Funeral practices are deeply integrated in culture, reflecting beliefs and values around death. Offering an index of religion, funeral traditions in Abrahamic religions bear quite different stages as well as certain similarities
By AYŞE BETÜL KAYAHAN
[H]aving become a subject of philosophy, psychology, sociology as much as it has of anthropology and theology, mortality has always been a matter of interest throughout history as well in the present day. There is even a scientific field named “thanatology,” the science of death.
The anthropology of death brings us the very different funerary customs that have been in practice throughout history.
To start with a common example, ancient Egyptians used to embalm the deceased and built giant pyramids to house the embalmed bodies of their kings and pharaohs. Other interesting burial traditions include those of the ancient Greeks, recorded in anthropological records or literary works like those in Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.”
As far as can be understood from historical accounts telling about the funeral of Attila the Hun, ancient Turks used to show their grief by hurting themselves. Before the 6th century, Turks were burning the deceased with their belongings and horses, and keeping the ashes to bury in autumn or spring. Certain Chinese and Arabic accounts report that it was the Kirghiz people who were the first Turks to burn the body. However, it was after this century that Turks began to bury their deceased.
In Iran, dead bodies used to be buried before the arrival of Mazdaism (Zoroastrianism). Fire, soil, air and the water are considered as sacred in Mazdaism and the body must not pollute any of these four elements. There was no burning or burying but the deceased used to be abandoned outside. The same tradition was visible among the Sasanians, as they used to abandon the dead outside and bury the separated bones and flesh in a special containers called “Ossuarium” later on. Today modern Mazdaists bury their deceased. “Burial customs always have been an index of religion,” American scholar Richard Nelson Frye says.
According to Abrahamic religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the appropriate way is to bury the deceased. It is believed that Cain (Qabil), the eldest son of Adam killed his brother Abel (Habil) and committed the first crime of murder. It was the first death on the earth and the first burial. It is still observed that Muslim and Jewish communities bury deceased people as a funerary custom following the order of the Quran and Torah. Cremation and embalming are strictly forbidden by Islam and Judaism. In both religions, burials take place as quickly as possible to honor the dead. Jews never hold a funeral on “Shabbat,” while there is no similar restriction in Islam.
Muslims and Jews prepare the body for burial by washing the body with warm water from head to feet. Jews call this process “Tahara.” Muslims apply “ghusl,” or the ritual of ablution. While washing, the body can be turned from one side to another to entirely clean it but it is never placed face down. In Islam and Judaism, the body is dressed in white burial shrouds and put in a simple wooden casket. Men prepare men and women prepare women.
In Islam, a person who is about to die is expected to say the “Shahada,” or the testimony of faith, which translates to, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” His family or close friends should encourage him to say it because it is regarded as one of the first pillars of Islam.
When the person dies, those present close the deceased’s eyes and cover the body with a clean sheet. Someone is expected to read the Quran. As soon as the “ghusl” and shrouding are done, the deceased’s coffin is taken to the mosque for the funeral prayer “Salat al-Janazah,” which is a communal duty among Muslims.
The deceased person is put in front of the imam and the community behind him faces to the “qibla,” the direction of Mecca, in the courtyard of the mosque. When the prayer ends, the casket should be transported to the cemetery for burial. The body should be placed in the grave on its right side, facing the qibla. A layer of wood is placed over the corpse and then the soil is filled. Following the burial service, the family of the deceased accepts visitors at home.
On the other hand, Jewish funerals take place at synagogues. A Jew who is a Cohen, a descendant of the priestly class, does not join the burial unless the deceased is a close relative since he is forbidden to come near the corpse. A Cohen is commanded to be in state of purity and avoid ritual defilement by a corpse which is ritually unclean.
Women wear conservative apparel and men wear jackets in dark color. The service is held by the rabbi and begins by cutting a black ribbon to symbolize the person’s leaving loved ones.
After the funeral service, people go to the cemetery where men carry the casket. With prayers, the deceased is put in the grave with the casket. Mourners tear their garments as an expression of grief, which is called “keriah.” They keep on doing it during the first mourning process called “shiva” which lasts seven days. In “shiva” mourners keep the traditions such as covering mirrors and lighting candles. People visit the home of bereaved. There the “kaddish” prayer is recited.
Once a Catholic dies, the priest visits the home with a cross and a vessel of holy water to sprinkle over the deceased’s body. There is no washing or bathing but embalming is acceptable. It is also an appropriate way for the viewing and wake and vigil, which is a period of spending time with deceased before the funeral service at home or a funeral home. Relatives and friends of the deceased come, praying and sharing the grief of the immediate family. This is the most appropriate time to eulogize as the “Requiem Mass” (Catholic Church service) does not permit eulogies.
During the wake, the body is put on display in a casket. When the casket is brought to the church, the priest leads the funeral mass. Holy water is sprinkled and there is an opening song and prayer, and a sermon takes place from the Bible and a psalm. When the mass is completed the coffin is taken to the graveyard for the rite of committal.
For Eastern Orthodox Christians, there are differences in the funeral service compared to Catholics. When an Orthodox is about to die, the priest should be there to hear the final confession and administer the “Holy Communion” to the person. The first step is preparing the body that includes washing and clothing. When the body is bathed and dressed, the priest sprinkles the holy water on the four sides of the casket before the body is placed inside. The priest reads the first “Panikhida” (a prayer service). The wake lasts three days and during this, the “Psalter” (The book of Psalms) is read out loud by family and friends.
After this, the body is brought to a church in a form of procession led by the cross. There the coffin is opened and a bowl of “Koliva” (a dish of boiled wheat with honey) is placed with a candle on top, symbolizing the cyclical nature of life and the sweetness of heaven. A cross is placed in the deceased’s hand. Lit candles are distributed to those present in the funeral. The priest leads the “Divine Liturgy,” and recites “Memory Eternal.” Although saying goodbye differs in every society, from the preparation of the deceased to the disposal, the arrangements and funeral services in between actually show us all these funerary customs are important as much as for the bereaved of the deceased. The importance given to funerals is universal for honoring the deceased and consoling and sharing the pain of loss as well at the end of the day.
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