I recently attended the burial service of a cherished friend. She was Jewish, but many people who came to pay their respects and say their last good-byes were not part of the Jewish faith. Attending a burial service is never comfortable or easy, but I think it helps to be prepared and to understand the traditions of the deceased to avoid confusion around the burial service activities and rituals and to ensure that proper respect is paid to the deceased as well as his or her family.
When I arrived at the funeral home, men were presented with kippot or yarmulkes – some took the traditional Jewish head coverings, some opted not to cover their heads, and others walked by without noticing the basket full of black head coverings. The Jewish tradition of covering one’s head is meant to remind individuals of God’s presence. Even if one is not Jewish, those attending a Jewish burial service are asked, out of respect, to don a head covering as well. As I am not a man, there was no expectation that I should cover my head. Still, it was interesting to observe my fellow attendees and the choices they made regarding the Jewish custom.
Attending a burial service of a different faith, culture, or ethnicity can be confusing, and even anxiety-producing. Whereas at a Jewish funeral, all men are asked, out of respect, to wear a head covering, at a Catholic burial service, non-Catholics are asked not to receive the Eucharist. One cannot be expected to know all the traditions of varying groups, but one also cannot assume that he or she will be expected to partake in all the funeral customs or activities. And even more complex are customs that may seem contrary to your own. For instance, while it is generally recommended that individuals who plan to attend a funeral service dress in dark or neutral colors, white is preferred for Hindu funeral services.
Since rituals and customs for major life milestones like funerals, but also including births and weddings, can vary widely, I recommend doing a bit of research prior to attending a service. After all, a little bit of preparation could help you avoid awkward uncertainty around varying traditions.
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