Planning a funeral for a departed loved one can be an incredibly daunting and emotional prospect, whatever the circumstances of your loss. If they passed away suddenly and without express wishes for their funeral then it may be a particularly difficult process. Choosing the right words and music to encompass a person’s life and pay tribute takes time and careful thought, but if your loved one had a faith then there are certain traditions and structures to consider following.
In this guide, we aim to run through the funeral rituals and burial ceremonies of the major religions of the UK – giving you an indication of what should be included, or what to expect if you are attending a religious funeral for a departed loved one.
Funerals in the Christian Church of England faith are generally held a week or more after someone has died. They can be held in churches but also in crematorium or cemetery chapels.
Hymns are sung throughout the service, including when the coffin is brought into the church and when it is carried out. These are often favourites of the departed person or ones which are particularly appropriate for a funeral.
The funeral will include certain rites and tends to follow a structure like this:
Reflecting the Christian beliefs around burial, certain words are read by the priest as the coffin is lowered into the grave. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life”.
This part is known as the committal and usually takes place with a small, separate gathering of family and close loved ones after the service has finished. It can also take place as the curtains are closed within the chapel during a funeral involving cremation.
Generally a Christian funeral service lasts for between 30 and 45 minutes. The committal at the graveside tends to be much shorter but can last for up to 20 minutes.
Funerals in Islam almost always take place within 24 hours of a person’s death, due to the Muslim tradition of burying people within this timeframe. They may be held in the main space inside a mosque, but not always – they may take place in a separate area such as a prayer room or courtyard. The most important element is that the ceremony is held facing towards Mecca. Non-Muslim attendees are welcomed and encouraged to listen respectfully.
The emphasis of the Muslim funeral service is upon rites, chanting, solemn prayer and silent reflection – there is not usually a eulogy and it is unlikely that music will be used.
According to Islamic customs, there are several types of prayers to Allah (God) said at a Muslim funeral, as well as readings from the Qur’an:
Cremation is not allowed in the Islamic tradition, so burial is customary. Graves are dug to face Mecca and the body is also placed this way.
During a burial ceremony, usually only men are allowed to attend. Each mourner attending throws three handfuls of dirt into the grave. Traditional prayers and chants may also be used at this time.
Muslim funerals usually last between 30 and 60 minutes, although they can sometimes be longer.
Hindus believe that although the physical body may die, the soul has no beginning and no end. Therefore the traditional Hindu funeral places an emphasis on belief in reincarnation.
A Hindu priest officiates over proceedings, although in some Hindu traditions this role is taken by the eldest son during some parts of the funeral. The traditional Hindu funeral process is comprised of three parts:
The full funeral and mourning ritual in the Hindu faith takes over 10 days. There is no set time the ceremonies should last for – however, the first two parts of the funeral can be expected to be completed within 24 hours of the person passing away.
Funerals in the Jewish faith are usually held at a synagogue, at home or at the graveside. They generally take place within 24 hours of a person passing away. However, certain traditions around funerals vary between different types of Judaism.
According to tradition, the funeral is led by the rabbi and consists of a eulogy, prayers, psalms and hymns. Many prayers are followed by the refrain of “Amen”, which non-Jewish attendees are welcome to join in with. The funeral service tends to be relatively short in length and is followed immediately by the burial or cremation ceremony which is attended by all mourners, who proceed immediately from the funeral following the hearse.
Cremation is permitted in some forms of Judaism but not others, meaning that traditional burial is still very common. At the burial site, the rabbi leads the congregation in reciting a hymn. Once the coffin is lowered into the ground, members of the departed person’s family pour a handful of earth onto it.
Mourners tend to line up in two rows for the burial, with family members at the front. The burial tends to be followed by a reception at the synagogue or family home.
The funeral service in the Jewish faith rarely exceeds one hour and can sometimes be as short as 15 minutes.
Funerals in the Sikh tradition tend not to focus on pain or grief but upon a celebration of life. Sikhs believe that life, and by extension death, is an opportunity for the soul to unite with Waheguru (God), and the funeral is the culmination of this process – known as “the last rite of passage”.
Sikh funerals do not follow a single format but tend to be focused around the cremation. Sometimes, as well as the cremation ceremony itself, there is a service at the departed person’s home before the cremation, and another one afterwards at the gurdwara (temple). Other times, there will simply be a cremation with a few prayers.
Whatever the format and length, there are certain rites such as prayers that will always be recited. Non-Sikhs attending are not expected to participate – simply to stay silent and respectful, and to sit and stand according to what other mourners do.
In Sikhism, cremation is hugely preferable to burial. Throughout the cremation and any other funeral services that may precede or follow it, the name of Waheguru is repeated by the congregation.
Ashes are usually buried in the earth, scattered or placed in a body of flowing water. Sikhs do not place stones or memorials to mark the resting place of a loved one.
The length of a Sikh funeral can vary, but it tends to fall between 30 and 60 minutes. Following a funeral, the family reads out the entire Sikh scripture over a number of days.
Buddhist traditions vary significantly throughout the world, so there is no one way for Buddhist funerals to be held. However, they tend to be relatively simple occasions held within either a monastery or the family home. Often, there is an open coffin at the service.
The funeral service itself is a quiet and reflective time. Mourners will present flowers at an altar, which is decorated with an image of the departed person as well as an image of Buddha, candles, flowers, fruits and incense. Following this, members of the Buddhist community such as monks deliver eulogies or read sermons.
Rites commonly include chants – during which non-Buddhists remain silent – and prayers, and non-religious elements can be incorporated into a Buddhist ceremony if they do not conflict with the beliefs of Buddhism.
Because Buddha is believed to have been cremated, most Buddhist funerals involve cremation as opposed to burial. Although this cannot take place on an open-air pyre under UK law, many crematoriums can take Buddhist traditions into account when performing a cremation. Following this, the ashes are scattered or taken home in an urn.
Depending upon the specific beliefs of the family, some Buddhist funerals may be followed by a reception – but only close family tend to attend the cremation itself.
Due to the variation in what services take place, there is no particular length to a Buddhist funeral but they can often last up to two hours. Mourners may come and go throughout.
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