by Judy Carole

Multicultural aspects

It is quite useful to have an outline of the different burial ceremonies and mourning traditions involved in the following religions.

Buddhist funerals

Funerals are relatively unimportant in Buddhism. Buddhists concentrate their efforts on the deceased’s frame of mind up to, and at the moment of, death. Most Buddhist funerals held in the west are simple and low-key affairs organised by family and friends. They include appropriate Buddhist readings and tributes to the deceased. Most Buddhists prefer cremation, although some want an organic burial through concern for the environment.

Christian funeral rites

These rites vary according to the different sects and branches of the religion. There are, however, many similarities – Protestant rites, for example, are usually a simplified version of Catholic rites. Flowers continue to be important at Christian funerals and it is still customary to wear black or dark colours.

Greek Orthodox funerals

The body is buried for three to five years, after which it is exhumed in a family ceremony with a priest. The bones are then washed, left to dry in the sun, put in a casket and placed in a columbarium – a building that is fitted with niches and looks like a dovecote.


Hindus believe in reincarnation and view death as the soul moving from one body to the next on its path to reach Nirvana, heaven. Death is a sad occasion, but Hindu priests emphasise the route ahead for the departed soul and a funeral is as much a celebration as a remembrance service. Hindus cremate their dead, believing that the burning of a dead body signifies the release of the spirit and that the flames represent Brahma, the creator.

Family members will pray around the body as soon as possible after death. People will try to avoid touching the corpse as it is considered polluting. The body is usually bathed and dressed in white, traditional Indian clothes. If a wife dies before her husband, she is dressed in red bridal clothes. If a woman is widowed, she will dress in white or pale colours during the period of mourning, which can last up to a year.


The body is placed in an inexpensive wooden coffin or put directly to earth in its shroud. A handful of dust from Israel is placed in the grave or coffin.

The funeral service consists of psalms, speeches praising the deceased, prayers for the repose of the soul and the final recital of the Kaddish, a hymn to praise God.

After the funeral, the mourners eat a meal prepared by friends or neighbours. In orthodox and very traditional families, the next of kin will tear their upper garments, cover the mirrors and remain indoors for seven days sitting on low stools (sitting shivah meaning seven in Hebrew). On the anniversary of the death, called a yahrzeit, the bereaved attend a service at a synagogue and at home a yahrzeit candle is lit and burns for 24 hours. Traditional Jewish law forbids cremation, but cremation is allowed among Reform Jews.

Flowers are never appropriate for Orthodox or Conservative funerals, but are sometimes appropriate for Reform funerals.

Contributions in memory of the deceased are customary and are often given to a favoured charity or cause of the deceased, listed in an obituary in a local newspaper. This may be a special fund established by the bereaved family or a Jewish organisation, particularly the Jewish National Fund, which plants trees in Israel and which will send the bereaved family a letter informing them that they have ‘planted a tree in Israel’ in memory of the deceased. Mourning can last for one month or one year.

The funeral procession may pass places of significance to the deceased, such as a building or street. Prayers are said here and at the entrance to the crematorium. The body is decorated with sandalwood, flowers and garlands. The chief mourner, usually the eldest son or male, will light some kindling and circle the body, praying for the wellbeing of the departing soul.

After the cremation, the family may have a meal and offer prayers in their home. Mourners wash and change completely before entering the house after the funeral. A priest will visit and purify the house with spices and incense. This is the beginning of the 13-day mourning period, when friends will visit and offer their condolences. Often, as with the Sikhs, a garland of dried or fake flowers is placed around a photograph of the deceased to show respect for their memory.


Simple rites accompany death. Ritual washing of the body is a holy act and is carried out by people of the same sex. The body is then wrapped in a white shroud. The usual Muslim prayers, with some special additions which specifically relate to death, are then performed.

The ceremony normally takes place in the family home and is led either by someone the deceased chose, a close relative or the family imam.

Post-mortems are intensely disliked. There is a belief that after death people continue to have feeling and death is an act of God. Reasons are not required.

It is forbidden to cremate the body of a Muslim. Ideally, the burial should be within 24 hours.

It is generally accepted that Muslim funerals should be respectful without being extravagant. Muslims are buried with their face turned to the right and towards Mecca. Members of the funeral party throw a little earth onto the grave while reciting ‘we created you from it, and return you into it, and from it we will raise you a second time.’ Gravestones are kept simple, marked only by the deceased’s name and date of death, and graves are raised above ground level. Many Muslims will spend money on the poor rather than on an elaborate memorial stone. Official mourning lasts for three days and includes a feast to remember the deceased. Muslims also wear black.

Protestant funerals

A dying person may have a pastor attend the death bed and prayers may be said. A brief prayer is said for the deceased at the church on the Sunday following the death.

The funeral can take many forms and may include speeches and readings by relatives and close friends.

Quaker funerals

These are usually quiet and informal. One or more of the people present may speak personally about the deceased. Others may read or quote, but the majority of time is spent in silent contemplation. The body is buried or cremated with a simple ceremony at the municipal crematorium.

Roman Catholic funerals

A priest is called to hear the dying person’s confession and to absolve them. He also administers the Holy Communion and Extreme Unction, anointing the person with oil that has been blessed by a bishop.

After the burial, there are prayers for the dead. A requiem is recited at the funeral and the body in the coffin is blessed with incense and sprinkled with holy water.


Sikhs view death as a separation of the soul from the body and consider it as part of God’s will. Sikhs believe that the soul moves on to meet the supreme soul, God. Death is seen as a time for praising God

Sikh scriptures state that relatives should not express their grief, although this is, naturally, hard. Hymns are sung in preparation for the cremation of the body. The family read the Holy Book continuously for 48 hours, or in stages. Readings must be completed within one week and end on the day of the funeral.

Cremation is the accepted form of disposal of the body. The body is bathed and dressed in fresh clothes. Hymns that encourage a feeling of detachment are sometimes sung on the way to the crematorium to aid the family in not showing their grief.

The funeral pyre is lit by a member of the family. In traditional ceremonies this will be done with a naked flame, but in Britain a family member usually pushes the button for the coffin to disappear.

The mourning period lasts between two and five weeks. Men wear black headscarves to the funeral and women wear pale-coloured or white headscarves and white or pale colours during the period of mourning, which can last up to a year.

After the cremation, guests return to the family home and readings are given and hymns sung. Neighbours and friends make a substantial meal for the bereaved family. Everyone must bath as soon as they go home to cleanse themselves. A candle, jot, is burned in the home. Made from ghee (clarified butter) and cotton, this has a sweet smell to cleanse the home. Memorial services are often held at home, especially when the funeral ceremony has taken place in another city. A garland of dried flowers is often placed around a photograph of the deceased.