Death Rituals: The Impact of Religion and Culture on Funeral Services
There are as many death rituals as there are religions, cultures, communities, and individuals
Though death is universal, the manner in which we approach death varies from person to person and community to community. Methods of handling the deceased, performing a funeral, and even mourning are often deeply rooted in religious or cultural customs and beliefs.
If you’ve ever been touched by death, have you thought about the ways in which tradition has impacted your beliefs toward:
- The meaning of life
- What (if anything) occurs after death
- The type of disposition you prefer
- Death, as something to be feared versus accepted
- Funeral services, as events meant for the deceased versus the survivors
- The ways in which you mourn
Just as many cultures and religions have traditions or rules pertaining to how we live, there are customs and guidelines that many use in death. Here is just a sampling of death rituals among cultural and religious communities.
Funeral Rituals by Culture and Religion
The New Orleans Jazz Funeral
New Orleans jazz funerals are rooted in 400-year-old traditions from Africa. Music was used to celebrate life-cycle events, and death was not seen as an exception. Even today, funerals are considered celebrations of life. During the procession to the cemetery you’re likely to see a brass band playing hymns, dirges, and spirituals, and following the burial you’ll hear the music become more upbeat as family members and friends join the parade and begin dancing.
The Irish Wake
Irish wakes represent another tradition in celebrations of life. The practice of having a wake at a funeral is not specific to the Irish but began as a way for mourners to keep watch over the deceased until burial. What is specific to the “Irish wake” is the party atmosphere. Traditionally, music is played, food and drinks are served, and funny memories are shared. Nowadays, these celebrations of life may take place at the funeral home during the official wake or following the burial at the home of a family member.
Jewish Funerals and Sitting Shiva
Jewish law and tradition provide specific instructions when it comes to death. For instance, from the second a person is declared dead, they must not be left alone. Additionally, according to Jewish funeral traditions, the deceased must be buried as quickly as possible (typically within 24 hours) without embalming or a decorative casket, returning the body to the earth from which it came. Following the burial, and for seven days after the funeral, family members “sit shiva.” This means that they mourn according to tradition, with a torn garment, no music, no mirrors, and surrounded by family, friends, and community members.
Traditional Catholic funerals are very somber even though it’s commonly believed that following death an individual’s soul will live in an afterlife. Catholic funeral services are typically led by priests who conduct the mass ceremony, read the funeral liturgy, and deliver the homily (sermon). Additional rituals include the burning of incense, the sprinkling of holy water around the casket, and the playing of church-appropriate music.
Hindu Funeral Rituals
Traditionally, Hindus believe that death refers to the death of a person’s body. The soul, however, is believed to leave the body after death and to be reborn (reincarnated) into another body. Most Hindus (except for babies, children, and saints) are cremated, and usually the cremation takes place within a day of the death. Since the soul is thought to be completely detached from the body, for Hindus there is no reason to preserve the body. For those who cremate their loved ones, the ashes are collected, and on the fourth day following the death, the ashes are dispersed into a body of water or other place of importance to the deceased person.
Funerals and Mourning in Islam
Similar to Jews, Muslims traditionally try to bury their loved ones as soon as possible after death and avoid embalming or other procedures that would disturb the body. It is customary to wash the body, wrap it in a shroud, bless the body, and then accompany the deceased to the grave site for burial. Family members of the deceased typically observe a three-day mourning period while widows observe a mourning period of four months and ten days.
African-American Homegoing Traditions
African-American tradition holds that after death, individuals pass into the afterlife. Death is not perceived as a destination but rather as a transition. And African-American funerals are often jovial, a tradition that dates back to the era of slave trade. During that time, death was celebrated as it was commonly believed that in death the soul would be emancipated and return home – to ancestral Africa … hence the term “homegoings.” And during the period of slave trade, funerals provided a rare opportunity for families and communities to get together and socialize. Since slaves were not honored during life, it was customary to honor the deceased in death.
What are your funeral traditions?
When it comes to death, funerals, and mourning, do you have any traditions? If you’ve planned your funeral in advance, are you combining tradition with personalization at all? What if your preferences differ from what your family wants for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories in the comments area below.
Leah Yomtovian Roush is the Senior Manager of Strategic Development for Cleveland, Ohio-based eFuneral, a comprehensive and free online resource that enables those thinking about end-of-life to research, plan, and arrange a wide variety of funeral-related services. Leah is the editor of eFuneral's Online Resource Center, and she manages the company's marketing efforts and develops strategies for company growth. Leah also serves on the Boards of multiple non-profit organizations, helping them expand their reaches and increase their impacts.