How 5 Different Religions Deal With Grief

Photographed by Nina Westervelt.
Death is one thing everyone has in common. Of course, we are all going to inevitably face death ourselves, but before that, most of us will also have to grapple with the loss of loved ones.

However, what sets us apart is the fact that we all have different ways of mourning and grieving. How we handle death differs not only from person to person, but also from community to community. In particular, the ways we deal with loss can be strongly influenced by our religious backgrounds. Some religions cremate their dead while others prefer burial. Some faiths go through grieving rituals that last long after the funeral, while others prefer to end the observances when the funeral is complete. Traditions within religions themselves can also be incredibly diverse, too, varying from sect to sect and country to country.

Clearly, many of us have certain beliefs and traditions that can soften the devastation of having to grieve for a loved one. So to learn more about mourning traditions across different religions, we spoke to five people from five different faiths — Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism — to get a better sense of the ways their religions handle death.

Whether or not you consider yourself religious, you might just find a tradition that could help you with your own grieving process.

Welcome to Death Week. This week, we'll attempt to unpack our feelings, fears, and hang-ups about death, dying, and mourning. We’ll do our best to leave no gravestone unturned.
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Photographed by Amelia Alpaugh.

Sect: Mexican Roman Catholic

"Death is a big thing in Mexico in that it influences society in all forms, such as in art. After someone dies, there’s generally a 'velorio,' which translated can mean a wake or vigil, which generally happens the night before the funeral. People can come visit and pray with the body. I’ve always been taught that if you can’t make it to the actual funeral, you have to show up to the velorio, because it’s rude to not pay your respects in one way or another.

"The funeral mass and the actual laying into the grave happens the next day, as opposed to a longer planning process, which as far as I can tell, is because embalming isn’t a huge thing in Mexico and we really believe in souls, so we want to put them to rest as soon as possible.

"I’ve always been taught that funerals are as much an important part of someone’s life as their birth, so they’re usually a big deal, but not really that formal, probably because we have Día de los Muertos and other traditions to keep connected to our departed ones.

"In terms of grieving, I’ve always experienced it more like a remembrance. We go to church every single year on the day in which certain loved ones died and light candles for them.

"It’s also obviously a socioeconomic thing how much money you can spend, but there’s the belief that you want your loved ones to be taken care of after they’re gone, so a lot of work is put into maintaining graves. Many people pay someone at the graveyard to clean the grave every so often or they do it themselves every time they visit."

— Lauren, 22
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Photo: Getty Images.

Sect: Vietnamese Buddhist

"Usually, bodies are cremated in Buddhism, to follow the example of the Buddha, but families might choose to bury their loved ones, too. In either case, there will be a three-day period of continuous worship after the person is buried or cremated, to wish for a peaceful departure for their soul.

"Monks will be present during these worship services and will lead the family and loved ones in prayer chants of Buddhist verses. The monks also oversee the cremation or burial and recite prayers to help the person’s soul pass on. Memorial services are traditionally held on the third, seventh, 49th, and 100th day after the death and the family will come back to the temple during these days for more services. It’s a pretty long process, but the belief is that the soul needs to pass seven ports before going to heaven, thus the service that comes after seven days.

"The service on the 49th day is so that family and loved ones can pray for forgiveness for any sins that the person committed during their life, so that they can have a peaceful reincarnation.

"The 100th day service can roughly be translated into the 'stop cry' ceremony, in which the family recognizes that this person’s soul has gone onto its next life and it’s time to finish the grieving process and let them go, so that they don’t become a ghost stuck in this world."

— Jane, 27
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Photo: Getty Images.

"Cremation is forbidden in Islam, so the body is buried as soon as possible from the time of the death. Funeral preparations begin immediately and the body has to be washed for burial. This is usually done by family members. Male family members will wash the body of a man who has died, while female family members wash the body of a woman who died.

"However, most people now die in hospitals or nursing homes, so the washing is now usually done by professionals in a funeral home. After that, the body is shrouded in three pieces of clean white cloth and the body is put into a position of prayer, if possible, with one hand on the chest and the other hand on top of it.

"Family members and loved ones might mark or remember a death anniversary, but in general, there isn’t really a formal ritual that’s done for these anniversaries.”

— Ally, 24
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Photo: Getty Images.

"Traditionally, when a person dies, they are usually cremated. It’s done as quickly as possible after a person dies, so that the soul can find a new body to inhabit.

"But after the cremation, there are no prayers or rituals for the next 13 days, because we believe the for the first nine days after cremation, the soul is still connected to the body. And then, days 10 to twelve are so that the soul has time to leave the body. Then, there is a celebration on the 13th day to mark that the soul has left the body.
A year after the person dies, the family will hold a 'sraddha,' a memorial event that pays homage to them."

— Sam, 25
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Photographed by Rockie Nolan.

"In Judaism, the funeral occurs ideally within 24 hours of one’s passing. Shiva ('sitting,' in Hebrew) begins right after the funeral, lasting for seven days. I find this practice really beautiful; it is a time in which mourners refrain from work, receive visits from loved ones, recite mourner’s kaddish (memorial prayer), and simply sit. It is a mitzvah, or a commandment, to visit mourners and comfort them.

"This process of shiva really allows grievers to relax and distract their mind with love. This solemn period of bereavement continues past the shiva where families will resume work activities, but refrain from certain levels of entertainment.

"Overall, I feel that Jewish law looks to take care of mourners in allowing them to develop strength while maintaining respect."

— Ilyssa, 22