5 Different Religions & How They Deal With Their Dead

Death is our common denominator — our shared, inevitable destination — but how we handle it varies widely from community to community. Some 2.6 million people die each year in the U.S., and that number will increase rapidly as the Baby Boomer generation approaches the ends of their lives. The ways we mourn and remember are influenced by our religious backgrounds. Some faiths cremate their dead, while others bury them. Some observe rituals long after a loved one's death, while for others, the formalities are complete with the funeral. Many families are now far from their heritages' birthplaces, so they've adapted ceremonies to fit their surroundings. Traditions also evolve naturally across generations.

To learn more about the ways we deal with death, we spoke with members of five different faiths — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Of course, beliefs and traditions within each of these religions are diverse, too. Nevertheless, these five leaders offer snapshots of outlooks that are shared by billions. Here's how they say goodbye.
Illustrated By Elliot Salazar.
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Mr. Ramaswamy P. Mohan, Religious & Cultural Educator, The Hindu Temple Society Of North America

What We Believe
"Hindus use fire as their means of communicating with the gods. We believe the human body is a composition of the five elements [earth, water, fire, air, void]. The body, in which the soul is hiding, is supposed to have been doing fire rituals throughout its lifetime, and cremation is the ultimate sacrifice — the disposition of the physical body. It’s done [as quickly] after the death as possible, by the son; if there is no son, the grandson through the son, then the grandson through the daughter takes over…if not, then the brother. There’s no heaven and hell, although the soul experiences both good and bad on its way… Great souls get salvation — but most souls find a new body to get into and start a new life."

The Death Rites
"There are 41 sacraments in Hinduism; [the death rite] is the 41st sacrament. All the other sacraments are done by the living person, sometimes with the help of his wife, after marriage. The 41st is the only one that is done after death, by someone else on behalf of this individual. When my father passed away, I [couldn’t] do [all of the traditional] things because I live in NYC. What we did was we went to a crematorium. In 1988, funeral homes weren’t familiar with our way of doing things. When we lit [a ceremonial] fire, the funeral director panicked...I threw him out! I said I had taken precautions and that it was a sacred place, and he needed to get out. Now, funeral directors understand these traditions. It’s a market they have to serve. A priest from our temple came and did the rituals, and then the body was placed in a casket — which isn’t done traditionally. Typically, you carry the body on a stretcher all the way to the place of cremation — but we got in a sleek limo and went to the crematorium. A few days later, I collected the ashes and gave them to my brother, who was going to be the first to travel to India, so he could scatter them there."

How We Remember
"There is no puja, no prayer, no rituals in the home after [the cremation] for a period of 13 days. The first nine days, we believe the soul still thinks it is connected to the body — the soul probably wonders 'Why is everyone crying? I’m right here!' We're preparing the jiva, the soul in the physical body, to understand its life in the astral body. The 10th day, the jiva understands that it has to now leave; the 10th, 11th, and 12th days are dedicated to the old rituals, to make the path for the jiva have as little obstacles as possible. The 13th day, we celebrate with sweets…the jiva has finally understood its mission and is on its way to the next act of the spirit’s journey. [To remember the dead, we perform] a rite...called srardham...done on a monthly basis observed on the day or date of the death. Also, in some communities, the 45th day after death is also observed. After the first 12 months, this rite is performed annually on the date the person passed away."
Illustrated By Elliot Salazar.
Amir Hussain, Professor Of Theological Studies, Loyola Marymount University

What We Believe
"In the pre-Islamic world, there was a notion of fate, with time (dahr, but also known as zaman or al-ayyam) being the determining agent of a person’s life and death. This is reflected in the Qur’an, where the pre-Islamic Arabs say: 'There is nothing but our life in this world. We live and we die and nothing destroys us but Time' (45:24). Muhammad [changed this perception when he was] commanded [by God] to say: 'It is God who gives you life, causes you to die, then gathers you together for the Day of Resurrection, of which there is no doubt' (45:26)... On the Day of Judgment, the body is judged, and those who have earned their reward are allowed into paradise, while those who have earned a punishment are consigned to hell."

The Death Rites
"When a Muslim dies, the corpse is treated with great respect. Ideally, the dying person will have asked for God’s forgiveness, prepared a will, performed the ritual full-body ablution before prayer, and recited the shahadah (profession of faith) before their death. The body is then washed. Traditionally, this would be done by members of the family, with males washing the bodies of males, and females washing the bodies of females... In the pre-modern world, the majority of people died at home, and so family members by necessity had to be familiar with the rituals surrounding the dead. In the modern world, the majority of people die in hospitals or institutions, creating a distance from traditional rituals... [so] washing is [often] done by professionals in a funeral home. Once the corpse is cleaned, it is wrapped in a shroud consisting of three pieces of clean, white cloth that contain no sewn seams or knots. If the person dies on the pilgrimage in the state of ritual purity known as ihram, they are buried in their pilgrimage clothes."

How We Remember
"There is a special funeral prayer for the deceased, salat al-janazah, which is unique in that the congregation remains standing, without the prostration that is characteristic of the daily prayers. One doesn’t bow down and touch one’s head to the ground as in all other prayers. Once, I got word that a friend’s father had died. I went to the mosque to pray the prayer, but the mosque was closed, as it was late at night. So, I prayed the prayer outside and was thankful that I did not have to prostrate myself outside... People certainly will remember a death anniversary, but there are no formal rituals at a month or three months or anything like that after a burial."
Illustrated By Elliot Salazar.
Mary Riechers, Educator, Kadampa Meditation Center NYC

What We Believe
"In Buddhism, we believe that the body dies and disappears, but the mind goes on — the mind has existed endlessly and continues to go on. And, we believe that there is rebirth. The most positive rebirth is full enlightenment...[which] means removing all negative imprints from the past, all delusions, and just having no suffering ever again. The second positive rebirth is a human rebirth, because in that rebirth we again have the opportunity to purify our past negatives and get to enlightenment. Gods, demigods, animal realism, hell realms, ghost realms — those are not good rebirths at all... A god realm, that sounds good, right? But, if you get reborn in the god realm, everything is perfect, and that makes you not interested in attaining enlightenment. Then, you might pass into another body without having cleansed your imprints, and you might not have a positive rebirth... If you get born into a hell realm, you might be wandering around in two-degree weather on the streets of New York endlessly until you work through the suffering [and can move on to a more positive rebirth]. Eventually, everyone will attain enlightenment, but it will take eons."

The Death Rites
"Once a person dies, [we believe] the body is nothing; it’s trash. So, we don’t have anything to do with body disposition. We’re decaying from the moment we’re conceived. [Ed. note: Cremation is customary in many Buddhist countries.]

"The transference-of-consciousness ceremony — the powa — is a very profound practice to make prayers for the recently dead to go into a pure land or a positive rebirth. The ceremony is open to everyone who wants to come, and we not only feature the person we’re holding it for, but everybody can come with their thoughts of people who have recently died in their families. We make offerings to the Buddhas. People bring beautiful offerings: homemade flowers, cakes, candles, pictures of the recently dead, certain things that were special to that recently dead person, and we have a sadhana — a booklet of prayers that is special for the powa that we chant. We’re not praying to an entity as such, we’re praying to clarity and purity. It can be done for someone who is in the death process, as well. My son (who is a senior Buddhist teacher) did powa with my family and me in my dad's hospital room while he was dying."

How We Remember
"We hold a belief that once the physical death process is complete, the consciousness first goes into the bardo or intermediate state. This is the state between death and rebirth, where one develops a 'dream-like' body of the next rebirth. This 'hallucinatory' state between death and rebirth is believed to be experienced for up to 39 days, so continued prayers can be helpful. There is nothing ritualized, but many do continue to do powa privately, as often as they like. In fact, one can do powa at any time, in order to help all sentient beings who have recently died."

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Illustrated By Elliot Salazar.
Rabbi Corey M. Helfand, Peninsula Sinai Congregation

What We Believe
"In Jewish tradition, there’s a strong belief in the idea that people have a soul, or neshama. The soul lives forever, and the body is on borrowed time, and we give it back to God. [According] to the texts we read in Genesis, with Adam coming from the Earth, we give our bodies back to the Earth and to God — that’s why we bury our dead. As for what happens to the soul, there is a hope that there’s something else, something beyond. In a more traditional view, the soul lives on, goes up to heaven — some even go so far as to say that at some point, in a messianic era, souls will return to the body. A lot of it has to do with memory: You live on in the form of the memories of the people who survive you."

The Death Rites
"When a person passes away, people go into overdrive mode [with] regard to logistics: calling people, writing obituaries… Once the arrangements are made, even as they’re being made, I’ll set up a funeral intake. One of the things we do after a person passes away is we have people rip clothing. It stems from the Bible: People would rend their garments to symbolize someone being torn away from them. The sound of hearing something ripped is often very emotionally charged. And, then there’s this other symbol — even if you were to rip clothing and have it mended, the garment never goes back together the way it once was. There’s a scar. Theres’s always a reminder."

How We Remember
"For seven days after a person passes away, it’s shiva — that’s the Hebrew word for seven. You refrain from shaving and doing pleasurable things, you sit low to the ground, and people come and share stories and food with you. It’s so positive for people to be taken care of. It’s creating a space for people to really feel what they feel. Then, it’s shloshim — the Hebrew word for 30 — for 30 days, where people are gradually easing up on the observances of shiva, but still refraining from 'pleasurable' activities. I had someone ask me once whether they should go to a party during shloshim, and I told them that Jewish tradition would say not to go, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. They told me later that they had gone for 10 minutes — they couldn’t stand to be there with the DJ and people doing the limbo and so on. Of all of the rites and rituals in Judaism, I’d say the Jewish traditions around death and mourning are spot-on in terms of mirroring what people are feeling after a loved one dies."
Illustrated By Elliot Salazar.
Reverend Laurie Garrett-Cobbina, Assistant Professor Of Pastoral Care & Education, San Francisco Theological Seminary

What We Believe
"Christians have a diversity of practice. There are Christian traditions that say when someone dies, they're sleeping, and they’ll wake up when Jesus comes again. In mainline traditions, it’s more that death is a transition to another kind of life. It's been an encouraging thought for oppressed people that their oppressors might go to hell. There’s also been a need for people of power to say, 'These people aren’t good, so they’re not going to be in the heaven I’m in.'

"[As for grieving], Christianity largely comes from a grief response — it comes from Jesus' death. Grieving gives people a chance to acknowledge what has been lost to them, and then to assign that loss to another dimension of life, so that the community can reconnect with what is living. This is how resurrection happens, and it's the purpose of funerals and memorial services." 

The Death Rites
"Prayer is important, but what you pray about depends on your Christian tradition. Praying for the soul of someone who’s died, that’s very Roman-Catholic. That's all [a matter of] doctrine. If you have a memorial or funeral ritual, you talk about the person and what you’re going to miss. The kind of eulogy you get really depends on your Christian tradition. I’m Presbyterian...I don’t want to go to a funeral [where] someone says, 'You’re not living a good life, you’re going to die, get it together.' I don’t think that’s a good thing to do at a funeral! I don’t want to 'get it together' right there... I think that [style of eulogy] really is tradition-influenced. In Presbyterianism, cremation versus burial doesn’t really matter; there’s a movement for green [practices] in the Presbyterian community, and in some others. It’s slowly catching on that we don’t have to bury people, buy coffins, and so on."

How We Remember
"My father died when I was a teenager, and sometimes, I feel his presence — that’s a normal grief response. Another one is to take care of people. When you go to the graveside with people, when you cook for other people, when you take care of the child of somebody who lost a spouse — people have a need to care for other people, and the opportunity to grieve gives people a chance to care."

"[In a healthy grieving process, we] talk about the person quite a bit, at length, with different people. We need a community to grieve. We need to tell the story about loss, and we also need to begin to envision life without that person. When you tell the story, again and again, someone will say 'What happened, how did they die?' And, when you tell that story 50 times, they’re going to appear dead to you."
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