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Honoring Death

By Beth Yoon

Following is a brief overview of four different burial and mourning practices when death occurs.
I attempted to give these overviews by country but when dealing with the issue of death, it is usually the belief or religion that is looked to and not the particular country.

In the Jewish faith, it is believed that a person’s body should not be altered in any way after they die. This means that they do not perform autopsies, donate organs or embalm the deceased. They believe that the body should be returned to God in the way that God gave it to that soul. The body is cleaned, dressed, placed into a wooden box and buried as soon as possible. The family of the deceased then begins what is called "Shiva" or "sitting Shiva". This translates to mean seven and they mourn for seven days. During this time the focus is shifted to the mourners. Friends and family of the immediate mourners home prepare one and this is where they stay for the entire seven days. During this time, they are not intended to partake in anything outside of the Shiva house. They are to focus on the thought "I am a soul, my loved one is a soul". All mirrors in the home are covered during Shiva, as they are a sign of social acceptance and vanity, which should not be thought of at that time. Also much attention is paid to what is eaten during Shiva, it is always food that reminds of the cycle of life, such as eggs (because they are round) and water, which they pour on their hands (because it is the source of all life). Those mourning are surrounded by family and close friends who "pay a Shiva call", helping the mourners to cope with their loss.

"A belief in the cyclical reincarnation of the soul is one of the foundations of the Hindu religion" It is believed that those who lived good, virtuous lives on earth will be sent to live in paradise with King Yama (believed to be the first mortal to meet death and now leads the way for others). Those who have participated in evil or wrongdoing on earth will be born again as an animal among the insects and worms. Cremation is used to release the soul from the earthly body. It is believed that if the body stays, then the soul will linger and not make the journey toward its fate in the otherworld. This journey is believed to take 11 days and during this time the mourners to ensure the safety of the soul during its travel perform a ritual called "Shradda". The ashes of the deceased are thrown in the river (holy river Ganges in India) and the mourner’s walk away without looking back. They make daily offerings of rice balls known as Pinda’s. Pinda’s are believed to be a symbolic body for the dead. On the 12th day the soul is believed to have reached the otherworld to be joined by its ancestors.

Death is something that is openly discussed within the Buddhist religion. It is not looked at as a taboo subject but rather part of the cycle of life on earth. They believe that unless one can let go of the ideas of self (ego), attachment, and materialism, one will remain in this cycle of life and death (reincarnation). Reincarnation is a big element of Buddhism. The way that a person lives on earth can determine where he is "reborn" in the cycle. If they are giving and not self-cherishing they can be reborn as kings. Some forms of Buddhism (mostly in Vietnam and parts of China) practice ancestral worship as a form of giving that can help earn merit for the living and the ancestor as well. The deceased are cremated. It is customary to take a small piece of hair or bone from the body before cremation. Both the ashes and article are blessed through what is called Puja Jangwa. Once performed they become holy items. The ashes are spread either in the ocean or from a high mountain. It is believed that the fish or insects touched by them receive liberations from their negative karma. The hair or bone then becomes a holy statue where the living can make offerings, which gains them merit for rebirth. Acceptance of the cycle of life is to be meditated upon during the loss of a loved one. Grieving is thought of as an attachment to the ego. Acceptance and prayer for the journey of the loved one is practiced. To be freed from this cycle of death and rebirth is to reach Nirvana, or " fully awakened" which is the goal and ULTIMATE TRUTH to the Buddhist.

Particularly in America, the Christian religion treats death very similarly to the Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist faiths. When someone dies, there is usually a priest or reverend present to pray. If possible they will be present before the death for the "Last Rites". The prayers are to help the soul with entrance into heaven and forgiveness of sins is asked for. The bodies are then prepared for what is called a "viewing" or "wake". The viewing is usually held over a 2-day period, in a funeral home, where the immediate family will be greeted and comforted by family, friends and other loved ones of the deceased. The body is in the coffin and placed in view to be seen. The viewing is for the purpose of "paying respects" to the deceased. After the viewing period, a service takes place. The service can include (with many variations) prayer, song, speeches about the loved one or a eulogy if one was prepared. A eulogy is an honor or tribute given to the deceased. Mourners usually wear black or dark colors to express their sorrow and the mood is usually somber as it is a time to say goodbye to that person. At this time, the coffin is closed and carried to a funeral car, which is followed by the family to the gravesite. This is known as the funeral precession and can also be an elaborate and respected part of the process. At the grave site, the reverend or priest will pray and loved ones may say good bye or even throw flowers on top of the coffin before it is lowered into the ground. Cremation is also acceptable in this faith. Much of the same practices occur but without the burial at the gravesite. The ashes are then kept in an urn either close to the family or sprinkled somewhere meaningful to the deceased. A gathering for dinner is sometimes held after the burial where discussion of the loved one and the life they lived takes place. It is a time of remembrance and consolation for the family. Large amounts of food are prepared and then given to the family to be eaten over the next days of mourning.

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