Updated: May 28, 2020
As the coronavirus gets worse, understanding death and prepare for it is essential. We should not be afraid of it. Death is our common denominator — our shared, inevitable destination — but how we handle it varies widely from community to community. Our religious backgrounds influence the ways we mourn and remember. Some faiths cremate their dead, while others bury them. Some observe rituals long after a loved one's death, while for others, the formalities are complete with the funeral. Many families are now far from their heritages' birthplaces, so they have adapted ceremonies to fit their surroundings. Traditions also evolve naturally across generations. To learn more about the ways we deal with death, we spoke with members of five different faiths — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Of course, beliefs and traditions within each of these religions are diverse, too. Nevertheless, these five leaders offer some insights that are shared by billions.
Christians have a diversity of practice. There are Christian traditions that say when someone dies, they are sleeping, and they’ll wake up when Jesus comes again. In mainline traditions, it’s more than death is a transition to another kind of life. It's been an encouraging thought for oppressed people that their oppressors might go to hell. As for grieving, Christianity mainly comes from a grief response — it comes from Jesus' death. Grieving gives people a chance to acknowledge what has been lost to them, and then to assign that loss to another dimension of life, so that the community can reconnect with what is living. This is how resurrection happens, and it's the purpose of funerals and memorial services.
Prayer is essential, but depends on Christian tradition. Praying for the soul of someone who’s died, that’s very Roman-Catholic. If you have a memorial or funeral ritual, you talk about the person and what you’re going to miss. The kind of eulogy you get depends on your Christian tradition.
How We Remember:
Another one is to take care of people. When you go to the graveside with people, when you cook for other people when you take care of the child of somebody who lost a spouse — people need to care for other people, and the opportunity to grieve gives people a chance to care. In a normal grieving process, talk about the person quite a bit, at length, with different people. A community to grieve to tell the story about loss, and envision life without that person.
In Jewish tradition, there is a strong belief in the idea that people have a soul or neshama. The soul lives forever, and the body is on borrowed time, and we give it back to God. According to the texts we read in Genesis, with Adam coming from the Earth, we give our bodies back to the Earth and God — that is why we bury our dead. As for what happens to the soul, there is a hope that there is something else, something beyond. In a more traditional view, the soul lives on, goes up to heaven — some even go so far as to say that at some point, in a messianic era, souls will return to the body. A lot of it has to do with memory: You live on in the form of the memories of the people who survive you.
When a person passes away, people hurry to arrange logistics: calling people, writing obituaries. Once the arrangements are made, even as they are being made, they will set up a funeral intake. One of the things we do after a person passes away is we have people rip clothing. It stems from the Bible: People would rend their garments to symbolize someone being torn away from them.
How We Remember:
For seven days after a person passes away, it is shiva— that’s the Hebrew word for seven. They refrain from shaving and doing pleasurable things, sit low to the ground, and people come and share stories and food. Then, it’s shloshim— the Hebrew word for 30 — for 30 days, where people are gradually easing up on the observances of shiva, but still refraining from 'pleasurable' activities.
In the pre-Islamic world, there was a notion of fate, with time (Dahr, but also known as zaman or al-ayyam) being the determining agent of a person’s life and death. This is reflected in the Qur’an, where the pre-Islamic Arabs say: 'There is nothing but our life in this world. They live, and they die, and nothing destroys them but Time' (45:24). Muhammad [changed this perception when he was] commanded [by God] to say: 'It is God who gives you life, causes you to die, then gathers you together for the Day of Resurrection, of which there is no doubt' (45:26). On the Day of Judgment, the body is judged, and those who have earned their reward are allowed into paradise, while those who have earned a punishment are consigned to hell.
When a Muslim dies, the corpse is treated with great respect. Ideally, the dying person will have asked for God’s forgiveness, prepared a will, performed the ritual full-body ablution before prayer, and recited the shahadah (profession of faith) before their death. The body is then washed. Traditionally, this would be done by members of the family, with males washing the bodies of males, and females washing the bodies of females. In the modern world, the majority of people die in hospitals or institutions, creating a distance from traditional rituals, so the professional undertaker often does the washing. Once the corpse is cleaned, it is wrapped in a shroud consisting of three pieces of clean, white cloth that contain no sewn seams or knots. If the person dies on the pilgrimage in the state of ritual purity known as ihram, they are buried in their pilgrimage clothes.
How We Remember:
There is a special funeral prayer for the deceased, salat al-janazah, which is unique in that the congregation remains standing, without the prostration that is characteristic of the daily prayers. One does not bow down and touch one’s head to the ground as in all other prayers. People certainly will remember a death anniversary, but there are no formal rituals at a month or three months or anything like that after a burial.
Hindus use fire as their means of communicating with the gods. They believe the human body is a composition of the five elements [earth, water, fire, air, void]. The body, in which the soul is hiding, is supposed to have been doing fire rituals throughout its lifetime, and cremation is the ultimate sacrifice — the disposition of the physical body. It has done [as quickly] after the death as possible, by the male of the family.
There are 41 sacraments in Hinduism; [the death rite] is the 41st sacrament. All the other sacraments are done by the living person, sometimes with the help of his wife, after marriage. The 41st is the only one that is done after death, by someone else on behalf of this individual. A priest from the temple will come and do the rituals, and then the body was placed in a casket — which isn’t done traditionally. Typically, you carry the body on a stretcher to the place of cremation.
How We Remember:
There is no puja, no prayer, no rituals in the home after [the cremation] for 13 days. The first nine days, they believe the soul still thinks it is connected to the body. They are preparing the jiva, the soul in the physical body, to understand its life in the astral body. The 10th day, the jiva understands that it has to leave now; the 10th, 11th, and 12th days are dedicated to the old rituals, to make the path for the jiva have as little obstacles as possible. The 13th day, they celebrate with sweets. The jiva has finally understood its mission and is on its way to the next act of the spirit’s journey. To remember the dead, they will perform a rite called srardham done monthly observed on the day or date of the death. In some communities, the 45th day after death is also observed. After the first 12 months, this rite is performed annually on the date the person passed away.
In Buddhism, they believe that the body dies and disappears, but the mind goes on — the mind has existed endlessly and continues to go on. Moreover, they believe that there is rebirth. The most positive rebirth is full enlightenment which means removing all karma from the past, all delusions, and just having no suffering ever again. The second favourable rebirth is human, because in that rebirth we again have the opportunity to purify our karma and get to enlightenment. Gods, demigods, animal realism, hell realms, ghost realms — those are not good rebirths at all. A god realm that sounds good, right? However, if you get reborn in the god realm, everything is perfect, and that makes you not interested in attaining enlightenment. Then, you might pass into another body without having cleansed your karma, and you might not have a favourable rebirth. If you get born into a hell realm, you might be wandering around endlessly until you work through the suffering and can move on to a more positive rebirth. Eventually, everyone will attain enlightenment, but it will take eons.
Once a person dies, the body is nothing. The transference-of-consciousness ceremony — the powa — is a very profound practice to make prayers for the recently dead to go into a pure land or a favourable rebirth. The ceremony is open to everyone who wants to come, and they not only feature the person we are holding it for, but everybody can come with their thoughts of people who have recently died in their families. They make offerings to the Buddhas. People bring beautiful offerings: handmade flowers, cakes, candles, pictures of the recently dead, certain things that were special to that recently dead person, and they have a sadhana — a booklet of prayers that is special for the powa that theychant. They are not praying to an entity as such, and we’re praying to clarity and purity. It can be done for someone who is in the death process, as well.