An article donated by Miranda Booker:
"Funeral and mourning customs
of Buddhists, Christians, & Muslims"
Every culture around the world has at least one thing in common: death. One day, every single one of us will ultimately face our own mortality. But, before our time comes, it is much more likely that we will first experience the death of loved ones around us.
Many different factors influence how we choose to celebrate the memory of our loved ones after they have passed away as well as their final arrangements. However, religion tends to be the strongest influence when it comes to how we handle death.
How religion influences funeral customs and mourning rituals:
Religion can sometimes dictate whether a person will be buried or cremated. Some religions always cremate their dead -- while other religions stand firm on traditional burial practices. Some consider the method to be left up to personal choice.
In some religions, it is not uncommon for people to go through grieving rituals that last much longer than the actual funeral itself -- while others may choose to end their observations once the ceremony is completed. You will also find many variances within the same religion from sect to sect and country to country in terms of how they deal with grief.
We all hold certain beliefs and traditions, that whether we realize it or not, help us get through grief. It is important to have a basic understanding of some of the more common mourning and funeral customs across different religions so that you can feel more empathetic and be knowledgealbe of their religious observations of death.
We break down three major worldwide faiths — Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam — to get a deeper understanding of how they deal with death and mourning according to their religious beliefs. It does not matter whether you consider yourself to be a religious person or not, you might learn a tradition that can help you on your own path.
Buddhist Mourning traditions, customs, and rituals:
It is important to know that there are many different variations of these practices according to the region. The following observations are generalizations of Buddhism as a whole, but won’t be applicable to every single Buddhist.
Cremation or burial services in the Buddhist religion are considered very spiritual experiences. Ceremonies are led by monks who either chant or sing, and the services can vary in length. Ceremonies are unique, and sometimes there might be one service that could last several hours, and other times they might have three short services. Buddhists invite non-Buddhists to the services as well, and they may stand, pray, or chant along with the service if they wish to participate.
Gifts are not customary for Buddhist funeral or memorial services. For Buddhists, they allow only a small group of close friends and family to accompany the burial site if the body is buried. At that time, the monks and priests recite prayers and blessings. When the body is cremated, there is usually a similar ceremony held while the ashes are placed into the urn and given to the family.
The following are some important cultural considerations to keep in mind about Buddhist death customs and funeral practices:
- There is a tradition known as Matsugo-no-mizu which means “water of the last moment.” It is meant to give a drink of water to the deceased upon arrival.
- A household shrine, Kamidana-fuji, can be used inside of the home for 35 days following the death to keep it pure during this early mourning phase.
- Some Buddhists dedicate a hanging picture to be a Kakejiku, which is where the soul is supposed to rest as it transitions from one life to the next.
- A table, known as Makura-kazari, is placed bedside the deceased and it can hold incense, flowers, trinkets, or other small items that hold meaning.
- Clothing worn by the deceased is known as Shinishozoku. Buddhists believe they will wear it forever.
- A Kichu-fuda is an announcement hung on the door that lets the neighbors know about the death and subsequent mourning period.
Christian grieving practices and funeral rituals:
A strong belief in an afterlife is inherent throughout the Christian faith, and many live in a way to hopefully achieve an afterlife in Heaven. Christians have historically believed that Jesus is the son of God and came to earth to teach through his lessons and actions.
All of their teachings are made up of writings that are collectively known as the Bible, and it consists of the Old and the New Testament. The fundamental belief of Christians is that Christ came to earth and died for the sins of the people and was risen on the third day. Christians believe in an afterlife in heaven; most also believe in a Hell; most Catholics believe in a Purgatory..
This religion consists many modern denomination and faith groups, from the Catholics to the Mormons to the Lutherans, Baptists, and more. Christianity has been the basis and inspiration for other religions that have their own specific focuses and interpretations of the Bible. However, even though they have their differences, many of them are similar in terms of principles and their funeral and mourning practices.
Most Christian funeral services will pray for the soul of the deceased and try to provide comfort to the bereaved. It is common for people to provide gifts to the mourning, whether that is flowers, blankets, or turning the deceased's ashes into a diamond. Here is a typical progression of a Christian funeral service:
A priest or minister gives an opening statement. It is usually a prayer or a statement for the deceased, or a combination of both.
Prayers and hymns or read or sung throughout the service. Guests are often encouraged to read or sing along at certain times.
Many priests will read scriptures from the Bible.
A friend or loved one may choose to stand and say some words about the deceased.
If the person is buried, a funeral procession is carried out where the cars head to the cemetery for the burial.
Another prayer is usually given graveside before or as the person is being lowered into the ground.
If the person is cremated and not buried, the service will usually end after the funeral, but sometimes there is a memorial held afterward where perhaps someone would also speak some final words of faith and comfort and people may gather and eat.
Christians will mourn for a length of time unique to the individual, but there may also be a part of them that can rejoice that their loved one is in a better place. This belief can help one work through the grieving process.
Islamic funeral customs and mourning practices
The word “Islam” means the “achievement of peace with Allah [God] and man, and complete resignation to Allah in thoughts, words, beliefs, and deeds.” Followers of the Islamic religion are known as Muslims. They live by the Qur'an, which they believe was written by Allah.
The Qur'an teaches that Allah is God, and that after death there is a day of judgment. Muslims believe that a number of prophets had been sent ahead of time to teach people how to live according to God’s law, and that the final prophet was Muhammad.
The five basic Pillars of Islam include:
Death is not an end for Muslims; it is rather a transition. In their beliefs, the actions you take on Earth follow you into the afterlife. If you lived a good life by the teaching of the Qur'an, you will be rewarded in death and separated from the ugliness in the world. If you do not, and you live a bad or dishonest life, you will be cut off from the beauty of the world in the afterlife.
Declaring their faith;
Praying five times per day at defined times;
Taking a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during their life, if their health and finances permit.
Contributing money to charity.
Here are some important considerations about Muslim funeral customs and mourning:
Death is accepted and viewed as a natural part of life in Islamic culture. The bereaved are able to better cope with their suffering by holding onto their beliefs that the deceased moved onto a better life.
The body needs to be buried right away and should be turned facing Mecca, the holy center of Islam.
Guests who share the same gender greet each other with a handshake and a hug at the funeral or memorial service.
The person who sits next to the body reads from the Qur'an, and an Imam presides over the service.
Open caskets are very rare. The deceased’s eyes and mouth are closed. The body is bathed and covered in white cotton.
Four men carry the body to a graveyard within two days following the death with a procession of friends and family members.
Cameras or recording devices are not welcomed at these services.
No discussion takes place during burial. All the guests pray for the soul of the departed.
Once the body has been buried or cremated, guests usually go to the house of the family of the bereaved where a meal is prepared. It is common for family members to stay in the home for about a week.
This socialization during the week following the services is believed to help ease the suffering of grief.
Typically, a mourning period for a family member is considered to be 3 days, but for a widow, they may mourn for 4 months and 10 days.
Latest update: 2020-OCT-08
Author: Miranda Booker