What managers need to know about religious funeral traditions

8 min read

To be an effective manager, getting to know your employees is essential.

Understanding what they can do, what they know, and what they are passionate about—and how those qualities align with their coworkers' talents—is crucial to putting a team together that excels. Rarely is religious affiliation relevant to this process.

But when an employee has suffered a loss, it is important for their manager to respect the rituals of their faith and possibly participate in them, at funeral services. In this way, managers can create a sense of belonging and support them at a time when they need it most.

The most immediate thing for a manager to understand is the time frame of a specific religion’s or culture's mourning traditions. A majority of religions hold the funeral in the first week, with Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu funerals typically held much sooner, often as quickly as within 24 hours.

For a manager to offer condolences on behalf of the company, they’ll have to act quickly once they hear the news of the passing of an employee's loved one. To extend support that is meaningful, though, that is just the beginning.

Christian traditions

Most Westerners are familiar with the main elements of a funeral in the Christian tradition: a solemn service typically led by a minister or priest, mourners dressed in dark clothing, and music, readings, and eulogies given by family members and friends.

Within that framework there is great variety, of course, from less traditional celebration of life services to a full Catholic funeral mass (as well as a viewing ceremony called a wake held the previous day).

People of Protestant faiths are not known for holding viewings, but many traditions, like those of the Methodists and Lutherans, leave it up to the family’s discretion whether to have a viewing. In others, such as the Church of Latter-Day Saints, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and the Baptist tradition, a viewing is the usual convention.

Christians may be buried or cremated, depending on their preference, and in some cases their denomination.

Muslim traditions

According to Islam, it is the responsibility of the family to usher the soul into the next stage of existence quickly, and so Muslim funerals are held as soon as possible.

Ideally, the funeral and burial happen on the day of the person’s passing. This isn’t always practical, so the rites may take place within three days.

Professional funeral arrangements are not customary in Muslim countries, where the family and community retain custody of the body and are jointly responsible for preparations after a death. In the U.S., state laws regarding embalming can often necessitate flexibility in observance of these rites.

The community feeds and cares for the family throughout the traditional three days of mourning, and longer if needed (up to 40 days).

While there is no specific color of mourning in Islam (apart from the white of the shroud for their loved one), it is appropriate to wear modest, loose-fitting clothing to the funeral that covers the arms and legs. For women, head coverings are required.

It is acceptable to wear white, gray, black, or brown, as long as the clothes are sedate and unflashy, in keeping with the simplicity expected of funeral rites.

The community does more than just attend the funeral to mourn. People come forward to take care of logistics, sometimes in the form of groups and committees and sometimes less formally, while the bereaved prepare their loved one for a speedy burial. Then the community continues to feed and care for the family throughout the traditional three days of mourning, and longer if needed (up to 40 days).

If the person left behind a widow, the larger group is also responsible for helping her observe four months and 10 days of mourning. During this time, she’s expected to only leave the house for necessary duties, like work, doctor’s appointments, and errands.

Jewish traditions

Jewish funerals are held as quickly as possible, but not on the Sabbath or festivals. The casket is usually quite simple and unadorned, and remains closed.

Jewish funerals usually take place in a funeral home, at the graveside, or in a synagogue, and may be led by a member of the clergy or someone close to the person who passed away.

Typically standard prayers and passages from scripture are recited, in addition to the delivery of eulogies.

After the funeral, a seven-day mourning period begins for the immediate family, called shiva.

Mourners dress in dark clothing, and men usually wear yarmulkes, even those who are not Jewish, out of respect for the family. Immediate relatives either tear a piece of their clothes or pin a torn piece of fabric to their clothes to indicate they are in mourning.

After the funeral, a seven-day mourning period begins for the immediate family, called shiva. Because mourners are not permitted to leave the house during this time, friends, family, and fellow worshippers often visit the home to provide comfort and offer condolences. 

If you’re attending a mourner’s home during shiva, you might expect candles to be lit, mirrors to be covered, and the members of the family to be wearing no shoes and sitting on low stools. Much like other remembrance receptions, memories of the person who has passed will be shared and food will be abundant.

Hindu traditions

In Hinduism, funeral rites are known as antyesti, which translates as “last sacrifice,” and they are informed by the idea that the body and soul are distinct entities.

Hindu funerals happen quickly, since according to Hindu tradition, cremation usually occurs within 24 hours of a loved one’s death.

Typically, members of the family will wash their loved one’s body with a combination of yogurt, milk, ghee, and honey, apply essential oils to their head, and dress them in a white sheet; a red sheet is used for the funeral of a married woman whose husband is still alive.

Garlands of flowers are placed on the body and rice balls left near the open casket, if there is one, as an offering to the ancestors. An oil lamp symbolizing the soul is lit and placed near the person’s head, and may remain lit for 12 days.

Mourners typically dress in white, modest clothing, which symbolizes purity, and female mourners take care to wear garments that cover their knees and arms.

Relatives, friends, and other mourners then gather to view the departed and pay respects. They may express some words of condolence to the immediate family. Mourners typically dress in white, modest clothing, which symbolizes purity, and female mourners take care to wear garments that cover their knees and arms. 

A Hindu priest and/or the eldest son in the family will usually lead the group in sacred chants or mantras. If there are no sons, another male from the family may fill this role. While non-Hindu mourners are welcome to pay respects and to join in chanting, it is not required. 

After the ceremony, the body is cremated. Traditionally it is only attended by men, but over time, some of these traditions have evolved. Nowadays female family members may be permitted to attend as well.

Within a day or two of cremation, many people disperse ashes within a sacred body of water, like the Ganges River. This scattering signals a final separation between body and soul. 

Buddhist traditions

Anyone attending a Buddhist funeral should proceed to the altar as soon as they arrive, to pay respects with a slight bow and hands folded in prayer.

Buddhist tradition dictates that mourners wear white, and the service and casket are typically very simple and not showy.

The body is traditionally placed into a casket and surrounded by flowers, candles, incense, colored lights, and, typically, a photo of the person. Instead of being dressed in fancy clothes, they should be dressed the same way they would have dressed on any normal day. 

As long as the body is present, Buddhists believe the person’s spirit can benefit from gifts, words, and songs given to it. Sometimes monks come one or more times per day to sing over the body, but relatives can also do the chanting, or even choose to play a recording.

You are welcome to join in the chanting, but if you are unfamiliar with them, it is acceptable to remain silent.  

You are welcome to join in the chanting, but if you are unfamiliar with them, it is acceptable to remain silent.

During the funeral service, Buddhist monks lead chants or sutras (funeral prayers) and deliver sermons about person who has passed. The services can be small and intimate or larger and open to the community. They can be held either at home or at a monastery. 

Viewing ceremonies can also be a part of Buddhist death rituals, with a portrait of the loved one placed in front of the casket along with an image of Buddha as well as candles, fruits, and incense. 

Cremation is traditional in Buddhism, but only after seven days have passed. And the Buddhist mourning period lasts much longer: up to 100 days, with services traditionally held on the third, seventh, 49th, and 100th day.