A guide to religious funeral traditions 

6 min read

Important facts about religious funeral rituals

  • Death rituals in different religions vary widely, but every faith has traditions meant to help the family with the process of saying goodbye.

  • Most religions have funerals within a week. Catholic funerals happen within 3 days, and Jewish and Muslim funerals are held as soon as possible.

  • Many religions have viewings, but Islam and Judaism do not and do not embalm.

  • Catholic funerals involve a mass and do not have eulogies, which are delivered at the wake.

  • While dark clothes are traditional in many religions, white is worn to Hindu and Buddhist funerals.

Every religion has its own customs and beliefs that support its followers through the process of saying goodbye to a loved one. Though they all share the goal of offering comfort to the bereaved, many faiths diverge in the details of how they do so, with different practices that reflect their various perspectives on death, community, the physical world, and the afterlife.

If you are attending or even participating in a funeral of someone whose religion you do not know a lot about, you may want to familiarize yourself with some of the rituals you may see to avoid potentially being caught unawares. And even if you don’t know any adherents of some of these religions, knowing about death rituals in different cultures can teach us a lot about dealing with loss.

Timing of funeral services

No matter if a loved one’s passing was expected or sudden, the majority of religions hold the funeral within a week. Most Christian denominations as well as many Buddhists use this time frame. Catholic funerals often take place about three days after a loved one’s death, and rarely on Sundays. 

By contrast, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism tend to hold funerals much sooner, often as quickly as within 24 hours, with the caveat that Jewish funerals are not held on the Sabbath or most holidays.

Catholic funeral traditions

In Catholic tradition, a viewing ceremony, called a wake, is a separate service from the funeral. A viewing can last several days or be held for just a few hours and can take place at home, at a social hall or restaurant, in a house of worship, or in a funeral home.

If you have never been to a wake or a viewing, you can usually expect to see photographs of your loved one from different stages of their life alongside the flower arrangements.

At Catholic wakes, it is customary to not only offer condolences, but to recite the Rosary.

Catholic funerals include a mass led by a priest, and they take place either in a church or a funeral home. As the casket is brought it, it is sprinkled with holy water, and a crucifix or bible may be placed on top of the casket.

Practicing Catholics in attendance will take Communion, but funeral attendees of other faiths do not take part in this aspect of the service. Hymns such as “Amazing Grace” will be sung. But do not expect eulogies at the funeral; they are delivered at the wake instead.

Protestant funeral traditions

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.

For the funeral service, Protestant traditions allow for eulogies and remarks as part of the funeral itself, which may be led by a minister but is not required to be. You can also expect songs, hymns, and some prayers.

If you are unsure what to wear to a particular funeral, ask for advice from a friend or relative.

Jewish funeral traditions

Do not expect a viewing at a Jewish funeral. Judaism subscribes to the belief that seeing a loved one’s body will distract mourners from properly honoring them by drawing their attention to how the person looks and their physical self, rather than their memories of the person as they were in life.

What’s more, an open casket requires the use of embalming chemicals and makeup, which are antithetical to Jewish practices of purifying the body for burial.

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.

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. 

Muslim funeral traditions

Islam and Judaism are similar in that Muslim rituals also do not include viewings, and in purifying the body for burial, the use of embalming chemicals or makeup is forbidden.

In addition, for Muslim services there is often no casket. Rather, the loved one is shrouded in cotton and tied with ropes, and is placed directly in the ground at the cemetery.

Muslim funerals are usually run by an imam, who leads the recitation of prayers, often largely in silence. Muslim funerals tend to be on the quiet side, with no music or remarks. While it is not unusual to cry at a Muslim funeral, it is generally expected that mourners will refrain from loud wailing.

Muslim funerals often take place in the courtyard of a mosque, with all male members of the community in attendance in a show of support, even if they did not know the person. Historically Muslim women did not go to funerals. Nowadays they may, but they sit separate from the men.

Hindu funeral traditions

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

In this time period, it is customary for friends and family to visit the home to pay their respects.

During funeral services, the casket is carried into the crematorium while prayers are recited by mourners. The casket is typically open, and guests are expected to view the body respectfully during the service.

The ceremony, called mukhagni, is led by a Hindu priest and selected family members. After the ceremony, the body is cremated, and the next day the ashes are scattered over a sacred body of water.

Buddhist funeral traditions

If you are attending a Buddhist funeral, when you arrive you should proceed to the altar to pay respects with a slight bow and hands folded in prayer.

During the funeral service, Buddhist monks lead chants or sutras (funeral prayers) and deliver sermons about person who has passed. Typically services are held at the family home or in a monastery. You are welcome to join in the chanting, but if you are unfamiliar with them, it is acceptable to remain silent.

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. 

Dress codes for funerals

In the United States most people dress in black or navy for a funeral, as is common in Christian traditions. Dark, somber colors are similarly worn at Jewish funerals. 

Other religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, however, take a different approach and encourage funeral attire that is white, a color that symbolizes purity. In Hinduism both family and non-relatives wear white to the funeral, while at Buddhist funerals the grieving family wears white while others in attendance wear darker clothes.

In Islam, it is acceptable to wear white, gray, black, or brown, as long as the clothes are sedate and unflashy. You will generally be OK if you dress as you would for a business meeting, avoiding form-fitting clothes, plunging necklines, jeans, or short skirts.

If you are unsure what to wear to a particular funeral, ask for advice from a friend or relative—it is better to admit you do not know the traditions than to show up in an outfit that offends the family.

All of the above advice should be taken with a grain of salt, as no religion is totally monolithic. Every one has different groups within it that have their own variations of traditional rites and beliefs, and all may be practiced in various ways in different regions and cultural frameworks.

In all religions, however, a funeral is an opportunity to offer condolences to the mourners and to honor and celebrate the life of a loved one.

You may be in mourning as well, so be kind to yourself as you prepare to attend the ceremony, and feel free to ask questions in advance of clergy and friends who may be well-informed about what you can expect in any individual situation.

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