Traditional religious funerals: an overview

An overview, by its very nature, of the numerous traditional religious funerals available, worldwide, is inevitably limited in its scope. For this reason, the following brief descriptions focus mainly on the distinguishing characteristics of the major world religions, namely: Christianity, Judaism, Islam (Muslim), Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism. But first, a bit about what all traditional religious funeral ceremonies actually have in common …

Traditional religious funerals – an enduringly popular option

The resilience and enduring popularity of traditional religious funeral ceremonies is explained, in part, by the overriding human need for structure, in times of sorrow and loss. The familiar format of a religious ceremony, whatever the interpretation, fulfils that very need.

What all traditional religious funeral ceremonies, across all faiths, religions and cultures have in common is the ability to offer comfort and closure to the bereaved, particularly for those who share the same belief system.

Even for those who are non-believers in a particular faith, the actual rituals associated with traditional religious ceremonies can provide a powerful channel for expressing their grief.

World religions: an overview of traditional religious funerals christian funeral

Christianity covers a broad spectrum of different denominations, with the format and rituals for various Christian funerals, e.g. Roman Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Methodist, Presbyterian, Orthodox, etc. differing considerably from country to country and from one branch of Christianity to another.

The Christian interpretation of death, however, centres upon a belief in the resurrection, the continuation of the human soul and the life everlasting, according to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, following the crucifixion.

Traditional Christian funeral services, whether burial or cremation, will include readings from the Bible, prayers and hymn singing.

Jewish funeral

The rituals and traditions associated with Jewish funerals may vary from one community or group of the Jewish faith to another, e.g. Ashkenazi, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, etc.

Common features and rituals for Jewish funerals are dictated, essentially, by the local Jewish community burial society known as the Chevra Kadisha or Holy Group, which is responsible for organising the funeral and preparing the body for burial.

Traditionally, Jewish funeral ceremonies are conducted within 24 hours of death, if at all possible.

Funeral ceremony rituals include a eulogy (Hesped) delivered by the rabbi or a close family friend; the funeral mourners’ prayer read in Hebrew (the Kaddish); the symbolic ‘washing of hands’ by the mourners, at the end of the ceremony; and a 7-day period of observance (Sitting Shivah), following the funeral, when mourners visit the home of the deceased (known as a ‘Shiva call’) to pay their last respects.

(Islamic) Muslim funeral

The funeral format for the major Islamic groups, namely Shi’ite, Sunni, Sufi, Ahmadiyya and other Muslim denominations is based on the belief that the soul departs the from the human body at the exact moment of physical death.

Important features of all Islamic funerals include: burial (as opposed to cremation) with the head turned to the right and facing towards Mecca (also called Makkah), and ideally within 24 hours of death; the ritual ‘washing’ and preparing of the body, beforehand, by close family or friends; wrapping the deceased in a simple shroud, rather than placing the body in a coffin; reciting prayers (Salat) for the dead; and an official 3-day mourning period, immediately after the funeral, is customary.

Buddhist funeral

Expert opinion differs as to whether Buddhism can be described as a religion in the strictest sense, but rather as a philosophy, a spiritual belief system or, indeed, simply a peaceful and tolerant approach to life. Nevertheless, Buddhism, in its many forms, e.g. Southern or Theravida Buddhism, Eastern or Mahayana Budhism and Northern or Tibetan Buddhism, has many aspects in common with other major world religions.

Distinguishing characteristics of a Buddhist funeral include: the belief that the spirit of the dead person will enter a cycle of rebirth, typically at around 49 days; special Buddhist texts are read and rituals performed to assist the spirit of the deceased person as they move on to their next existence; the physical body of the departed is seen as a mere shell and a symbol of impermanence.

Hindu funeral

The central tenet of a Hindu funeral ceremony (Antyeshti Samskara) is that death marks the transition of the soul from one existence or physical embodiment to another state of being, when the spirit begins its ascent to Nirvana. Above all, Hindus believe in reincarnation, and view death as a celebration when the spirit is released from its physical body.

Unlike Muslims who require burial, Hindus insist on cremation, instead. The flames from the funeral pyre symbolise the release of the spirit by Brahma, the Hindu god of creation.

Hindu funeral traditions include: the body being laid out on the floor, in contact with the earth, and the head pointing southwards; a light burns continuously next to the deceased for 3 days after death; the body is cleansed using purified water; it is also traditional for the funeral procession to accompany the deceased to the funeral pyre or crematorium, while the eldest son or most senior male in the family acts as chief mourner; prayers are chanted and Hindu scriptures from the Bhagavad Gita or the Vedas are read; a 13-day period of mourning is customary, following traditional Hindu funerals.

Sikh funeral

Sikhism views death as a natural process and the point at which the soul becomes reunited with its creator, Akal Purakh. A Sikh funeral ceremony (Antam Sanskar) is, first and foremost, a celebration of a life that is now complete. The funeral ceremony is conducted at the local Gurdwara (Sikh temple).

The main features of a Sikh funeral include: the requirement for cremation, not burial; restrained emotions throughout; mourners recite prayers (Kirtan) and sing traditional Sikh hymns (Shabads).

Traditional Sikh funerals also involve the deceased’s family carrying out a Sidharan Paath or complete reading of the holy scriptures of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib (also called the Adi Granth). This process usually takes 10 days.