Religious Funeral Traditions Around the World
It is estimated that there are over 4,000 religions in the world and each one has specific beliefs and customs regarding death and funerals. Christianity is the most dominant global faith with over two billion believers, followed by Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Religious traditions can play a significant role in how a family says a final goodbye to their loved one, and they also affect the funeral planning process. If you’ve ever been curious about different religious end of life rituals, here is a short guide to funeral and cremation practices around the world.
Christianity is composed of several branches which differ in biblical beliefs and worship traditions. The main Christian denominations are Catholic, Protestant (Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.) and Orthodox. We detail the funeral practices of Catholics, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Orthodox Christians below.
Catholics believe in the principle of salvation whereby human beings are saved from death by Jesus Christ’s resurrection, and souls that are granted salvation live eternal life with God in Heaven. A Catholic funeral usually involves a viewing or a wake, followed by a funeral Mass or memorial service led by a priest. A graveside service occurs when the body is buried or cremated remains are interred in a columbarium.
Most Catholics prefer traditional burial but cremation is allowed, although The Vatican guidelines state that cremated ashes should not be scattered or stored in a cremation urn at home. Cremated remains should be kept in a “sacred place” such as a cemetery as this is more in line with the burial of Christ and belief in the resurrection.
Baptists are members of the Protestant Christianity branch and their worship practices center on the teachings of the Christian Bible. Baptist funerals vary depending on the respective congregation, and services range from joyful celebration of life events to solemn services with hymns and scripture readings.
A viewing is often held at a church or funeral home before the funeral service for the deceased, and the graveside service is usually limited to family members and close friends followed by a repast/reception afterwards. Baptists can choose cremation if they wish, and there are no restrictions on how the family handles the cremated ashes of their loved one.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are well-known for going door to door “witnessing” or testifying to their belief that Jesus is the son of God. Members of this religion follow Bible scriptures closely and believe in Heaven (although very few believe in hell). For Jehovah’s WItnesses, death applies to the physical body and the soul so they do not place much emphasis on the body during burial. Their funeral customs are humble in nature and usually take place in a funeral home or place of worship. The funeral service is short and simple, and focuses mainly on relevant Bible passages that underscore core beliefs including hope for resurrection of the deceased person. Afterwards there may be a burial service or interment ceremony if the deceased was cremated.
Most Orthodox Christians live in Central and Eastern Europe, and their funeral traditions are based upon the Holy Canons of the Church which state that the body of the deceased must be returned to the earth. The Eastern Orthodox Church thus forbids cremation and considers the practice to be disrespectful to the human body, which is sacred and reunites with the soul at the Last Judgment.
Orthodox Christian burial rites include preparation of the body, a vigil service (which may last up to three days), and a traditional funeral service led by a priest where the casket is open and funeral guests are allowed to say a final goodbye to the deceased person. There is another short service at the graveside followed by a reception for family and friends to commune together.
Islam is the world’s second largest religion with almost two billion followers. Islam teaches that there is life after death, and most Muslims believe that once they die their body remains in the casket until the Day of Judgment when God returns to judge all human beings. Muslims follow distinct funeral and burial rituals—Islam requires that the dead must be buried as soon as possible (within 24 hours if feasible) and the body should be positioned so that it is facing Mecca. Cremation is strictly forbidden.
Before burial the body must be cleansed and covered with a white shroud before being transported to the mosque, where the whole community participates in funeral prayers for the deceased person. The body is then transferred to the cemetery and buried in a grave. Afterwards, funeral guests gather at the family’s home to share a meal and grieve together.
Buddhists believe in life after death based on the Buddha’s teachings that human beings are born an infinite number of times (reincarnation) until they achieve Nirvana. There are many different schools and philosophies of Buddhism around the world thus Buddhist funeral customs vary widely. In most cases a Buddhist funeral is a somber affair led by monks and/or family members chanting or singing prayers. There may be a visitation service, but funeral rites usually take place on the day of the burial or cremation service.
The ceremony features an altar to the deceased person decorated with a funeral portrait, candles, incense, and offerings of flowers and fruit. Then the casket is usually open during the service and sealed after the monks chant the last funeral rites. Buddhists can choose burial or cremation, but cremation is generally preferred as it follows Buddha’s example.
Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world with approximately 1.2 billion believers, a vast majority of whom live in Nepal and India. Hindus believe in a cycle of death and rebirth called samsara, and when a loved one dies their soul is reborn into a new body and a new life.
When a Hindu dies, the body should not be touched immediately after death as this is considered to be impure. Hindus are cremated as soon as possible, with the exception of infants and small children, and there is a wake before the cremation where family and friends recite hymns or mantras as they gather around their loved one. After the cremation process is over, the eldest male relative of the deceased person collects the cremated ashes which are then traditionally immersed in the Ganges River, although other rivers are becoming acceptable substitutes.
There are various denominations within Judaism and they each have distinct beliefs regarding death and the afterlife. Jewish funeral traditions and customs are based on the Torah (the first part of the Jewish Bible), which requires that the deceased should be buried as soon as possible after death. The body is cleansed and dressed in a white burial shroud, and guarded/watched continuously until after the burial.
Jewish funerals are simple and brief and are usually held in a synagogue or funeral home. There is no visitation before the funeral service, and Jewish law mandates burial in a pine box. Orthodox Jews forbid cremation, although the practice is generally accepted among Reform Jews. After burial, it is customary for the family to sit Shiva (in mourning) for seven days although some Jews sit Shiva for one – three days.
Unique Funeral Traditions
There are many more different types of religious funeral practices and customs around the world. Read our article on unique funeral traditions such as the New Orleans Jazz Funeral to learn more.Back to Knowledge Center