In the melting pot that is America, it’s not uncommon to attend a funeral service for someone of a different faith. Religions all have special traditions to honor the dead; here are a few from among the major religions in America.
It’s important to note that this is meant as a general overview highlighting a few differences among the major religions, not an in-depth look at all religions and all facets of their rituals and beliefs for death. For specific questions, it’s best to ask religious leaders in your community.
Christianity has several denominations but, broadly speaking, funeral practices are similar.
Christian funerals usually occur within three to five days after a death. Cremation and burials are both acceptable depending on the deceased’s wishes.
A ceremony can take place in the church or a funeral home. Hymns, readings, and prayer all are common practices during the ceremony. On special occasions after the death, like birthdays or an anniversary, families typically will visit the grave of the deceased.
For friends and family, common expressions of sympathy can include flowers, cards, donating to charity, or sending food to a family. While wearing black was once a common practice, it’s not required anymore. It’s best to dress respectably.
A Catholic Funeral Mass will take place in a church. A vigil of the deceased or wake is held the night before the funeral mass. Family and friends participate in the mass, and a final graveside service at the burial is common. A priest will usually bless the grave site.
Cremations are allowed, but not always encouraged. If the body is cremated, the ashes are buried, as scattering the ashes is against the Catholic faith.
Common sympathy expressions are the same as a Christian funeral. The grave is often visited after the death, and a memorial mass is commonly held on dates such as the anniversary of the death.
A Jewish funeral can take place at a funeral chapel or right at the burial site. Services are meant to take place as soon as possible, ideally within 24 hours of death. Neither embalming nor cremation is allowed in the Jewish faith, and open casket services are not allowed either.
Similar to a Jewish funeral, embalming and cremation are not allowed with a Muslim funeral and when someone dies the body must be buried within 24 hours. Because there is no time for a wake or viewing, services take place at the graveside. In traditional funerals, only men are present during the act of burial.
The deceased’s head should be facing Mecca when buried. Funeral rites include prayers and readings from the Quran.
To express condolences and sympathy, food for the family is welcome. Opinion varies on sending sympathy flowers. It’s best to check with the family or religious leader in the community before doing so. After the death, immediate family enter a three-day mourning period, sometimes longer.
Buddhism, like Christianity, has several denominations — each with their own approach to funeral rites. Both embalming and cremation are acceptable, and cremation is typically more common than a burial. Traits of a ceremony may differ, but common aspects include monks leading the family in singing and prayer chants.
Sympathy expressions can include white flowers or donating to charities. Food is not considered appropriate. The mourning period also varies, but can last up to 100 days. During this time, prayers and memorial services will continue to be offered for the departed.
With Hindu funerals, cremating the body is the preferred practice. The ashes can be kept by the family, or spread in holy water in India if possible. Wearing black is considered inappropriate at a funeral — white is the preferred color.
Flowers make an acceptable sympathy gift, but donations typically don’t. After a death and service, fruit is a traditional gift to bring families. Hindu families practice a period of mourning after the death that lasts up to two weeks, during which they shouldn’t visit temples, festivals, or other families’ homes.
When looking at these different funeral practices, there are many differences but some common factors as well. Respect for the body is important among all religions. Community also plays a big part in religious ceremonies. While different gifts are offered, the purpose is the same — to help the grieving in their loss.