Funerals : Religious & Non-Religious
Planning a funeral is never easy,
When you suffer a bereavement, a funeral for a member of your family is the most difficult day of your life. Everything your family and friends ever thought about a loved one is expressed on that day.
The name Christian actually covers a broad variety of cultures, crossing all continents. In the UK it is estimated that there are up to 220 different Christian denominations, and funeral rituals may differ from church to church.
Essentially, the Christian belief is one of resurrection and the continuation of the human soul, which stems from a trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a way to everlasting life.
Many people call themselves ‘Christian’ but may not be actively linked with a church, and some churches may decline to hold a funeral service for someone who has not been an active member.
Many churches have specially written funeral services, as well as special readings, prayers and hymns (songs). These will include readings from the holy book, the Bible.
Some funerals may include a special service called, Holy Communion, Eucharist or Mass which recalls the last supper that Jesus Christ shared with his disciples before his death.
At the end of the service, special prayers are said either when the mourners are standing around the grave or if it is a cremation, when the coffin disappears from view.
It is traditional to wear dark clothes to funerals and black ties with suits, but sometimes, people prefer to wear bright clothes as a celebration of life and resurrection.
Some funeral services may be followed later by a memorial, particularly if the family prefer a simple, private funeral. The memorial service provides the opportunity to celebrate the life of the deceased with a wider group of friends and colleagues.
Jewish funerals are governed by a set of rituals and traditions which particularly apply to the seven immediate family members; the spouse, mother, father, son, daughter, brother or sister.
Some of the rituals may differ according to the different Jewish communities. Sephardi Jews originate from Spain and the Middle East and Ashkenazi Jews originate from Eastern Europe and Russia . Whilst Sephardi Jews have a strong communal bond, Ashkenazi may be divided into Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities.
Every Jewish community has a burial society called a Chevra Kadisha who prepare the body for burial and help make the funeral arrangements.
Jewish burials are usually held within 24 hours of death, but may be delayed if immediate family members have to travel long distances.
Most Jews are buried in a cemetary and some communities consider cremation a desecration of the body.
At the cemetery, the family and friends congregate in a small chapel with the coffin.
A symbolic small tear (Keriah) may be made in the mourner’s clothes which represents a broken heart
A eulogy (hesped) is given by the rabbi or close family friend.
The Kaddish, an ancient prayer is recited in Hebrew and again after the coffin has been interred.
The coffin is taken to the gravesite and it is considered an honour to help shovel in the earth.
There is a symbolic washing of hands by everyone and everyone returns home.
In the evening, the first shiva will take place. This is the time when the mourners stay at home and will be visited by friends and acquaintances. A year of official mourning follows and certain communities will have specific customs associated with the year.
For Hindus, death represents the transition of the soul from one embodiment to the next and is the means by which the spirit can ascend its journey towards Heaven or Nirvana.
Hindus believe in reincarnation and a Hindu funeral should be as much a celebration as a remembrance service.
Hindus cremate their dead and the burning of the dead body signifies the release of the spirit. The flames themselves are important as they represent the presence of the god Brahma, the creator.
The vast majority of Hindus come from the Indian continent and it is often an area of regret that a loved one has died far away from their homeland and its traditions.
As with all religions, ritual plays an important part. Ideally a Hindu should die while lying on the floor, in contact with the earth. Family members will perform prayers and although touching the corpse is considered polluting, many mourners will need to do so to say farewell.
White is the traditional colour and mourners will usually wear traditional Indian garments. If you are attending the funeral of a Hindu friend, it may be as well to ask what is appropriate to wear.
Prayers are usually said at the entrance to the crematorium and may be offered en-route.
Offerings such as flowers or sweetmeats may also be passed around and noise is also part of Hindu rituals, which may include horns and bells.
The chief mourner, usually the eldest son or eldest male in the family represents the whole family in saying goodbye to the deceased. They and sometimes all the male members may shave their heads as a mark of respect.
Scriptures are read and then the chief mourner will push the button to make the coffin disappear, as well as going below to ignite the cremator
After the cremation, the family may come together for a meal and prayers and begin a period 13 days mourning, when friends will visit and offer condolence.
Founded in the 15th century, the Sikh religion has its origins in traditional Hindu beliefs but has its own teachings and central scriptures which lay down many of the traditions associated with death and funeral rites.
While rejecting the theory of re-birth, Sikhs of believe in an afterlife, when the soul meets with the supreme soul, God (Akal Purakh).
Cremation is the traditional method of disposal of the body, although other methods may be acceptable.
It is usual to go to the house of the family before departing for the crematorium and the body may be on display
Death is seen as an act of the Almighty and it is written in the scriptures that emotions should be kept under control, so family members may appear detached.
On the way to the crematorium, hymns may be sung and once there prayers may be recited and more hymns sung
The next of kin usually will press the button for the coffin to disappear
The ashes are normally scattered in the sea or running water
After the cremation, guests usually return to the family home where there will be more readings and hymns
The mourning period usually lasts between two and five weeks during which time other ceremonies may also be held.
There are two major groups of Muslims – Shi’ite Muslims and Sunni Muslims
Funeral traditions tend to have developed over the centuries, rather than being set out in the religion’s holy book – The Koran
Muslims try to bury the body within 24 hours of death if possible. They believe that the soul departs at the moment of death
The deceased is placed with their head facing the Muslim holy city of Makkah
Ritual washing is performed usually by family members or close friends, usually according to the sex of the deceased.
The body is wrapped in a shroud of usually simple, white material
Afterwards, salat (prayers) will be said for the deceased.
Funerals should be kept simple and respectful and it is forbidden to cremate the body of a Muslim.
Muslims are buried with their face turned to the right, facing Makkah and it is customary not to use a coffin.
Mourners may throw earth onto the coffin in the grave, The grave may be raised above ground level and any gravestone should be simple.
There is an official mourning period of three days, (longer for a remaining spouse) and this may include a special meal to remember the deceased.
It is estimated that there are up to 570 different varieties of Buddhism. There are few formal traditions relating to funerals and they are essentially seen as non-religious events.
The simple approach and emphasis on the person’s state of mind leading up to death have led to a marked increase and interest in Buddhist funerals in the West.
Most Buddhist schools of thought concentrate on the spirit or mind of the deceased and agree that the physical body is just a shell. Many also share the Tibetan belief that the spirit of the deceased will undergo rebirth, usually after a period of 49 days.
Cremation is the generally accepted practice in Asia – the Buddha himself was cremated.
A simple service may be held at the crematorium chapel at which Buddhist readings may be recited.
Non Religious Funerals
A Humanist funeral is increasingly common. It’s simply more appropriate for those who neither lived according to religious principles, nor accepted religious views of life or death. A Humanist Funeral or memorial ceremony recognises no ‘after-life’, but instead uniquely and affectionately celebrates the life of the person who has died. Proper tribute is paid to them, to the life they lived, the connections they made and have left behind.
A typical ceremony will usually include:
- Favourite or appropriate music (of any kind)
- A welcome and a brief explanation of the ceremony
- Poetry or prose readings
- A ‘tribute’ to the deceased, mainly biographical, often with short contributions from family, friends and colleagues
- A time of reflection for silent meditation or private prayer
- The Committal or words of farewell
- A brief close, which can include thanks and announcements
- Prior to the funeral, a Humanist officiant will normally visit a family to map-out the ceremony and to form a rounded picture of the subject. At this stage it may also be important for families to freely discuss various options in relation to procedure during the ceremony.
- Detailed preparation prevents reliance on a standard text or format, and in the days leading up to the ceremony time and care is devoted to writing and compiling a tribute both factually accurate and with the appropriate tone. By this process, each ceremony can be developed afresh with families who welcome the opportunity for choice and personal input. A printed copy of the ceremony is always provided for the family, to send to absent relatives or friends and kept as a memento.
- Humanist funeral ceremonies may be conducted at crematoria, cemeteries, woodland burial grounds, and other burial grounds (subject to restriction).
- Memorial ceremonies are more usually conducted elsewhere and after some time has elapsed following the funeral. However in some circumstances, for example where there is no body or a body has been accepted for medical research, a memorial ceremony may take the place of a funeral.
- All Humanist officiants are non-judgemental, empathic and have wide life-experience; many have professional backgrounds.
They are accredited by the
British Humanist Association,
Civil Funerals have been available in most of the UK for many years now, delivered by a professional Civil Funeral Celebrant, who will be a member of the Institute of Civil Funerals. Full list of members available at www.iocf.org.uk/reg_members
A Civil Funeral is defined as: A funeral, which is driven by the wishes, beliefs and values of the deceased and their family, not by the beliefs or ideology of the person conducting the funeral.’
This means that the professional Celebrant is happy to include religious material as well as carrying out non-religious ceremonies. In this way Civil Funerals are somewhat different to humanist ceremonies, where religion will not be included. The Celebrant will spend time talking with family members and friends and will then write and deliver a full ceremony that will reflect the wishes of the family and those of the deceased. The Celebrant also discusses and arranges participation in the ceremony of any family or friends, music and readings.
Who are Civil Funeral Celebrants?