Christian funeral customs
Christianity, currently the world's largest religion, has been prominent in the shaping of Western civilisation and is currently estimated to have between 1.5 and 2.2 billion adherents, representing between a quarter and a third of the world's population. In the UK alone, it's estimated that more than 200 denominations are represented, with specific rituals (including funerals) often varying between different churches. Across all denominations, Christianity's central religious text is the Bible.
Christian funeral beliefs are underpinned by the idea of resurrection and eternal life for the human soul based on an acceptance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A typical Christian funeral service reflects this underlying premise and includes the following elements:
Key elements of a Christian funeral service are as follows:
Increasingly, alternative elements and secular music are being introduced to services (while maintaining faithfulness to God). After the service, it is usual for friends and family to attend a reception and take refreshment provided by the family of the deceased.
The use of the term 'funeral' normally implies the presence of a body, whereas a memorial service indicates that a body is not present. Memorial services usually take place after the burial or cremation.
The wearing of dark clothes and a tendency towards sombreness has traditionally marked Christian funerals. Increasingly, however, Christian funerals are seen as a joyous celebration of human life that may incorporate greater informality and brightness.
Hindu funeral customs
Hinduism is a term applied to a wide variety of related religious traditions that are native to India. Because of the twentieth century Indian diaspora, Hinduism, with some 900 million adherents around the world, has now spread to every continent (with its largest communities in the United States and the UK).
Hindus believe in reincarnation and view death as the soul's transition from one body to the next on its path towards Nirvana. Though Hindus recognise death as a sad occasion, their funerals emphasise the importance of the route ahead for the departed and the importance of celebrating in remembrance. Cremation is the norm for Hindus. Burning the body signifies the release of the spirit contained within, and the flames take on importance as the representation of the presence of Brahma, the god of creation.
As soon as possible after death, family members pray around the deceased's body (while avoiding touching the body wherever possible as this is considered polluting). Mourners usually wash the body before dressing it in traditional white clothing or, where a wife dies before her husband, in red bridal wear.
Next, mourners take the body, in noisy procession accompanied by bells and horns, to the crematorium where prayers are said, scriptures are read and the adorning of the deceased's body with sandalwood and flowers. The chief mourner, usually the eldest son or male, initiates cremation and says prayers for the departing soul. For this part of the funeral, the leader of the mourning (and sometimes all the male mourners) might also shave their heads as a mark of respect.
After the cremation, mourners attend a meal and further prayers at home (all mourners wash and change their clothes completely before entering the house after the funeral). A priest will then visit and purify the house, thereby signifying the beginning of a 13 day mourning period during which friends visit the family of the deceased.
A further ceremony (known as shradh, the HIndu practice of giving food to the poor in memory of the deceased, from the Sanskrit word sraddha, meaning 'faith and trust') is practiced for a two week period on the anniversary of the person's death; during this time Hindu custom dictates that shopping sprees, new projects and even long journeys are avoided.
Sikh funeral customs
The Sikh religion is based on devotion and remembrance of God at all times, truthful living, equality, and the denouncement of superstition and blind rituals. Sikhism (from the Sanskrit word si?ya, meaning 'disciple') was founded by Guru Nanak in the Punjab in the early sixteenth century and has its origins in traditional Hinduism. From its beginnings, this has been a progressive religion. Nowadays, as one of the world's main religions, the Sikh movement boasts more than 20 million followers and is open to all through the teachings of 10 Gurus enshrined in the Sikh Holy Book and the living guru, Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
While rejecting the idea of re-birth, Sikhs believe in an afterlife where human souls meet the supreme soul in the form of God (Akal Purakh). As with Hinduism, cremation is the main means of disposing of a body, though other methods can be acceptable.
Death is seen as an act of the Almighty and Sikh scriptures decree that human emotions must be carefully controlled. On the day of a Sikh funeral, it's usual for mourners to visit the home of the deceased where the body may be on display. The body is then taken to the crematorium, with hymns being sung en route. On arrival, the mourners say prayers and sing more hymns before the next of kin initiate the cremation.
Sikh custom dictates that the deceased's ashes are scattered near the sea or running water. Afterwards, the mourners usually return to the deceased's home for more readings and hymns. A formal period of mourning lasts between two and five weeks.
Islamic funeral customs
Islam, with approximately 1.5 billion followers worldwide, is an Abrahamic religion that originated (around 600 AD) with the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. The word Islam (from the word aslama) means the total submission or surrender of oneself to God. Muslims believe that God revealed the Islamic holy book, the Qur'an (Koran), to Muhammad, God's final prophet. The Koran and the Sunnah (words and deeds of Muhammad) are generally regarded as the fundamental sources of Islam.
Rather than drawing on practices prescribed in the Koran, Islamic funeral traditions, centred on belief that the soul leaves the body at the moment of death, require burial within 24 hours of death. Muslims believe that death is a departure from life on earth, but not the end of the person's existence. Instead, life on earth is seen as a precursor to an eternal life to come. The Muslim funeral celebrates the transition from one to the other.
On death, those with the deceased are encouraged to stay calm (excessive demonstration of emotion is forbidden), pray for the departed and begin burial preparations. Burial follows as soon as possible after death, thereby avoiding the need to embalm or otherwise disturb the body. Autopsies are allowed, but must be conducted with the greatest respect for the dead person.
The eyes of the deceased should be closed and the body covered temporarily with a clean sheet. In preparation for burial, family or community members then wash the body before enshrouding it in clean white cloth (the kafan). The deceased is then taken to the place where funeral prayers are said, typically outdoors rather than inside the mosque. The community gathers while an imam, or prayer leader, stands before the deceased, facing away from the assembled mourners.
Though all members of the community attend the funeral prayers, only male members attend the burial during which the deceased is laid in the grave (without a coffin, if permitted by local law) on his or her right side, facing Mecca. Tombstones, elaborate memorials and flowers are all discouraged; instead, mourners remember Alah and pray for the deceased.
Burial is followed by a three-day mourning period, marked by intensified devotion, receiving visitors and condolences, and the avoidance of ostentatious clothing and jewellery. Widows observe an extended mourning period (iddah) lasting four months and 10 days; during this time remarriage, moving home or wearing decorative clothing and jewellery are all forbidden.
Buddhist funeral customs
Buddhism is a family of several hundred beliefs and practices that are widely considered a religion. With approximately 400 million followers, Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as 'The Buddha' (the Awakened One), who was born in what is now Nepal and taught that all human sorrows arise from desire and that they can be eradicated by following his eight stage path.
In Buddhism, death marks the deceased's transition from this life to the next. Accordingly, it is a time of great significance, both for the one who is moving on and for those left behind. The emphasis is on the spirit or mind of the deceased person; for the living, ceremonies marking the death are a reminder of life's impermanence, a fundamental part of the Buddha's teaching.
While cremation is the preferred funeral rite for Buddhists (supported by the fact that the Buddha was himself cremated) contemporary adherents practice both cremation and burial.
Different variations on Buddhism include Theravada, Mahayana and Tibetan traditions, the latter encompassing the idea of a 49-day transition period (the bardo, or intermediate space) that is believed to help ease the attachment to life on earth and enhance personal wisdom. After the 49 days, the corpse is either cremated or dismembered and fed to vultures (a practice that evolved in response to the scarcity of firewood and the lack of suitable burial ground in Tibet).
The simple approach, emphasis on a person's state of mind leading up to death, and the appreciation of Buddhism as a particularly gentle religion have led to a noticeably increased interest in the Buddhist funeral amongst westerners.
Jewish funeral customs
Judaism, the covenantal relationship between the Children of Israel (later, the Jewish nation) and God, is considered by many to be the prototypical monotheistic religion and among the oldest religious traditions still being practised. Jewish history, principles and ethics have influenced other religions, including Christianity and Islam.
In Judaism, no formal statement of principles of faith (such as a creed) is recognised or accepted by all. Central authority in Judaism is vested in sacred writings, laws and traditions rather than a single person or group. While affirming the existence and oneness of God, it stresses performance of deeds and commandments rather than adherence to a rigid belief system.
Though rituals differ between different Jewish communities, the main characteristics of a Jewish funeral are as follows:
Jewish burials are usually held within 24 hours of death, except in exceptional circumstances where family members must travel long distances to attend. The local synagogue will usually play a major role in the organisation of the funeral; most well-organised Jewish communities also offer the services of a burial society (Chevra Kaddisha) to prepare the body for burial and help with funeral arrangements, including guarding the body until interment.
The funeral is governed by established traditions and rituals, particularly relating to the immediate family members: spouse, mother, father, son, daughter, brother and sister. Before the start of the funeral service at the Jewish cemetery, there is a ritual tearing of the immediate relatives' garments (Keriah) to symbolise their loss.
During the funeral, psalms are recited before a funeral oration (Hesped) is delivered and a memorial prayer (the Kaddish) is said. The casket is then taken for burial by male members of the Chevra Kaddisha (or male family members for a Reform funeral), followed by the mourners.
Most Jews are buried as cremation is generally regarded as desecration of the body. Jewish law dictates a simple pine coffin and burial in a simple white shroud (Tachrichim). After burial, and the symbolic washing of hands, the mourners return home to sit shiva and receive visitors at the start of a year's official mourning.