Since the beginning of time, the human race has always sought to understand life, death, and the afterlife. For many, religion has been the source of understanding these great mysteries. Each religion has offered its own perspectives, practices and traditions regarding death, many of which which are still practiced today.
Ancient Egyptians, for example, would spend at least 70 days mummifying the body for burial, believing it was the only way to live on in the afterlife. Norse vikings were often buried with a boat or a horse, believing it was a way for them to travel to the afterlife. Ancient Judaism tradition required a body to be washed, anointed, and wrapped in cloth prior to burial, upon which family members would mourn for seven days.
With its religiously diverse population, attending or planning a Seattle funeral may cause one to educate themselves on any of the vast religions found in the region. No matter the religion, one thing is clear; funeral and burial traditions directly reflect the interwoven and integral beliefs of the deceased. It is here that we hope to explain various religious beliefs of the afterlife, as a way to understand the human population’s diverse funeral and burial traditions.
With over 40,000 Christian denominations in the world, core ideas about the afterlife are found to be common among them. In Christianity, Heaven is generally thought of as a place for those who accepted God and Jesus into their lives. Hell will be a place for those who did not live righteous lives, and did not accept God and Jesus. More specific and individual beliefs relating to this can be found in each separate denomination, but this is the basis for Christian belief regarding the afterlife.
From Lutherans to Catholics to Mormons, Christianity has inspired many different faiths, each with their own interpretation of the Bible. Despite their slightly different beliefs, they all practice Christian principles and share similar funeral rituals.
Christian funeral services serve the purpose of offering support and comfort to the bereaved. A typical funeral will be officiated over by a priest or minister, who will start the service with an opening statement. This could be a prayer or some words, or a combination of both. Listed below are other elements of Christian funerals:
- Music has been a part of Christian funeral customs for centuries, and may be in the form of hymns, or special musical numbers performed by friends or family.
- Scriptures may be read throughout the service, or as often as requested by the family.
- A speech given at a funeral, also known as a eulogy, is given by a close family member or friend to honor the life of the deceased.
- Closing remarks given at the end of the service by the priest or minister. The congregation then begins the procession to the cemetery.
- Graveside services differ depending on denomination, but Christian burials generally include a prayer and words spoken by the priest or minister.
The belief that the soul lives on after death is highly valued in the Catholic faith. It is their belief that at the time of death, the soul moves on to either Heaven, Purgatory, or Hell. Catholics believe that through the sacrifice and death of Jesus, death has been destroyed and life has been restored, giving hope to the living.
Heaven will be for those who were perfectly purified in Christ. Everyone who makes it to Heaven becomes a saint, whether they are known on earth as a saint or not. Saints pray and intercede on behalf of our well being, in an effort to assist those who are still living. Purgatory will be for those who were neither perfectly purified, nor sinful, but are still in need of purification before entering Heaven. It is a temporary state of being cleansed of your wrongdoings. The souls of those in Purgatory will remain there until they have obtained a level of holiness suitable to enter Heaven.
Hell will be for those who led sinful lives, who never accepted the love of God, cared for others, or repented of mortal sins. Forgiveness of sins is given through the sacrament of confession. While many faiths describe Hell as a place of “fire and brimstone,” Catholics simply describe Hell as being separated from God, which is the greatest loss anyone can suffer.
With Catholics making up 15.46% of the Seattle population, it’s no wonder that a lot of Seattle funerals are Catholic. The Catholic faith encourages traditional burial as opposed to cremation, as a means of staying consistent with their beliefs in the resurrection. However, in 1963 the Pope lifted the ban on cremation, only forbidding the practice if it is chosen specifically for anti-Catholic reasons. While many Catholics now choose cremation, official Church leaders still highly encourage traditional burial. Catholic funerals have three different parts:
Commonly know as a “viewing,” a vigil is a special time to honor and remember the deceased before the funeral. Typically, the vigil is held at the home of the deceased, a funeral home, or a church the evening before the funeral. Eulogies and stories may be told at a vigil, as guests come to pray and remember the deceased. A priest or deacon generally will preside over this service.
Priests lead the funeral mass, however, it may also be lead by a deacon. If both the priest and deacon are unavailable, a layperson with sufficient knowledge of the traditions and liturgy may facilitate. Only a priest or deacon, however, may deliver the homily, or sermon. The homily should be a reflection of scripture passages as well remembering the life of the deceased. The priest/deacon encourages those present to pray for the person who has died, which helps quicken their purification in Purgatory. Family members of the deceased may collaborate with the priests, and/or deacons to incorporate meaningful songs or scriptures into the funeral.
The Catholic Interment service, called The Rite Of Committal, is the last portion of the service and takes place at the graveside or resting place of the deceased. The departed is prayed over one last time, and the resting place is blessed by the deacon or priest in order to dedicate it as a holy place. After they are buried, everyone recites the Lord’s Prayer.
Judaism beliefs regarding the afterlife are both unique and simple. While there is no set belief regarding what happens to someone after death, those of the Jewish faith believe living a praiseworthy life will prepare them for life after death.
Jews believe in Olam Ha-Ba, or The World to Come. This is a belief in a perfect world of peace and prosperity that will happen when the Messiah comes. During this time, all of the righteous souls who have lived on the earth will be resurrected, and will get to see the perfect and prosperous world their righteousness helped to create.
Within traditional Judaism, some believe in reincarnation, also known as tikkun olam, or mending of the world. While some believe in reincarnation as a one time event, others believe it to be an ongoing event, with the souls of the righteous continually being reincarnated throughout time. Belief in reincarnation is open to interpretation within Judaism.
Simple beliefs regarding the afterlife are reflected in traditional Jewish funeral practices, which are discussed below.
Jewish funerals are simple and brief. Upon death, a funeral is held the following day, usually in a funeral home or a synagogue. Exceptions for later funeral dates are only permitted pending the late arrival of family members, or for other reasons of practicality.
The deceased are placed in a plain, pine wood coffin. Jewish law mandates coffin simplicity such as this to prevent embarrassment for the poor. The ritual washing of the body, or Tahara, then takes place, which is followed by the dressing of the deceased in a plain burial shroud. Men will wash and clothe men, and women will wash and clothe women. Watchers, or Chevra Kadisha, remain with the body around-the-clock until the funeral, as a way of honoring the dead.
The body is wrapped in a white burial shroud, or tachrichim. This practice also helps to lessen the distinction between rich and poor. Men are also traditionally buried in a prayer shawl, or tallitot. A fringe of the prayer shawl is cut off, rendering the garment ineffective.
Before the funeral begins, immediate family members of the deceased will tear their garments as a symbol of their loss. Reform Jews do not practice this tradition exactly, but instead will pin a black ribbon, torn by the Rabbi, to their clothes.
The funeral ceremony is simple, starting with some recited psalms, a eulogy, and closing with the memorial prayer, or El Maleh Rachamim. The coffin is then carried or wheeled out, with the mourners following behind.
Once at the cemetery, the funeral procession stops seven times as the body is being taken to the grave. Psalm 91 is read during each stop, until it is completed. Family and close friends throw handfuls of dirt over the coffin after it has been lowered into the grave. The Rabbi then closes the service by reciting Psalm 91 once more.
Directly after the burial, non-family members form two lines. Family members in mourning make their way through each line, receiving condolences along the way.
Jewish tradition calls for family members to remain in mourning, or to sit Shiva, for seven days. Many reform Jews, however, will mourn for less than seven days. During Shiva, solace is to be found for family members through the sharing stories and memories of the departed. Family members and friends may come to pay a visit during this mourning period, and will usually bring food in lieu of flowers.
As the fourth largest religion in Asia, Buddhism encompasses 12% of Asia’s population. This vast religion has some key components that differ it from its Christian counterparts, one of them being reincarnation. According to Buddhist beliefs, upon death, every entity is reincarnated. This cycle of death and rebirth is known as Samsara. What someone is reincarnated as depends on the behavior exhibited in their previous life. This concept is known as Karma. The idea of Karma is that one’s acts will affect them either negatively or positively in a next life. If you behaved poorly as a human, bad karma may cause you to be reincarnated into an undesirable realm. There are six different realms you can be born into:
- god, or deva
- Demi-god, or asura
- Hungry ghost, or preta
The realm you are born into depends on your Karma. The ultimate goal of Buddhists is to reach Nirvana, a state that ends the cycle of death and rebirth. Nirvana literally means “to extinguish.” To reach Nirvana is to be liberated from the reincarnation cycle, desires and sorrows. Buddha describes Nirvana as being, “incomprehensible, indescribable, inconceivable, unutterable.”
Buddhist funeral rituals vary from country to country, depending on the specific sect within the region. Traditionally, mourners dress in white to symbolize their grief. A monk presides over the service, usually delivering a sermon or Buddhist rites. An altar is set up in the front with a picture of the deceased, surrounded by offerings of incense, candles, fruit and flowers. A picture of Buddha will be placed either next to, or in front of the deceased’s portrait.
During the procession, family members will follow behind, and everyone else will follow behind the family. Everyone behind the family follows as they use the silence to send good thoughts to the family, as well as contemplating their own lives and choices.
Within the Buddhist faith, both burial and cremation are allowed, but cremation is preferred. If the deceased is cremated, the remains are either kept by the family, scattered at sea, or enshrined in a columbarium or urn garden. Monks perform last rites before the casket is sealed, should the family choose a traditional burial. Family members assist in lowering the casket into the grave as a final act of service, while others sit in silence and remembrance. In the case of a traditional burial, the deceased is dressed in casual clothing that they would have worn on a normal basis.
Traditional Buddhist funerals may also include:
- Burning sweet incense
- Reciting and chanting of prayers, or sutras
- Ringing gongs or bells
Hindus believe in a cycle of life and death, known as samsara. Similar to Buddhism, this belief encompasses the idea that reincarnation is based off of karma, or the sum total of a soul’s moral actions throughout its incarnations. A soul may only break the samsara cycle when it realizes its true nature, and overcomes ignorance and desires. To be liberated from the samsara cycle is to achieve moksha, or liberation. This can take many lifetimes to achieve.
In Hinduism, there are believed to be 14 realms of existence, with seven of those realms being lower than the human realm. The higher realms constitute different levels of heaven, known as Svarga, and the lower levels are places of suffering and depravity, known as Naraka.
Upon death, those surrounding the body avoid unnecessary touching of the body, as touching is seen as being impure. Similar to Buddhism, funeral preparations begin immediately following the death of a Hindu. The funeral should take place by dusk or dawn the next day, whichever occurs first.
The body may be washed by family members or close friends. If neither is available, the funeral home may wash and dress the body. During the washing, the head of the deceased should be facing southward. A picture of the deceased’s favorite deity is kept by their head, along with a lighted oil lamp. For the holy bath, also known as the abhisegam, the body is washed in a mixture of yogurt, milk, honey, and ghee (clarified butter). Purified water may also be used to wash the body. Those washing the body recite mantras during the washing process.
After the body has been cleaned, the big toes are tied together and the hands are placed in a prayer position, palm-to-palm. Most Hindus are covered with a plain white sheet before their funeral. The only exception would be for a married woman who died before her husband, in which case she should be dressed in red.
Hinduism has three distinct funeral rituals:
Wakes are a time for family members and friends to come view the body of their loved one, and to recite hymns or mantras. It is their belief that the prayers of family and friends will help improve the deceased’s karma. The body is displayed in a simple casket, with holy basil being placed on the inside of the casket. Ash or sandalwood is applied to the forehead of a man, and turmeric is applied to the forehead of a woman. Traditionally, a ring of flowers are placed around the neck of the deceased. Near the end of the wake, many Hindus will place rice balls, or pinda, near the casket. The casket is then removed feet-first and taken to the place of cremation.
Traditionally, Hindus are cremated on a funeral pyre on the Ganges River in India. Hindus who do not live in India may arrange for the body or remains to be sent to India, so that a traditional funeral may be held at the river. A pyre is built and the body is placed on top. The oldest male relative, or karta, circles the body three times while sprinkling holy water on the pyre. The karta will then set the pyre on fire, at which point all who are gathered will stay until the body is completely cremated. In many Hindu communities, women are not permitted to attend the cremation, but are permitted to attend the wake.
In many countries, such as the United States, cremations may only take place in a crematory. Ceremonies before a cremation are generally allowed by most crematories, and guests are welcome to be present at the cremation itself. The body is placed in the incinerator feet-first, and everyone in attendance stays until the cremation is complete.
After the funeral, family members return home to bathe and change into fresh clothes. The family then gathers for a meal. During this time, a priest may stop by to purify the home with incense.
The day after the funeral, the karta will go pick up the ashes at the crematory. Historically, ashes have always been spread in the Ganges River, however, more rivers are becoming acceptable. Those who wish to have ashes spread in the Ganges may arrange for the remains to be shipped to India.
Mourning lasts for 13 days from the time of cremation. Generally, the family will stay home during this time and is open to receiving visitors. A portrait of the deceased is on display with a ring of flowers placed around it. The rite of preta-karma takes place during the mourning period, and is a rite believed to assist the departed soul in finding a new body for reincarnation.
“Sraddha” is a memorial event held one year after death, and is an event meant to pay homage to the deceased. Members of the highest cast, also called Brahmins, are invited by the karta into the home where they are provided an elaborate meal, and treated as family.
Seattle funerals may represent a variety of religions, and are to be celebrated for their vast diversity. One thing to be certain of, is that understanding basic religious beliefs of others will allow one to fully understand and appreciate various traditional funeral practices.