The world is becoming ever smaller and every day we are exposed to more and more rituals and customs of other religions and cultures. In South Africa, we are well aware of how different cultures and their religious beliefs can be, yet we still live with only vague ideas of how other people handle death and funerals in their culture and religion. The main religions in South Africa are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, traditional African religions, and Judaism. We all have different and beautiful ways of dealing with death and funerals. Understanding how we do things differently can help to bring us closer together.
Religion is often classified with a blanket term, even though there are different denominations or branches of the faith. Christianity, for example, has various denominations including Protestant, Pentecostal, and Catholic. Judaism has three major branches – Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative. We respect that there can be nuanced differences in how each denomination or branch conducts a funeral and observes rituals and traditions. We will be looking at the general traditions, rituals, and beliefs that each blanket termed religion has regarding death and funerals.
Death and funerals in a Christian context are possibly the most widely recognised due to its depiction in series and movies, though other religions and customs are being represented more often.
For the most part, Christians believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the son of God, and eternal life after death for all believers. After death, the body is buried or cremated, and the family of the deceased can choose whether the body may be viewed or not. It is a Christian-Western principle that the body be buried with the head facing east.
Christian funerals are most often held in a church or chapel, but services can also be held at selected crematoriums or a cemetery. Services usually include the saying of prayers, a religious message delivered by a religious leader, readings from the Bible, and hymns that are sung. In addition to these religious practices, the loved ones of the deceased may say a few words in memory of the deceased or recite a favourite poem.
The handling of the dead and funeral rites is dictated by Islamic law, and funeral arrangements must start immediately after death. Muslims are mostly always buried, as cremation is an unclean practice. Furthermore, Muslims believe that Allah will raise the dead from their tailbones and thus you cannot desecrate the body with cremation. However, they also believe that Allah can make a cremated body whole again, so with special permission, like to prevent the spread of disease, a body may be cremated.
The body of the loved one is treated with immense respect. Immediately after death the eyes and mouth are closed and covered by a white sheet. Close family members of the same sex will wash the body three times. The hands are positioned on the chest, the right hand on top of the left, and a white shroud is then tied around the body with ropes. During the funeral, the Islamic funeral prayer is said in the mosque while mourners face towards Mecca.
The deceased’s grave must be perpendicular to Mecca and the body must be placed so their right side faces the Islamic holy city.
Mourners must gather at the mosque after the death of a loved one and say prayers. Prayers also form an important part of the funeral, and more prayers will be said when the body is lowered into the grave and a simple stone or marker will usually be placed to mark the grave.
Traditionally, women are not allowed to attend the funeral, though some Muslim communities do allow their women to attend.
Hindus believe that one will be reincarnated in a different form and each death brings them closer to Brahma. After death, their body no longer serves a purpose. To release the soul as fast as possible, the body is cremated, and reincarnation can begin. The body will usually remain at home until it is time for cremation which usually takes place about 24 hours after death. During these 24 hours, various funeral rites can be observed. Rather than typical prayers, chants and mantras will be overseen by an officiant. The body is washed with ghee, honey, milk, and yoghurt. Essential oils are placed on the deceased’s head. The palms are placed in a position of prayer and the big toes tied together. The body can be dressed in formal clothes or wrapped in a white sheet and a garland of flowers and pinda (rice balls) are placed around the deceased. A lamp is also put near the head and the body sprinkled with water.
The body will be placed in an open casket and at the wake, mourners are expected to view the body. Black is not traditionally worn at a Hindu funeral, rather, white is the preferred colour for males and females. The ashes of the deceased are typically scattered at a sacred body of water or a place of importance to the deceased.
Traditional African Religions
In South Africa, many of the African tribes will also identify as Christian, yet each tribe does have its own unique beliefs and rituals. With at least 9 traditional tribes in South Africa alone, the largest of which are Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho, there are various nuances regarding death and funerals.
In general, there is a strong relationship with their ancestors. The ancestors are believed to live in the spirit world and can work hand in hand with God. Ancestors can be asked for protection, guidance, good fortune, etc. However, the body needs to be treated correctly and the spirit aided in reaching the spirit world. In the Xhosa tribe, a family elder will talk to the dead body that still houses the spirit and the family members will speak to their ancestors to help the deceased’s spirit travel to the afterlife. In the Zulu tribe, the dead must be buried traditionally and their belongings buried with them, or their spirit will wander and not reach the afterlife.
A common practice among African tribes is to slaughter an animal (ox, cow, or goat) to honour the ancestors.
When the news of a death is received, a Jew will recite the words, “Baruch dayan emet,” Blessed be the one true Judge. The deceased body is never left unattended, and the funeral usually happens very shortly after death with the burial ceremony held at the cemetery, not the synagogue. A funeral may be postponed for a day if close family members cannot arrive in time, or it is too close to a Shabbat or holiday to complete the rituals and burial.
The body of the deceased is treated with immense respect and will be washed by members of the same sex. The body may be moved and turned during the washing, but it will never be placed face down. If the deceased has blood on his/her person, this is not washed off as it is considered holy. The body is wrapped in a white burial shroud and men are buried with their prayer shawl (of which one fringe has been cut off).
The deceased is buried in a simple, pine coffin and the funeral is not usually a long affair. Before the funeral starts, the immediate relatives will tear their garments, or a rabbi will do it for them. After the burial, the family will usually sit Shiva (in mourning). A Jew descendent of the priestly class, a Cohen, is forbidden to come near a corpse. As a result, these individuals will only attend the funeral of immediate family and may stand outside the funeral parlour or cemetery during the funeral of a family member or friend.
Death comes to us all, regardless of our culture or religion. The funeral and burial rites of our cultures and religions, though different, are not one more important than the other. When we have a better understanding of each other’s customs and practices, it is easier to see the similarities rather than the differences and to support each other in our times of grief.