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How different religions bury their dead

In Islam, the deceased are to be buried within 24 hours.

This was highlighted in media reports of the death of Osama bin Laden.

Each major religion has its customs concerning burial. Although they vary widely, the one common denominator is respect for the body.

And controversy arose over bin Laden’s burial at sea.

Russell Mohammed, a director of the Mid-America Muslim Cemetery, said the 24-hour burial is not in the Qur’an but is a cultural practice from the faith’s desire to respect the body and to avoid decay.

Since autopsies would injure the body, those are to be avoided, he said.

“Also, we don’t embalm,” Mohammed said. “This is disrespecting the body.”

Since the cemetery is near the Islamic Center in south Kansas City, washing of the body is done at the center, he said. Then it is wrapped in a white shroud.

After that are prayers, and the body is taken to the cemetery.

“We don’t normally use caskets, just bury in the ground, where it (the body) becomes part of the soil,” he said. “The upper part of the body, the head, is turned toward Mecca.

“We respect the deceased just as if they were alive. The washing and the wrapping with a shroud is done carefully. We do not allow viewing of the body except for the immediate family after the washing.”

Mohammed said some Muslim countries do not allow women to go to the cemetery because they think they will be too emotional.

“We allow them to stand at a distance, and after the burial site is covered, they can come closer.”

Mohammed said that in some Muslim countries there are processions in the streets with the body in a casket. But that is not done in the U. S., he said.

“And we do not do a eulogy,” he said. “Whatever you are going to say about someone, you say it while the person is alive.”

Some Islamic clerics said bin Laden’s burial at sea violated Islamic law. White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said that the Obama administration consulted “appropriate specialists and experts” before making the decision and that finding a country to accept bin Laden’s body and making burial arrangements would have taken longer than 24 hours.


Similarly, the traditional Jewish custom is to bury the deceased within 24 hours or if not, within 48 hours, said Rabbi Herbert Mandl of Kehilath Israel Synagogue.

“We don’t embalm,” he said. “Embalming is against Jewish law because you are not to tamper with the body. You are supposed to return the way you came, and embalming radically affects the body.

“Also, cremation is forbidden,” Mandl said. “This is a major violation of Jewish law because you are destroying the body. If you have to keep the body for a few days, perhaps if a relative is coming from a distance or other extenuating circumstances, we would refrigerate.”

Wooden caskets are to be used so they deteriorate in the earth, he said. The deceased is buried in a white garment similar to a gown, and the casket is closed at the funeral, which is a simple service with Scripture, prayers and a eulogy.

Services are usually conducted at funeral homes, and then the people go to the cemetery.

“Traditional synagogues usually do not take the body inside the synagogue,” Mandl said.

Among Reform Jews, many of the deceased are buried in regular clothing, said Rabbi Mark Levin at Congregation Beth Torah. Burial generally is within two days, he said.

Following the funeral, traditional Jews would do an evening service at the home of the deceased’s family for seven days, while Reform Jews do it for one, two or three days, he said.

The location of a Reform Jewish funeral depends upon the custom of the city, Levin said. In the Kansas City area, the custom is mostly to have it at a funeral home. However, many of his members’ funerals are held at the temple.


Requirements for Protestant Christian burials are few, said the Rev. J. Lowell Harrup of Northland Cathedral.

Although there is no required time frame, most funerals and burial are within three to four days, he said. Also, cremations are acceptable.

“There is great respect for the dead,” he said. “The body is created by God and destined for resurrection, so we see sacredness in death itself.”

People often specify what they want to be buried in, he said.

At the church, the tradition is for the funeral to recount the good of the person’s life, and a Bible-based sermon is preached.

“People need hope and encouragement that there is more to this life than right now,” Harrup said. “I want to bring comfort but also remind people that this is something we will all face, and we need to be aware that there is an eternity beyond. I emphasize that Jesus has provided a place.”

In most African-American churches, the funeral includes prayer, Scripture, music, condolences from organizations the person was involved in, remarks from family and friends and a eulogy.

The casket usually is closed during the service and often re-opened afterward for the final viewing, but in some churches that is being discouraged because it is stressful for the family, said the Rev. Brenda Hayes, a former pastor in Kansas City, Kan., now in St. Louis.

“The service is viewed as a celebration of the life that was lived and a victory won through faith,” she said. “The mood is upbeat, recalling the Scripture that those who die in Christ are absent from the body but now present with the Lord.

“Sometimes it is called a ‘Homegoing Celebration,’ going home to be with the Lord. The music is more about rejoicing. Prayers also are offered at the gravesite as the deceased is committed back to God.”

What used to be called a wake now is called family visitation, Hayes said.

“The wake used to be the night before, and often the body would be in the family’s house, and people would come there and everybody would be sad.”

Now, the visitation is often right before the service, and cremation is becoming more common, she said.

Sometimes it is several days to a week between the death and the funeral, especially if a lot of family members are coming from out of town.

Also, in the African-American tradition, “We dress them up,” Hayes said. “Dressy dresses or suits, hair done, makeup, jewelry, things that were the person’s favorite.”


In the Catholic tradition, the deceased is buried as soon as arrangements can be made, said Deacon Ralph Wehner, director of sacred worship for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

“The church prefers that the body be present for the funeral and if the person is to be cremated, that is done after the funeral,” he said. “We require ashes to be buried in an urn, not scattered or sit on someone’s mantel.

“The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and that body must be respected, and it is not respectful to scatter ashes or leave them somewhere.”

A vigil most commonly is held the night before the funeral, he said. “Vigils used to be in the funeral home but a trend is to have it at the church.

“The funeral Mass includes the reading of Scripture and prayers for the soul of the deceased and the family, prayers that express the hope and mercy of God and prayers for the saints in heaven to assist this soul and for all who have died.”

Wehner said most people choose what they wish to be buried in.

If a person is buried in a Catholic cemetery, the ground already has been blessed. If buried in a non-Catholic cemetery, the priest would bless the gravesite. This would happen, for example, for a military person who is buried in a military cemetery.

Finally, even if the spouse is not Catholic, he or she can be buried with the Catholic spouse in a Catholic cemetery, Wehner said.


In the Hindu faith, there is no burial. The bodies are burned.

In India ceremonial customs vary depending on the region, said Atul Trivedi, an area Hindu priest.

And in India, the body is burned in a special ceremony, he said. In the United States, cremation takes place at a funeral home, and the ashes are put in an urn and given to the family, if requested.

At the ceremony before the cremation, everybody wears white, and the priest offers prayers that the soul finds peace, said Arvind Khetia, an area Hindu.

If possible, the ashes are taken to India to be spread in holy water.

“There is no burial because the soul already has moved out,” he said. “The body is a temple as long as the person is alive.”

To reach Helen Gray, call 816-234-4446 or email [email protected] .


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