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Comfort in Faith: Funerary Traditions of American Religions

The passing of a loved one can be a difficult time, and many people gain strength from their religious beliefs and traditions while mourning. These religious communities express love and respect for their deceased loved ones in beautiful ways. Below, we've outlined the funeral traditions of four major religions in America. We hope that the simplicity and grace of these customs will strengthen you in your time of grief.

Christianity

Christians, despite numerous denominations and beliefs, generally believe that those who follow God’s teachings in this life will live in heaven with God, through the mercy and love of Jesus Christ.

Because of the enormous variation of beliefs across denominations, it is difficult to describe a "typical” Christian funeral. For example, Catholics believe that a priest must administer final rites to a dying person. In contrast, Protestants believe that the dying do not need ordinances, but only faith in God and in Jesus. Regardless, Christians try to make their dying loved ones comfortable and at peace.

Family members, friends, and associates usually gather at a Christian church for a funeral service, where a religious leader preaches a sermon about the purpose of life and the goodness of God. Christians generally place the body of the deceased in a beautiful casket fora viewing before funeral services.

When the body is buried, it is customary to pray at the site and consecrate the ground. Christians believe that the body of the deceased will remain until the resurrection, when all the dead will be raised by God.

Judaism

Jewish tradition holds that death is not the end of human existence, and that the deceased go to Olam Ha-Ba, or the World to Come.

After a death, a family member or friend acts as a shomer-a watchman and companion over the body of the deceased. The watchman stays with the body until the burial.

A rabbi of the Jewish congregation usually conducts funeral services. Typically, the rabbi reads scripture, Psalms, and a eulogy, according to the family’s wishes. Mourners then perform the ritual K'riah, in which they tear a garment. This symbolizes the rending of the mourner's heart. During the K'riah, mourners say a special prayer: "Dayan Ha'emet," or "Blessed is the Judge of Truth." The prayer reminds mourners that God's ways are higher than mortals' and that all of mankind is in God’s hands.

Jews are encouraged to be buried in a simple, unadorned wood casket. Loved ones gather around the cemetery and participate in the burial.

After the funeral, the mourners return to the house of mourning, where the community provides a meal and an atmosphere of support and acceptance. This begins Shiva, or the period of mourning following the burial.

Islam

The Quran teaches, "To God we belong and to Him we shall return"(2:156). Many Muslims believe that those who have done good in this life will be received in paradise on Judgment Day. Islam is the practice of submitting oneself to God-to Allah, and submission is the only path back to Him.

A body is ritualistically bathed and enshrouded in pure white cloth after death. Immediate members of the family who are the same gender as the deceased usually prepare the body for burial.

According to sharia (Muslim) law, bodies should be buried as soon as possible after death. Because of this, there is no viewing of the body before burial. During the funeral, Salat al-Janazah-funeral prayers-are performed by loved ones, family, and friends of the deceased. The funeral prayers plea for forgiveness from Allah and speak of God’s greatness, mercy, and honor. They are a beautiful tribute to faith, tradition, and love.

The deceased face toward Mecca when they are buried. In most Muslim traditions, friends and family adorn the gravesite with a modest grave marker. After the burial, loved ones usually gather to honor the memory of the deceased, offer condolences to the family, and pray.

Buddhism

Buddhists commonly believe in samsara: the life, death, and rebirth cycle. Previous incarnations and actions in this life, interrupted briefly by death, lead to further incarnations. The samsara cycle is an opportunity to rid oneself of selfish desires and achieve enlightenment and nirvana.

Soon after the passing of the loved one, family members prepare the body for burial. They dress the body in simple, everyday clothing. Buddhists are buried in simple caskets, which may be opened for a viewing. Many Buddhist families erect altars near the casket, where an image of the deceased and of Buddha, candles, fruit, incense, and flowers are placed.

Buddhists hold traditional memorial services on specific days following the death: the third, seventh, forty-ninth, and one-hundredth. During these services (which can be held at home or at a monastery), dana is performed. Dana is the act of giving generously to others. This blesses the deceased with goodwill and purifies the givers.

During the burial (or cremation, which is acceptable in the Buddhist tradition), monks or family members lead the mourners in rites and chanting. These chants help the deceased seek refuge in eternal truths. Buddhists believe that the death of a loved one is a time to gain perspective, peace, strength, and wisdom.

If you've lost a loved one, take comfort in the rituals of these faith traditions. Whatever your personal beliefs, you can honor the dead and take comfort knowing that you have a community ready to support you.