The world’s most popularly practiced religions all have pronounced and different ways of marking the passing of a person into the afterlife. The emphasis is on spending time with the body and watching over as well as honouring the remains. A funeral, like a wedding or a birth, is a time for the family and community to come together, remember, mourn and celebrate the person who was lost. Because the major religions all hold a belief in a continuing soul, there is the understanding that the deceased person is journeying to a new life, whether through Heaven, Hell, purgatory, soul-sleep, or reincarnation.
In the event of a loved one’s death, Christians hold a funeral ceremony to remember and celebrate the person’s life. Customarily, there is a wake for one or up to several days in advance of the funeral. Visitors are invited to come and pay their respects to the deceased. The ceremony involves praying and eulogizing. Family members and close friends stand up to offer their recollections of the person’s life and characteristics. Now, it’s common to show a slideshow of pictures or videos commemorating the individual. At a traditional Christian service, special hymns are sung and prayers or poems offered – sometimes these are planned or requested earlier by the deceased.
Burial was the usual practice in Christianity up until modern times; now cremation has become just as common. There are few religious standards as to where, how and in what Christians can be buried. The body is usually embalmed, dressed in its finest, and laid out in a decorated coffin. At the grave or interment site, prayers and verses are said. Often the burial is followed by a reception and feast among family and community members.
Jewish practice is to bury the deceased as quickly as possible, abiding by the Jewish law of honouring the dead. The body is not allowed to be embalmed or cremated. Also mandated is a simple pine box for a coffin. The process will be slowed only if overseas members of the family are delayed in attendance or some other anomaly occurs. Corpses are not left alone from the time of death until after burial, so family members and fellow synagogue members hold vigil over the deceased. In most Jewish communities, there is a sacred burial society where preparation of bodies takes place. Men prepare male bodies and women prepare female bodies. The body is washed with warm water from head to toe, never turned completely face down. Then it is wrapped in a simple white shroud and with a prayer shawl. Jewish funeral services are simple, with the rabbi and family chanting and praying. Following that, the custom is to mourn by sitting shiva for anywhere from one to seven days. Mirrors are covered and mourners must sit on special benches. This is not always the practice, especially for moderate or non-observant Jews.
Muslims believe the body should be washed, shrouded in white linen, and buried as quickly as possible following death. Members of the same gender wash the body, which has its private parts hidden by a cloth during the process. Wrapped in several pieces of linen (up to three for men and up to five for women) and sometimes perfumed, the body is laid for visitation and mourning prior to burial. The Janazah prayer is typically recited by the community that gathers to witness the funeral. Mounds of rock are placed under the body’s head, chin and shoulder, and the body is placed on its right side, head pointed toward Mecca.
Cremation is the most common funerary practice among Buddhists. Death is seen as a major religious event in the course of a soul’s journey in the cycle of reincarnation and rebirth. There are ways for a person to prepare for death, such as deepening their meditation and decreasing their attachment to the earthly world. After the death, it’s the custom for fellow Buddhists to hold ceremonies on the 6th or 7th day and again throughout the next 49 days. This helps the soul ripen into its next incarnation. Some traditions also include offering cloth to the presiding Buddhist monk, a special talk from a monk to the family members, and giving alms regularly afterward.
Hindus also cremate their dead, except for infants and small children, who are buried. It is believed that through fire the subtle body of the soul is better able to progress on its journey through the many Heaves and Hells in the Hindu afterlife. Everyone in the family participates in cleansing and purifying rituals before, during and after the ceremony. The closest male relative of the deceased lights the funeral pyre. After the body has been reduced to ashes and shards of bone, these are collected and dispersed in a holy river. The family then undergoes many days of uncleanliness; after this period, they hold a celebratory feast and the community gives alms to the poor.
What’s your take on this? What other death rituals do you find fascinating? Please add your comments below.