How different religions bury their dead

May 14, 2011 

In Islam, the deceased are to be buried within 24 hours.

This was highlighted in media reports of the death of Osama bin Laden. And controversy arose over bin Laden's burial at sea.

Each major religion has its customs concerning burial. Although they vary widely, the one common denominator is respect for the body.

ISLAM

Russell Mohammed, a director of the Mid-America Muslim Cemetery, said the 24-hour burial is not in the Quran but is a cultural practice from the faith's desire to respect the body and to avoid decay.

Since autopsies would injure the body, those are to be avoided, he said.

"Also, we don't embalm," Mohammed said. "This is disrespecting the body."

Since the cemetery is near the Islamic Center in south Kansas City, Mo., washing of the body is done at the center, he said. Then it is wrapped in a white shroud.

After that are prayers, and the body is taken to the cemetery.

"We don't normally use caskets, just bury in the ground, where (the body) becomes part of the soil," he said. "The upper part of the body, the head, is turned toward Mecca."

Mohammed said some Muslim countries do not allow women to go to the cemetery because they think they will be too emotional.

"We allow them to stand at a distance, and after the burial site is covered, they can come closer."

Mohammed said that in some Muslim countries there are processions in the streets with the body in a casket. But that is not done in the U.S., he said.

"And we do not do a eulogy," he said. "Whatever you are going to say about someone, you say it while the person is alive."

Some Islamic clerics said bin Laden's burial at sea violated Islamic law. White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said that the Obama administration consulted "appropriate specialists and experts" before making the decision and that finding a country to accept bin Laden's body and making burial arrangements would have taken longer than 24 hours.

JUDAISM

Similarly, the traditional Jewish custom is to bury the deceased within 24 hours or if not, within 48 hours, said Rabbi Herbert Mandl of Kehilath Israel Synagogue.

"We don't embalm," he said. "Embalming is against Jewish law because you are not to tamper with the body. You are supposed to return the way you came, and embalming radically affects the body.

"Also, cremation is forbidden," Mandl said. "This is a major violation of Jewish law because you are destroying the body."

Wooden caskets are to be used so they deteriorate in the earth, he said. The deceased is buried in a white garment similar to a gown, and the casket is closed at the funeral, which is a simple service with Scripture, prayers and a eulogy.

Services are usually conducted at funeral homes, and then the people go to the cemetery.

"Traditional synagogues usually do not take the body inside the synagogue," Mandl said.

PROTESTANTS

Requirements for Protestant Christian burials are few, said the Rev. J. Lowell Harrup of Northland Cathedral in Kansas City.

Although there is no required time frame, most funerals and burial are within three to four days, he said. Also, cremations are acceptable.

"There is great respect for the dead," he said. "The body is created by God and destined for resurrection, so we see sacredness in death itself."

People often specify what they want to be buried in, he said.

At the church, the tradition is for the funeral to recount the good of the person's life, and a Bible-based sermon is preached.

The casket usually is closed during the service and often re-opened afterward for the final viewing, but in some churches that is being discouraged because it is stressful for the family, said the Rev. Brenda Hayes, a pastor in St. Louis.

"The service is viewed as a celebration of the life that was lived and a victory won through faith," she said. "The mood is upbeat, recalling the Scripture that those who die in Christ are absent from the body but now present with the Lord."

What used to be called a wake now is called family visitation, Hayes said.

"The wake used to be the night before, and often the body would be in the family's house, and people would come there and everybody would be sad."

Now, the visitation is often right before the service, and cremation is becoming more common, she said.

Sometimes it is several days to a week between the death and the funeral, especially if a lot of family members are coming from out of town.

In the African-American tradition, "We dress them up," Hayes said. "Dressy dresses or suits, hair done, makeup, jewelry, things that were the person's favorite."

CATHOLICISM

In the Catholic tradition, the deceased is buried as soon as arrangements can be made, said Deacon Ralph Wehner, director of sacred worship for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

"The church prefers that the body be present for the funeral and if the person is to be cremated, that is done after the funeral," he said. "We require ashes to be buried in an urn, not scattered or sit on someone's mantel.

"The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and that body must be respected, and it is not respectful to scatter ashes or leave them somewhere."

A vigil most commonly is held the night before the funeral, he said. "Vigils used to be in the funeral home but a trend is to have it at the church.

"The funeral Mass includes the reading of Scripture and prayers for the soul of the deceased and the family, prayers that express the hope and mercy of God and prayers for the saints in heaven to assist this soul."

Wehner said most people choose what they wish to be buried in.

If a person is buried in a Catholic cemetery, the ground already has been blessed. If buried in a non-Catholic cemetery, the priest would bless the gravesite. This would happen, for example, for a military person who is buried in a military cemetery.

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