Christian Funeral Service Rituals
Overview of Christian Beliefs and Practices
Christian faith is based upon an eternal after-life. Believers are totally forgiven of all past wrongs and are able to commune with God, through his Son, Jesus Christ. Christians believe that Jesus was the son of God and came to earth to bring the ‘good news’ or gospel of their coming and everlasting salvation through Christ’s actions at the cross.
The gospels and other historical writing of God, collectively known as the Bible, make up the scriptures we know, comprising of the Old Testament, which was the history before Jesus and the New Testament which conclusively deals with the Life of Christ. According to the New Testament, Jesus sacrificed himself so as to bring reconciliation between a perfect God and an imperfect mankind. The sacrifice of the “Lamb of God, Christ’s sacrifice was made to pay for the sins of all men. A true believer in Jesus and the Christian faith will be forgiven for sins as a result of Jesus’ sacrifice and gain eternal life in Heaven.
From Catholics to Mormons to Lutherans, Christianity has inspired many other religions, each with its own emphasis and interpretation of the Bible. Although these religions hold slightly different beliefs, they follow the same principles and share similar funeral rituals.
Christian funeral services serve the same purpose: to pray for the soul of the deceased and offer comfort and support to the bereaved. The typical Christian funeral includes:
- An opening statement lead by the priest or minister. Depending on the religion, the service may open with a prayer, a statement that shows support to the bereaved, or a combination of both.
- Prayers and hymns are read and sung throughout the funeral. Guests are often encouraged to read or sing along at appropriate times.
- Scripture readings are a common part of most services. Similar to prayer and hymns, the specific readings and their placement in the ceremony differ by religion.
- A remembrance given by a close friend or family member honors the life and gifts of the deceased.
- The service ends with closing words given by the minister. He states that the service is over and leads the procession to the cemetery.
- Graveside services also differ by religion, but all services have some form of words of committal in which the minister either reads a prayer, praises Jesus and prays for the soul of the deceased.
Christian funeral services focus mainly on the deceased’s entry into Heaven and God’s ability to give the grieving strength to cope with their recent loss.
Jewish Funeral Service Rituals
Overview of Jewish Beliefs and Practices
Jewish funeral service rituals and practices have traditionally followed a strong set of customs and beliefs which are based on the Torah. Although these beliefs remain important in the Orthodox and Conservative Jewish cultures, some of the traditional customs have been modified under Reform Judaism.
The Jewish people hold the philosophy that one should embrace life while accepting the inevitability of death. The emphasis of Judaism concerns how one’s life should be lived and it does not specifically define an afterlife. However, it is implied that leading a praiseworthy life will prepare one for what comes after life.
Jewish burials are to take place as soon as possible. Exceptions are made when the family cannot be present in a short time and for other reasons of practicality. Jewish funerals emphasize simplicity to avoid embarrassment for the poor. It is traditional Jewish practice to perform a ritual washing of the body (“Tahara”) and then to dress it in a plain burial shroud. Watchers (“Chevra Kadisha”) remain with the body around-the-clock until the funeral.
According to traditional practices, the funeral is usually held in a synagogue or funeral home the day after the death. There is no visitation by friends in the presence of the body before the funeral. The body is placed in a simple wood coffin so as not to disturb its natural decomposition. An open casket or cremation is not generally accepted in the Jewish tradition. Male guests are expected to wear a jacket and tie with a yarmulke as a head covering, which is available at the funeral home or synagogue. Women wear conservative apparel, a skirt or dress of somber colors, but they are not expected to wear a head covering. They should dress modestly – nothing revealing – no short skirts, short sleeves or open-toed shoes.
The service is conducted by the rabbi and begins with the cutting of a black ribbon to symbolize the individual breaking away from loved ones. If you arrive late, it’s wise to wait for an opportune moment to enter, so as not to disturb the service. Cameras or tape recorders are discouraged. The rabbi leads the service and reads the eulogy. A “minyan” (at least 10 Jewish adults, traditionally males) is required to recite prayers.
At the cemetery, more prayers are read and the family members usually participate in placing dirt on the coffin before it is buried. This symbolizes their acceptance of the finality of death. Jewish funerals are often held entirely at grave side.
Flowers are not appropriate for most Jewish funerals. Rather, making a donation to a charity or Jewish organization is appreciated. Food, preferably kosher, is welcome.
For Jews, the initial mourning period lasts seven days and is called Shiva (Hebrew for seven). During this time, it is appropriate to visit the home of the bereaved. There, the family may practice traditions that may include: covering mirrors; burning memorial candles; or wearing the black ribbon that was cut. Men do not shave, women do not wear makeup, and couples refrain from intimacy. This break from daily routine symbolizes the disruption that death has brought to their lives and demonstrates grief through self-sacrifice.
Twice a day, the bereaved pray for their loved one. They usually return to work within a week but the mourning period may last as long as a year. On the first anniversary of the death, the bereaved attend a service and unveil the tombstone at grave side.
Candles are lit on the yearly anniversary of a death, known as Yahrzeit (YORtzait).
Islamic Funeral Customs and Service Rituals
Overview of Muslim Beliefs and 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.”
Moslems, the followers of the Islamic religion, live by the Koran. The Koran teaches:
- There is one God, Allah.
- There is a day of judgment and a life after death.
- God sent a number of prophets to teach how to live according to His law. Jesus, Moses, and Abraham are respected as prophets but the final Prophet was Muhammad.
- Muslims live according to the five basic Pillars of Islam. These include the declaration of faith, praying five times per day, contributing money to charity, fasting, and taking at least one pilgrimage to Mecca.
Muslims view death as a transition from one state of being to another, not as an end. They believe that actions follow you to the afterlife. So, if you follow the law of the Koran and live a good life you will be rewarded in the afterlife. In death, you will be separated from the ugliness in the world. But if you live a dishonest and bad life, you will be separated from all the beauty of the world.
Islamic funeral customs require that:
- The body be buried as soon as possible after death
- The body is turned to face towards Mecca, the holy center of Islam.
- Guests of the same sex should greet each other with a handshake and hug.
- A person sitting next to the body reads from the Koran. An Imam presides over the service.
- The deceased’s eyes and mouth are closed. There is rarely an open casket.
- Guests should not take photos or use recording devices.
- The arms, legs, and hands of the body are stretched out in alignment with the body.
- The death is immediately announced to all friends and relatives.
- The body is bathed and covered in white cotton.
- Within two days following the death, the body is carried to the graveyard by four men. A procession of friends and relatives follow.
- No discussion takes place at the time of burial, but all guests pray for the soul of the departed.
- After the body is buried, all guests go to the house of the family of the deceased. A meal is prepared and guests usually stay for the entire day. Family members may stay for the whole week.
- During this time, the family members socialize. It is believed that socializing helps to ease suffering.
- If arriving late, guests should simply join in.
Under Islamic funeral customs, the mourning period for a relative is typically 3 days. A widow may mourn for 4 months and 10 days. How an individual expresses mourning in appearance or clothing is not defined by the teachings of the religion but rather on local, regional, or family custom.
In Islamic culture. death is accepted and viewed as a natural part of life. The belief that the deceased has moved on to a pleasant afterlife is an important belief and helps the bereaved cope with their suffering.
Length of Service
30 – 60 minutes
During the morning period after services
Med: No head cover – Women: Cover arms and legs
Source of reading:
Koran or Qur’an
Return to work – Days
No. of Days to Morn
Only if required by local laws
Organ donation for the purposes of saving lives appears to be permitted. Full body donation does not.
Buddhist Funeral Service Rituals
Overview of Buddhist Beliefs and Practices
Buddhist funeral customs vary between traditions or “schools” and even within schools, depending on the country—for example, Zen in Taiwan and Zen in Japan are different. The following information is generalized to fit many or most Buddhist traditions. If you have specific questions relating to Buddhist funeral customs for an individual sect, we recommend that you consult with your spiritual advisor.
Funeral customs differ within the various Buddhist sects and from one country to the next. Some funerals are very ritualistic and traditional, while others are quite simple, solemn, and dignified. Rather than spend lavishly on expensive but perhaps meaningless traditions and rituals, the family and friends may donate to a worthy cause and transfer the merit to the deceased.
Peace and serenity are hallmarks of a Buddhist funeral. An altar is set up to display the deceased’s portrait, along with offerings of candles, incense, flowers, and fruit. An image of the Buddha is placed beside or in front of the altar.
According to Buddhist funeral customs, a service may be presided over by monks, who will deliver a sermon and perform Buddhist rites. If a monk is unavailable, others may conduct the service. Rituals that transfer merit to the deceased may be performed by family or other mourners, such as offering cloth to the presiding monk on the deceased’s behalf, pouring water from a vessel into an overflowing cup, preaching, and giving offerings or almsgiving.
At a traditional Buddhist funeral, the family will wear white or cover their clothing with a traditional white cloth, along with a headband or armband. Mourners may also:
- Walk with sticks to symbolize that grief has left them the need for support
- Chant or sing appropriate sutras (prayers)
- Bring offerings of flowers and fruit
- Burn incense to sweeten the air
- Ring gongs or bells
Although Buddhists understand that death is not an end, only a transition from one form to another, it is acceptable to show grief. In doing so, friends and family members acknowledge the loss of their loved one. The focus, however, should be on understanding the transiency of life, thinking about one’s own mortality as an impetus to make life meaningful, and performing good deeds on behalf of the deceased person.
The deceased may be cremated or buried, although cremation is traditional. Monks, if present, will perform last rites before the casket is sealed. Family members may assist in lifting the casket as a final act of service, while others attending may observe a moment of respectful silence. During the funeral procession, family members may walk behind the hearse; all attendees should be sending good thoughts to the family and contemplating the impermanence of life.
The Buddha said,
Life is a journey.
Death is a return to earth.
The universe is like an inn.
The passing years are like dust.
Regard this phantom world
As a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp – a phantom – and a dream. *
Buddhist Funeral Customs Quick Reference Guide
Length of Service
45 – 75 minutes
Yes – white or yellow.
Dress Code? (Men/Women)
Dark & Casual
Source of Readings?
Return to Work? (Days)
No specific time
No. of Days to Mourn?
Valued as an act of compassion but up the individual’s preference.