants, white long-sleeved shirt, and a white tie. White socks and white shoes round out the temple clothing. Gender specific white garments – church issued underwear – are given to each.

Mormons have a viewing service that takes place in a formal setting. The viewing is usually held at the same place where the funeral service will be conducted. The viewing time allows mourners to pay their respects to the deceased and their family. Often the final hour of viewing is reserved for family and closest friends, after which the bishop offers a prayer for the family and closes the casket.

The viewing is then followed by a mass and the funeral. The funeral usually takes place in an LDS Church building, though a chapel in the funeral home can be acceptable. Occasionally the service will be rendered at the grave site. The funeral service is considered a religious event. It will contain hymns, prayers, tributes or eulogies, and a sermon which will present the message of salvation.

Afterwards, there is a post-funeral reception that provides the opportunity for friends and family to gather in an informal setting to reconnect and share memories. People can express their condolences through the giving of flowers, fruit or food baskets, and financial gifts to the Mormon Church.