Religious Funeral Customs
A funeral service, often seen as an opportunity to celebrate someone’s life, may include many different rituals, beliefs or customs. These are important for family and friends of the deceased to express their grief and acknowledge their passing. Below is a brief summary of funeral customs from several major religious groups, including what may be expected at the service.
Bahá’í followers view life on earth as a preparation for life in the next world. Embalming is not allowed, and cremation is forbidden. Interment must take place within one hour’s drive from the place where death occurs.
As there are no clergy in the Bahá’í religion, the service is conducted by the family or other Bahá’í members and would take place either at a Baha’i chapel or at the grave side. It is an extremely simple service with only one prayer reading before burial. Women and men are permitted to sit together and no head covering is required. Baha’is may wear anything from casual attire to formal wear to a funeral and attendees should dress respectfully, according to their culture. Mourners would usually wear dark colours and no makeup. It is considered appropriate to send flowers or cards in memory of the deceased however, non-Baha’is cannot contribute to a Baha’i fund.
Most Buddhist funerals take place in a funeral chapel, not a temple, and usually take place within a week after death occurs. Only one night of viewing the body is held and this generally takes place the evening before the funeral.
Inside the funeral chapel, a table is set up with candles and incense which burn until the body is moved to the cemetery. The family sits at the front of the room in which the coffin is placed. Visitors greet the family, offer their condolences, then go to the coffin and bow. They may then either stay and sit for a while or leave, according to personal preference. It is appropriate to send flowers and visitors will often make a financial donation to the family.
The funeral service, conducted by a monk, will involve many prayers and some chanting – visitors are not expected to participate. Men and women sit together and no headgear is required. While white is the colour of grieving for the family, friends often wear black.
There are many cultural variations in the practice of Catholicism with personal heritage and tradition determining a large part of the Catholic ceremony. Irish, Croatian and Italian are just a few of the cultures that influence the funeral service. However, there are some constants. One such constant is that the body is usually viewed in a funeral chapel, then transported to a church for a funeral mass.
At some point during visiting hours in a funeral chapel, rosary will be led by a priest. Visitors may join in, or sit quietly, but it’s considered disrespectful to talk or to leave. The duration of the rosary is approximately 15 minutes.
Catholic visitors will bow at the knee when they enter the church, a gesture which a non-believer should not imitate. Only believers should take communion, but everyone should rise and kneel at appropriate times throughout the service. Friends of the family will often send flowers, sympathy cards and/or give a donation. Catholics may also purchase mass cards which would be displayed in the funeral chapel.
While there are a multitude of denominations within Protestantism, they all revolve around the Christian theme that there is life after death. Generally, Christians believe in resurrection and the continuation of the soul. Funeral services most commonly take place at a funeral chapel, although some may be held in a church. There are generally visiting hours arranged one day prior to the funeral service. This service will usually take place within three days of the death. Sending flowers, cards and charitable donations in the name of the deceased are appropriate displays of sympathy to the family. Today, it is unusual for people to wear the colour black, or to cover their head.
A minister will usually conduct the funeral, although increasingly there is more participation from family and friends in the actual service. Visitors are not expected to participate, although some services include a time for spontaneous testimonials about the life of the deceased.
Hindus try to hold a funeral service before the sun goes down on the day of the death. The funeral service serves Hindus as a purification process to cleanse the soul for a possible union with Brahma.
After a Hindu has passed away, the family prepares the body for the funeral and wraps their loved one in a shroud. Traditionally, the funeral service is conducted by the eldest son and it is held at a funeral chapel. Flowers may be sent, although this is not considered a tradition. Mourners would wear white; visitors are expected simply to wear subdued colours. Sometimes the men will shave their heads as a sign of respect for the deceased. At the funeral service the family may lay flowers on the deceased.
After the funeral a short service also takes place at the crematorium. All Hindus are cremated as the burning of the body symbolises the release of their spirit. The family is expected to enter a period of formal grieving for at least 13 days (depending on the caste of the family).
Muslims try to bury their dead as soon as possible, usually within a day of death, and the funeral service will always takes place in a mosque. Women and men are to sit separately and women must wear a veil or scarf and loose clothing. Everyone will be seated on the floor, having left their shoes at the door.
The service is short and consists of ritual chanting and recitation from the Koran. Before being taken to a cemetery for burial, visitors and mourners would file past the body to pay their last respects. Those close to the family wear black. Sending flowers and cards is appropriate.
After a short ceremony at the burial grounds, visitors return to the mosque for more prayers and the offering of additional consolation to the family. Later, a meal would be eaten at the mosque.
Jewish funerals take place as soon after the death as possible, either the same day, or the next day. People pay their respects in three ways: 1) by attending the funeral service; 2) by attending the burial service at the cemetery; and 3) by supporting the family during the week of Shiva (a time when activities are restricted in order to grieve) following the service. While there are three different types of Judaism – Orthodox, Conservative and Reform – funeral services for each are similar. (Head covering is required for both sexes at Orthodox Jewish funerals, for men only at a Conservative, and is optional at Reform. Head coverings are provided for anyone arriving without one.) Until the body is buried, the focus is centred entirely on the deceased person. As a result, it is not appropriate to approach the family until the body is buried. Sending flowers is not part of the Jewish tradition. Instead, people would honour the deceased by making a donation to the family’s favourite charity or cause.
Funerals held by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly referred to as “Mormons”), although solemn and grieving occasions, also project a spirit of hope based on the anticipation of reunion with the deceased after this life. Services are usually held in an L.D.S. Chapel or a mortuary under the direction of the local church leaders. Circumstances also may dictate a memorial service or a graveside service only.
The service would open and close with sacred music and prayer, sometimes involving congregational singing or a choir, and usually include reminiscences and eulogies as well as talks about Jesus Christ’s Atonement and Resurrection, life after death, and related doctrines that comfort and inspire the bereaved. Some families choose to have members or friends of the family talk about the life of the deceased or sing an appropriate hymn.
Traditionally, a simple graveside dedication service is held following the funeral service, attended by family and intimate friends. Often there will be a reception or luncheon held following the services where friends may greet and offer condolences to the family. Cards and flowers are considered appropriate.
Funerals usually take place within 48 hours of death. They are held at a funeral chapel, not at a gurdwara (temple). While men and women sit separately in a temple, this is not necessarily so at a funeral chapel. Head covering is required for both sexes, a simple scarf covering the head is adequate for men and women.
At the funeral service, passages from Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book) are read and prayers are offered. Relatives and close friends are not supposed to cry but are to recite scriptural hymns. The mourning period will last between two and five weeks. The sending of flowers or a card is appropriate.