When a loved one dies, families of all faiths very commonly turn first to a pastor, or a rabbi, or a priest or an imam or a mahatma for advice on how to plan a funeral. And in many cases, the church – or whatever the religious institution calls itself – takes over all arrangements entirely, not asking – or even allowing – family leaders to have any part in deciding how the funeral will proceed. This can be a comfort, of course. But it can also be traumatic for family members who may be grounded in spirituality and in serving God, but not well versed in man’s religions.
As the idea of “religion” becomes more and more a problem for many people in today’s societies it may be a good idea to pay attention to the concept of religious funerals. This article is a very brief overview of what a religious funeral might entail and it offers some ideas for how to assure that God is a big part of any funeral, no matter whether it is a religious one or not.
What Religions Say About Funerals
The major religions of the world (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism) tend to vary a great deal on the details of what is involved in a funeral. Some require burial or cremation to be conducted in very specific ways according to very specific rules. Some ban cremation all together while others require it. And some branches of various religions still encourage the employment of professional mourners, people paid to bring their tears and wails of grief to the funeral ceremony in hopes of establishing the proper, mournful mood.
So a thorough study of the differences in what various religions say about funerals would keep us occupied for many more pages and, accordingly, is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, we will dwell upon the overall similarities that religions exhibit in their funeral traditions and practices.
The most important of these similarities is, of course, a spirit of somber seriousness. Nearly all religions present death at a funeral as something sad and dreadful, something that all men should avoid for as long as possible, something that, while inevitable, is still a tragedy.
Tears are expected from even the strongest of funeral goers, and a stable, almost impartial, calmness is the rule for those in charge of officiating the services. Tears are often shed during a funeral, but they are rarely acknowledged openly. Nor are they necessarily encouraged.
Jokes, smiles, and laughs, meanwhile, are often strongly discouraged as part of a religious funeral. While this rule sometimes has an exception when family and friends are invited to share their warm memories of a departed loved one, it is generally the case that a comedic atmosphere is not considered appropriate for a funeral that is led and organized by a religious institution. Basic funeral etiquette should always bee followed during the memorial service, but overall, one should not be afraid to simply act according to how they feel or are reacting to the grief of losing a loved one. In other words, do not encourage yourself or anyone else to laugh in order to stop yourself from crying. Alternitavely, do not feel ashamed to laugh when sharing memories with your friends or family members just because you are grieving.
What Jesus Christ says about Funerals
While, as we say, the above listed rules are fairly common to all of the major religions of the world, at least one of the religions we mention – Christianity – is in the midst of a rebellion on this matter. Many Christian churches today have begun purposely reducing the role that “religion” plays in their worship ceremonies – including funerals. Christian leaders today are often quick to point out that the founder of their had many stern warnings for those who would put the adherence to rules and other acts of service over the presence of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. It is a danger, these leaders admonish, to assume that one becomes saved – eternally right with God – by carrying out a tradition, no matter how beautifully orchestrated. And “religion” encourages just that thing. So, for many Christian churches of today, “religion” is a dangerous word, one to be uttered only with the utmost of caution.
So Christian funerals of today are not necessarily “religious” affairs. Rather they are of the heart. And that means long held traditions may not be the rule.
Many Christian leaders of today will point out that funerals are about life, not death. In the three “funerals” that Jesus attended during his time on earth, for instance, the “deceased” ended up living after all. The whole point of Christianity, in fact, is that death is not the end of anything, but, rather, the beginning of everything. So a somber spirit, in that context, is entirely inappropriate. Shouts of celebration and joy, meanwhile, are just what are needed at a funeral – even if “religious funerals” discourage such behavior.
Could it be that the religions of the world have funerals all wrong? Well, many Bible scholars would say so. And, since The Bible is at the heart of two of the world’s major religions (Christianity and Judaism) it seems plausible that the religious funerals of tomorrow will be much different from those of today. Perhaps instead of hiring professional mourners, stand-up comics will be the norm at funerals of the future. Something would seem to indicate that Jesus Christ would approve of that (depending upon the comic, of course).
A Heavenly Distinction: Rituals vs Traditions
One thing that today’s religious funerals all tend to have in common is this: they rely heavily upon tried and true traditions that many observers like to call rituals. But there is an important distinction that exists between a ritual and a tradition, and those who plan and organize religious funerals would do well to always keep this in mind. While ritual and tradition seem, at first glance, to be synonymous there is all the difference in the universe between the two. Both are practices developed by mankind and carried on in a culture for years, decades and even centuries. But that is where the definition of tradition stops. A ritual, meanwhile, carries on with a transcendence, a connection, eternally, to God.
If a religious funeral is filled with rituals instead of simple traditions, then it may not be a “religious” funeral after all.