Religious Funeral Rituals

Every religion approaches death in meaningful and sacred ways to its believers. A closer look at different religions' funeral traditions can lead to greater understanding and acceptance. Keep reading to learn how different – yet similar – we are. 

Buddhist Funerals

Because Buddhists believe that the soul does not immediately exit the body, an important ritual is to leave their loved one undisturbed while performing the sacred Last Rites of Amitabha. Once the departed’s body is cold, it may be washed and prepared for cremation or burial. Buddhists may be buried or cremated; embalming, organ donation, and whole-body scientific donations are acceptable. Whether interned or cremated, monks and family members chant about the impermanence of life during internment or cremation. 

White Mourning Clothes

Buddhist mourners wear white clothing, not black, to symbolize their grief and respect for the solemn occasion. Their loved one is dressed in modest, everyday clothes. Buddhists place an altar by the casket or cremation urn with an image of the Buddha, a photo of the departed, candles, flowers, fruit, and incense. Mourners bow in a prayer pose at the altar before taking their seats. 

Catholic Funerals

Once expressly prohibited, Catholics may now choose cremation. However, most churches prefer cremation after the Funeral Mass, with remains buried in the ground or interred in a columbarium. Many Catholic families have a visitation or viewing, called a Vigil, the evening before the funeral. Priests lead the Funeral Mass and liturgy or service. While family members and friends may act as readers, pallbearers, or musicians, only a priest can deliver the homily or sermon with specific references to the deceased’s life and faith. The casket is covered with a white linen pall, also called a mort cloth, as a symbol of baptism. 

Cultural Catholic Differences

Lorrie Ann Muriel is a licensed funeral director and embalmer with Mission Mortuary and Memorial Park in Monterey, California, with a large Catholic population. Lorrie notes that cultural influences create different types of Catholic funeral services. Italian-Catholic families usually have a post-funeral reception in a separate location. They often do not hold a viewing the night before. Filipino Catholics prefer to bring home-cooked food to the Vigil and are not as interested in a reception after the funeral. 

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Hindu Funerals

Like Buddhists, Hindus prefer that their departed loved one be as undisturbed as possible until it is time to wash and prepare them for the funeral. The body should be positioned with the feet facing southward so that the northern magnetic field pulls any remaining life force out of the body. Hindu men are buried in simple white clothing, married women in red, and unmarried women in white, yellow, or orange. Families place a simple white shroud over the body. Likewise, mourners wear white, not black, to the viewing and funeral. 

The Karta

Traditionally, all Hindus are cremated except for babies, children, and saints. Hindu families appoint the eldest male relative as “Karta” to accompany the casket into the crematory. The Karta must circle the body three times in a counter-clockwise direction and sprinkle holy water on the casket. The Karta is also responsible for picking up the ashes. Hindus prefer to immerse the ashes in the Ganges River in India, but it is also acceptable to scatter them over other bodies of water. 

Jewish Funerals

Depending on which branch of Judaism a family follows, they may choose burial or cremation. Either way, a guardian, called a “shomer,” must be with the departed from the moment of death until interment. Ideally, a Jewish funeral occurs within 24 hours of passing. Washing and dressing the body is separated by gender depending on the loved one’s sex. As with other religions, the body is wrapped in a simple white shroud, indicating the person’s humility before God. A rabbi leads the service with memorial and mourning prayers. 

Tearing of Clothes

It is a Jewish custom to tear a visible piece of clothing to symbolize the heartbreak (tearing) after losing a loved one. Known as the “keriah,” mourners tear a lapel, shirt collar, or pocket on the left side (over the heart) of the chest for the loss of a parent and on the right side for all other family members. Nowadays, mourners wear a black ribbon pinned over the appropriate side of their bodies. The ribbon is worn during the funeral service and for the seven-day mourning period, known as “Shiva” (Hebrew for “sitting”). 

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Native American Funerals 

Native American nations do not share a single faith or common practice, but funeral services are sacred events supporting spiritual values. A licensed funeral director and embalmer in California and Arizona, Lorrie Muriel served many Native American families from the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe in Arizona. She met with tribal elders to understand their traditions and legal rights as descendants of the first Americans. Family members wash, prepare, and dress their loved ones in traditional Mojave clothing. It is customary to cremate within three days of passing, and a simple, unadorned casket is preferred. 

All-Night Wakes

Many Southwest Native Americans have all-night wakes with prayers, songs, and smudging (burning of herbs). The funeral service, led by native spiritual leaders and sometimes Christian clergy, coincides with the Milky Way being most visible in the sky, usually around 4:00 am. The Mojave believe this time to be holy and helps the spirit of the loved one ascend. In the same vein, Native American culture believes cremation hastens the path to the world beyond. 

Native Americans in the Southwest and Southeast used earthenware jars for cremation.

Presbyterian Funerals

Practicing members of the Presbyterian faith typically prefer burial to cremation, but there is no direct commandant against cremation. Presbyterians are allowed to be organ donors. A typical Presbyterian funeral service is led by a pastor and includes specific prayers, including the Prayer of Invocation, the Pastoral Prayer, and the Lord’s Prayer. Proper funeral attire for the service is standard black or another dark color, like navy blue, brown, or gray. Holy Communion might be part of a Presbyterian funeral. 

A White Pall

Like Catholic mourners, Presbyterian families who choose to have a casket at the service cover it with a white pall. Some palls are plain white, and others are embroidered with a cross. Regardless, they serve as a reminder of the individual’s Christian faith and that all are equal in the eyes of God, no matter how simple or extravagant the casket or surroundings. 

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Sikh Funerals

A Sikh faith leader called a gyani performs the last rites known as “Antam Sanskaar.” On the evening before the funeral, family members of the same gender as the departed wash the hair and body first in yogurt and then with soap and warm water. If the funeral is held at a Sikh temple (called a Gurdwara), the body does not enter the main prayer hall. Mourners must wash their hands, remove their shoes, and cover their heads before entering the Gurdwara. Many Sikhs prefer cremation since they believe the physical body only houses the soul and does not require special treatment after death. 

Return to Weheguru

Sikhs believe that death should not be considered a loss but celebrated as an opportunity for followers to rejoin Weheguru or God. The Karkars, the five articles of faith worn by a Sikh in life, remain with the body through cremation or burial. The Karkars consist of uncut hair (covered by a turban), a short sword or knife, a steel wristband, a wooden comb, and shorts worn as undergarments. The closest family member usually witnesses the cremation. 

Unity within Diversity

It’s interesting to observe similar customs and rituals in different religions. For example, white plays a significant role in both Eastern and Western funeral services. Carrying out specific rites and practices provides stability and security when we lose a loved one. Religious and cultural funeral services increase our sense of community, whether we share the same beliefs or not. 

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