The UK is becoming ever more diverse in the range of religions and non-religious beliefs of people who call it home.
When somebody dies, the kind of funeral they have is largely determined by whether they adhered to some kind of faith, and if so, what their religions say about death and funeral rites.
Even for atheists, moral aspirations suggested by associations such as Humanists UK may influence how somebody chooses to be remembered when they die.
In this article, we take a look at some of the major non-majority belief systems in the UK and what they have to say about dying and funeral rites.
Muslims believe that after death, there is life for the soul of the departed. Many believe that the dead remain in their graves until the day of judgement when they are called before Allah and judged by their actions on earth. If they lived a virtuous and pious life, Allah invites them to join him in Jannah (Paradise), whereas sinners are cast into Jahannam (Hell) for an eternity of suffering.
Islamic funerals take place as soon as possible after death, ideally within 24 hours. Before the funeral, close family members of the same gender as the deceased wash the body three times with warm water in a ritual called ghusl. The body is then wrapped in simple sheets, which are secured with a rope before it is carried to the funeral. The sheets must be plain and modest, as lavish displays of wealth are discouraged.
The funeral itself takes place at a mosque and consists of prayers for the deceased led by an Imam. After the service, the body can be taken for burial, which is customary for only men to attend. The body is placed in the grave by the closest male relatives on the right side, at a right-angle to the qibla and with the head facing Mecca. Each member of the funeral party places three handfuls of soil over the body before leaving the funeral site, after which gravediggers finish burying the body.
It is polite to dress modestly if you are attending an Islamic funeral. For men, a long-sleeved shirt and straight trousers are fine. For women, clothing should be loose, ankle-length and cover the arms and chest. You don’t have to cover your hair, but it is polite to tie it back in a simple, modest style.
It is also taboo for non-Muslims to take part in prayers. Instead, you can stand or sit respectfully to one side.
Hindus believe that death is just a part of an endless cycle of rebirth and dying called samsara. When somebody dies, their soul- or atman- is reincarnated in another form, decided upon by how well one learned spiritual lessons before their death. For instance, if a human failed to grasp certain moral or spiritual lessons, they may be reborn as an animal.
Because humans are the only animal with free will, it is the only time a soul can break the cycle of samsara, through following spiritual guidance so that they rejoin Brahma, the universal soul, in paradise upon death.
Funerals normally take place within 24 hours of the person dying. The body may be washed by the family in purified water or the special preparation of milk or yoghurt and honey. During the washing, a lamp is lit and placed close to the coffin along with an image of the deceased person’s favourite deity. Once cleaned, the body is wrapped in a simple shroud and laid in a plain casket for viewing.
A garland of flowers is placed around the neck and at the feet, along with a string of wooden beads around the neck for viewing. Mourners gather around the casket and recite mantras or prayers for the soul of the deceased. Afterwards, the casket is carried feet-first for cremation. At the crematorium, the bereaved must circle the casket three times, and stand by as the body is cremated.
After the funeral, the family may gather for a meal at home. A mourning period is observed for 13 days, during which time it is customary for a picture of the deceased to be displayed along with fresh flowers. Once the ashes have been returned, the family may repatriate them to scatter in the Ganges, as is traditional, or opt for a local body of water instead.
If you are attending a Hindu funeral, you should wear simple white clothing. Flowers are an acceptable gift, but should not be brought to the service itself. At the viewing, guests normally view the casket, but should not touch the body of the deceased.
Sikhs believe that death is a transmigration of the soul from one physical form to another. Based on this belief, ‘the last rite of passage’, as Sikh funerals are known, focuses on the celebration of the reunion of the soul reuniting with Waheguru (God).
Ideally, Sikh funerals should take place as soon as possible after death. The body is prepared for cremation through washing and cleaning, and the articles of Sikh faith are placed upon it. To meet this requirement, the hair is left unshorn (kesh) and a kangha (wooden comb), kaccha (cotton shorts), karha (iron bracelet) and dagger (kirpan) are placed with the body.
The funeral itself varies according to the family’s wishes. There may be viewing, or ceremony at the family home, outdoor space or at the Gurdwara either before or after the cremation. Funeral ceremonies are based around prayers and repetition of God’s name, Waheguru, as a source of comfort. After cremation, ashes may be buried or scattered on a flowing body of water.
It is polite to dress modestly in smart clothes of subdued colours for a Sikh funeral. For both sexes, covering the hair with a hat or headscarf is a sign of respect. Some Gurdwaras provide worshippers with scarves upon entry, but it may be better to arrive prepared.
Judaism teaches that the soul is bound one day to return to God. However, beliefs about the nature of life after death are conflicted: some people believe a judgement day, where the wicked are punished and the righteous rewarded, whereas others say that what happens to the soul after death is only God’s concern. In other words, good behaviour on earth cannot guarantee anyone a spot in heaven, so good deed should be carried out only for the sake of what is right.
Jewish funerals take place as soon as possible after death, ideally within 24 hours. As soon as someone dies, a special prayer is recited and a guardian appointed to watch over the body until the burial.
In the hours after death, same-sex relatives wash the body of the deceased and wrap it in a simple shroud and, if the deceases was male, dress him in a kippah (skullcap) and tallis (prayer shawl).
After the body has been prepared for burial (cremation is forbidden), it is sealed inside a plain pine coffin and carried in a hearse to the Synagogue, where the funeral service takes place. There, mourners recite prayers, read psalms and sing hymns under the Rabbi’s direction, who may also read a eulogy for the deceased.
Once the service has finished, the entire congregation moves to the burial site, where a final prayer is said before relatives pour a symbolic fistful of earth upon the coffin, and leave the site. Many funerals have a wake afterwards, catered for by a friend or members of the congregation.
For seven days, the family observes a special mourning period known as shiva. They stay at home, pray throughout the day and may receive guests wishing to offer their condolences. After seven days, the bereaved enter the second period of mourning known as shloshim, during which the family may resume their daily routines, but pray daily for the deceased.
Donations are commonly accepted at Jewish funerals. However, it is taboo to bring flowers. In terms of dressing, formal and modest attire in dark colours is suitable in most cases.
Buddhists believe that death marks the rebirth of the soul in a never-ending cycle of reincarnations known as samsara. The actions of the deceased person in this life determine how they are to be reincarnated. The pursuit of spiritual enlightenment while alive helps Buddhists to approach the ultimate goal- of transcending to Nirvana, the ultimate realisation of non-self and oneness with the universe.
Buddhist funeral ceremonies may vary enormously and could be different depending on the cultural background of the deceased and the preferences of the family. In most cases, they are modest affairs with cremation being the preferred over burial.
There may be a service held at the local temple, where monks lead mourners in chanting and funeral prayers. A temporary altar may be set up for the deceased, bearing a photo, fruits, candles and flowers offered by mourners. It is normally acceptable for family members to speak and non-religious elements, such as eulogies, to be included.
Cremation takes place after the ceremony, with the family usually in attendance. Some Buddhists choose to be buried, and is more customary in Chinese and Tibetan cultures where bodies would traditionally be left atop a mountain or in caves and forests to decompose in the elements.
Simple clothing is most in accordance with Buddhist beliefs and bright colours may not be acceptable. When you enter the temple, you may pass by the alter set up for the deceased person, leave flowers and take a moment to pay your respects. It is customary to bow before the altar as a sign of respect.
Humanists are atheists, who believe that lived experience and rational thought are the only things which should inform personal morality. According to humanists, knowledge cannot be revealed by prophets or higher beings but must be pioneered and sought out by humans.
Because there is no afterlife, individuals have a responsibility to make the most of their short time on earth by seeking happiness and helping others to achieve happiness through acts of kindness, charity or rallying for fairer societies.
There is no set formula for Humanist funerals, and each one is tailored to the persona beliefs and wishes of the deceased and their family. Humanists may be cremated or buried. A growing number opt for woodland burials, which are less damaging to the environment and reflect the ideals of fairness that Humanists embrace.
The service itself may draw inspiration from the format of religious funerals: an officiant leads the ceremony, which may contain a eulogy as well as readings, music, poetry and silent reflection on the life of the deceased.
Because each Humanist funeral is different, it is a good idea to check with the family or funeral director whether there are any special requests for guests.
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