Imagine that someone you know has passed away. Now, would you not want to go and pay your last respects to him/her? You would, wouldn’t you? But you don’t know their customs.
The family of the deceased might be of the same religion, or of a different religion. It gets complicated whichever it is. Customs vary based on the religious beliefs, caste and the family of the deceased.
You should either research what to do beforehand, or you could ask someone from the same sect and get the necessary information so that you don’t appear rude. I’m here to make your work easier and tell you the basic funeral etiquette for the three major religions – Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.
That’s what this article deals with, appropriate funeral etiquette, including what to wear, what to do, what not to do, what to say, when to arrive, when to leave, what to bring, etc.
A HINDU FUNERAL
“The soul is a spirit that a sword cannot pierce, the fire cannot burn, the water cannot melt, and the air cannot dry. The soul is free, unbounded, holy, pure, and perfect.”The Bhagavad Gita
Hindus generally believe that the soul either gets reincarnated after the death of its vessel, i.e. the body, or it attains nirvana and is free from the cycle of death and rebirth.
That is based on the deeds of the soul during the time it is present on Earth.
Keep in mind that I’m saying “it”, because a soul doesn’t have a gender or any sex.
Proper funeral etiquette is given a lot of importance as Hindus believe that not following a certain rite, ritual or custom is disrespecting the gods, and the spirit of the deceased might not get free.
The body is cremated by burning, and not buried as it is believed that the soul becomes free after death, and there is no attachment to the body, so preserving the body serves no purpose.
Again, the customs vary from caste to caste, from family to family, but if you follow these general rules, then you ought to be safe.
If you’re not sure about something, about a particular funeral etiquette, then wait for a while, look around, observe other people. Observe what they do, and then follow it.
If you’re still not sure, then it’s always better to ask somebody what to do rather than make a mistake and offend the family. Keep in mind that you ask in a low voice and keep the conversation as short as possible.
Usually, the body is kept at the family’s home for about 12-24 hours, as it is customary for the relatives of the deceased to pay their respects.
You should dress down, in simple white clothes. A white kurta and a white pyjama is usually preferred, but is not mandatory. Anything simple is accepted, but it should be in white.
Again, I am telling you, please follow proper funeral etiquette as it is important to remember that it is a trying period for the family members.
No jewellery, or keep it to a minimum. Preferably only those which have a religious significance, and not those worn to go to a party or to an informal gathering.
Usually, a garland of flowers can be sent earlier to the house, but otherwise, no other gifts or offerings are given.
The garland is laid over the head of the deceased, and then you circumambulate their body. If you don’t have a garland, its okay, just circumambulate the body. Do not touch the body.
After this, just sit or stand to one side, and don’t talk unless absolutely necessary.
Don’t use your mobile phone as well, unless it’s absolutely necessary. It might be taken as a sign that you’re not mentally present at the funeral.
Another thing is that any kind of video recording or taking photography is considered impolite, so leave all the camera equipment at home before arriving at the home of the deceased.
After this, the body is taken to the crematorium to be burned. It is up to you if you want to accompany them, but it is usually done if you were close the deceased.
If the family or the deceased wishes to do so, organ donation can be done.
The cremation is either done at dawn or at dusk. This depends on the family itself, but is usually done at whichever comes first.
A priest oversees all the funeral rites, and it is usually the oldest male in the family who presides over the last rites and rituals.
Then the family comes back home, and they take bath and fresh clothes are worn. Keep in mind that if you haven’t taken bath, you should not touch someone who has taken bath. The reverse applies as well.
This is to ensure they are not haunted by the spirit of the deceased, but the more plausible reason is that they don’t want to get any infections.
The dead body starts decomposing as soon as death occurs, and the bath ensures that all the bacteria are washed away.
After taking a bath, the family usually has a meal together. The food must not be prepared by the immediate family of the deceased, as it is considered unclean (again, because they might be have touched the body and gotten contaminated fingers).
You can either make yourself useful or help in cooking, or you can go to the crematorium. The choice is up to you.
If you were close to the deceased, and if the family knew you, then you can speak to them, give them your condolences and ask if you can help and make yourself useful in any way. They might take you up on your offer, they might not. It varies.
There is a period of mourning of 10 or 13 days, depending on the customs. At the end of this period, there will usually be a puja held to ensure that the soul moves on.
There will be a feast as well, and it depends entirely on the family if they want to invite you or not.
If they invite you, do take some fruit along. Nothing else. It is alright if you don’t take anything also, but to be on the safe side, you can take fruit.
No other food is to be taken or offered to the family.
During the period of mourning of 10 or 13 days, whichever is applicable, there will be a photograph of the deceased, and visitors are welcome to come and pay their respects and offer their condolences to the family.
One more thing to remember is that sometimes alcohol might be offered, and you have the option to drink or not.
This concludes what to do and what not to do and other basic funeral etiquette for a Hindu funeral.
Follow these general rules, and maybe observe the differences between something that happens before your eyes and what is shown in movies.
A MUSLIM FUNERAL
“Do you know why all are afraid from death? It’s not death actually, it’s accountability which frightens to each and every one. It is not escaping from death, but it is the escape from doom’s day which is impossible.”The Quran
Muslims believe that the soul either gets entry into Heaven or is banished from all that is good based on the deceased person’s actions while they were alive.
If you did good and followed what is written in the Quran, then you’ll go to Heaven. Otherwise, it is banishment.
And an Islamic funeral is orthodox and knowing the right funeral etiquette is extremely important.
It’s because of this belief that Islamic funerals are more of a community event rather than being restricted to only the deceased person’s family.
The people pray to Allah for mercy on the deceased person’s soul, and thereby give comfort to the family as well by reassuring them that their loved one has found a place in Heaven.
And on an extremely serious note, do not, under any condition, ask them about the 72 virginal girls that they’re supposed to get once they reach Heaven.
Prayers are offered up for the soul of the deceased person as well as all the Muslims who are no more, and this plays a double role. It also helps in reassuring the people that their God is merciful and that there’s a place for everybody in Heaven as well as ensuring mercy on the deceased person’s soul.
Muslims are generally more stoic than most religions and cultures. Hence, it could be the reason why loud exclamations of grief are frowned upon.
Women are not supposed to weep, bang their chests, break their bangles or rip their clothes.
Crying is allowed but shouting, screaming, sacrilegious speech or self-harm is forbidden. They believe that attention is taken away from the deceased and the mourner is taking the limelight.
What should you wear to a funeral? Something sombre. A shirt and trousers. A plain, simple kurta and pyjama. For women, it is a little more complicated.
They need to be covered from head to toe, and a headscarf is a must. Nothing flashy or gaudy. Simple, and dress down. You’re not going to impress anyone with the gold Tissot on your wrist.
Muslims believe in a physical reincarnation of the body, and so they believe that it must be preserved. So they cremate the body by burying it and not burning. Anything more like embalming, or even an autopsy is not encouraged even slightly. Even organ donation is prohibited.
The body is covered with a sheet, and is to be buried within 24 hours. It is taken to the mosque and prayers are chanted while the body is kept covered.
Here, just be quiet if you don’t know what to do. Do not use your mobile phone, and do not talk. Proper funeral etiquette prohibits taking pictures and videos.
The Imam, or the mosque head usually conducts the prayers, and the family members follow in his wake. Three lines are formed for the prayers. The first for the men, then for the children, and lastly for the women.
The body is then taken in a silent procession to the burial ground and the body is lowered into the ground.
Women and children are not allowed, but now women are allowed in a few communities. It’s mainly the men who go to the burial ground.
Three fist fulls of mud are taken and dropped into the grave, on top of the body. This is done by everybody at the burial ground.
This is an important funeral etiquette and everybody at the burial ground does this.
Immediately after the burial, everybody convenes at the house of the deceased person’s family. Food is usually given and it gives an opportunity for the community to offer their condolences and show their support to the bereaved family.
You can send flowers and food to the family of the deceased person as it is a sign of comfort, and a sign of solidarity in the community.
The period of mourning usually lasts for about 40 days, and food and flowers can be sent during this period. It is common to be keep in touch and give a kind word or two to the grieving family as a sign of support.
A CHRISTIAN FUNERAL
This is also a commonly televised event in movies and TV shows. So most of us have some rough idea about what to do and what not to do.
Christians generally believe that after a person dies, their soul lives on in the afterlife. There’s no cycle of rebirth or being punished for your sins, as they believe that the soul either enters Heaven or Hell.
So expect a lot of references to the mercy of God and to the beauty of Heaven (no, there’s no mention of any virginal girls, so don’t even go there).
A Christian funeral serves three purposes – pray to God for mercy, comfort the grieving family and friends, and look back at the good deeds of the deceased person.
Praying for the deceased serves two purposes, again. Reassures the family of the deceased that they will go to Heaven, and also gives hope to others that God is merciful and everybody will go to Heaven.
What do you wear? Dark colours, usually black is preferred. And it should be formal clothes like suits for men with a tie, and other items of clothing like dresses and pantsuits for women.
The funeral usually takes place a week after death, and a wake is held just before the funeral service.
A wake is when family and friends can see the body and pay their respects to the deceased person; it can be an open or closed casket ceremony.
The body is embalmed to preserve it, and organ donation can be done if the family wishes it so.
The wake is held at the home of the deceased or at the funeral home.
You just go up to the body, give a minute’s silence or say a quick hymn in a low voice, and then move forward. Then you give your condolences to the bereaved family and then sit, waiting for the funeral.
After the wake, the funeral director or minister leads the congregation in singing hymns, prayers, sermons or a reading of a verse from the Bible.
After this, close friends and family can recite their prepared verses, poems or hymns. Keep it short though. And keep it meaningful, and try and relive the good moments of the deceased, and try making it humorous.
Funeral etiquette also states that the guests sing the hymns along with the choir, although this is not mandatory. But it gives a sense of solidarity to the family.
At the end of this, the minister says the closing words and then there is a moment of silence and reflection.
The family can choose to be bury or burn the body. If the body is burnt, a cremation urn is given and the ashes of the deceased are kept in it and it is kept at a place of importance to the family.
If the body is buried, then the minister gives a short speech at the graveside, called the graveside service, and then the casket in which the body is kept is lowered into the ground.
After this, there is a small opportunity to say a couple of kind words to the bereaved family, and some things like “sorry for your loss” or something along those lines are appropriate.
Keep it short and sweet.
A memorial service is held some time later after the funeral, and you can attend either the funeral or the memorial service.
So now you know appropriate funeral etiquette for the three major religions of the world. There can be some variation, as always, but follow these general rules of funeral etiquette, and you’ll be alright.
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