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Diversity in death

by Nikki Tundel, Minnesota Public Radio
May 21, 2007

The rituals of death vary greatly from one religion to another, one culture to the next.

Here is a small sampling of the beliefs that help guide the way people deal with the deceased.


Islam


Islam
Muslims believe in resurrection. It is said that deceased souls remain in their graves until Judgment Day, when Allah will raise all people from the dead to be judged and held accountable for their actions.

Islamic law prohibits cremation. Unless forbidden by local law, Muslims are buried directly in the ground, not in a casket.

While all members of the community attend the funeral prayers, only the men are allowed to accompany the body to the gravesite.

Muslims believe the dead can hear the living. Therefore, when visiting a grave, it is customary to greet the deceased.

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Christianity


Christian
In the Christian faith, the body of the dead is often displayed in a funeral home for a day or two before the actual funeral ceremony. Both friends and relatives are encouraged to attend this "visitation." The purpose of the gathering is to share memories of the deceased and to help family members deal with their grief.

Traditionally, the coffin is often left open before burial so that loved ones can say their final goodbyes to the departed.

People often send flowers to a funeral as a tribute. Flowers are said to symbolize both new life and the beauty of heaven.

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Judaism


Judaism
According to Jewish tradition, the dead should not be cremated or embalmed. It is believed that as the body of the deceased decays, the soul ascends to heaven.

The dead are placed in plain wooden caskets, which remain closed. There is no viewing of the body. Customarily, Jews are buried in simple linen shrouds, showing that rich and poor are equal in death.

It is customary to leave small stones at a Jewish gravesite. Not only does the stone show that someone has visited the grave, it also represents permanence. This contrasts with the Christian custom of leaving cut flowers, which live for only a short period of time.

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Hinduism


Hinduism
Hindus believe in reincarnation and view death as the soul moving from one body to the next on its path to Nirvana, or heaven.

Traditionally, Hindus cremate their dead, believing that the fire releases the soul from the body.

In preparation for cremation, the body is bathed, anointed with a mixture of water and sandalwood, and wrapped in white cloth. The body is then decorated with flowers and garlands.

In traditional cremation ceremonies, the body is carried three times counterclockwise around the funeral pyre before being placed upon it. Whenever possible, cremation takes place on the banks of a river, ideally India's sacred Ganges River. Afterwards, the ashes are collected and sprinkled on the water.

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Buddhism


Buddhism
For Buddhists, funerals are supposed to be happy occasions. Death is said to free the soul from its worldly existence.

At the funeral ceremony, the temple's spiritual leader recites from holy texts. Monks play wood blocks, gongs and drums. And a large bell is rung to summon the spirit of the departed. The living offer the spirit instructions on maneuvering in the spirit world so it won't lose its way.

Typically, a large photograph of the deceased is displayed next to a Buddha figure on an altar. Flowers, candles and incense are also placed at the altar along with offerings of fruit, cookies, soup and rice.

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Hmong


Hmong
The funeral is said to be the most important part of Hmong culture and it must be done correctly to ensure a prosperous afterlife for the deceased.

Many Hmong believe that one soul of the departed will return to the land of the ancestors where it will be reborn, a second soul will stay at the grave, and a third will remain with the immediate family.

A typical Hmong funeral lasts three days. In Laos, as many as 10 oxen may be slaughtered to guarantee the soul a safe journey.

The Hmong hold a ceremony on the first anniversary of death to invite the soul back for one final feast.

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