Today’s memorial methods are changing fast, but traditions in other parts of the world can often endure for centuries or millennia. If you have been tasked with planning the memorial of a loved one, understanding the different religious memorials available to you may make the process and decision easier. Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism are five of the largest organized religions in the world that range from ten million to two billion followers and counting. Though each religious group has its own identity and system of beliefs, you might find similarities between them that transcend the limitations of belief, distance, time, and tradition.
There are at least three primary schools of Buddhism, and customs vary from one school to the next. In general, most Buddhists believe that death is only a transition into the next life. When the end of a Buddhist’s life is imminent, family members and friends may gather together to promote peace and serenity. Some families might place small statues of the Buddha by the head of their dying loved ones. Cremation is a widely traditional choice, but Buddhists may choose to be buried. Spiritual services are usually reserved for the third, seventh, forty-ninth, and one-hundredth day after the death of a loved one. Buddhists also believe in the true essence of charity. Many followers choose organ donation for medical research as their last charitable causes of this existence. Due to the popularity of cremation, the remains of Buddhist followers are usually enshrined in urns or scattered at sea.
Unlike Buddhists, most Christians believe in an afterlife that’s different than the endless cycle of reincarnation. Most followers of the Christian faith live their lives with the intention of achieving eternal peace in Heaven. Christianity was a subdivision of Judaism more than two thousand years ago, but it has grown into the largest observed religion in the world. Christians also believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God and that he was sent down from Heaven to teach and lead by his selfless example. On Judgement Day, Christ will rise and resurrect his followers. Christian memorial services usually serve the purpose of praying for the soul of the deceased and supporting those who are mourning.
Funeral services are officiated by priests, ministers, or members of the clergy. Funeral attendants may read and sing hymns, prayers, and scripture to honor the life of the deceased. Christian memorials usually feature religious and symbolic imagery, such as anchors, angels, crosses, crowns, doves, lambs, palms, trees, and wreaths.
There are many sects and subsects of Hinduism, but most followers believe in the divine spirit that exists within every being and object in the universe. Hindi gods and goddesses serve to help Hindu believers transcend and realize the divine presence in ritual and meditation. Depending on karma and the consequences of one’s actions, the deceased may be reincarnated or become one with the Brahman. Followers of the Hindu faith prefer to die at home, and funeral customs dictate that the body should remain at home until it is cremated within 24 hours of death. Cremated remains are usually scattered over a sacred body of water or some place of significance to the deceased.
Jewish believers typically follow a strict set of funeral customs that derive from the Torah, or the law of God. Burials take place as soon as possible, except when the family can’t make accommodations in such a short amount of time. Jews also believe in charity and strive to keep funeral services as simple as possible. Traditional followers perform a ritual washing of the deceased’s body, Tahara, to purify and prepare it for burial. Memorials are usually held in a local synagogue or funeral home, but visitations and wakes are prohibited. Funerals are conducted by the rabbi and begin with a eulogy. In lieu of flowers, most people request that donations be made to a charity or Jewish organization.
Christianity and Islam share some of the same beliefs – there is only one god and there will be a day of judgment – but Muslims interpret death as a transition from one state to another. Funeral customs dictate that the body of the deceased be buried as soon as possible. The decedent’s body should be turned to face toward Mecca, the holy center of Islam. Within two days, the body is then transported to a graveyard. Gravestones are often left simple, marked only by the decedent’s name and date of death.