Showing posts with label mourners. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mourners. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.   
(I Corinthians 15: 42b-44)
Our discussion last week about organ donation raises my curiosity and interest about burial practices in our three Abrahamic traditions.  I can recall a time when cremation was essentially unheard of in Christian practice; pastors and priests taught that the reverent preparation of Jesus’ body for burial pointed to the only way for Christians to honor the physical body after death.  It was startling to me, then, when my own father, a deeply religious man and passionate steward of the earth, declared that he wanted to be cremated because “my spiritual, not physical, body will be raised” and “I don’t want to take up space in the good earth that could be used for growing crops to feed a hungry world.” While Christians of some denominations still require or prefer burial, most now consider this to be a matter of personal preference rather than religious mandate. What religious teachings govern your practices?

Islamic burial practices, to this day, follow the teachings of the prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon Him]. First, the absence of adornment in every stage of the process reflects a respect for the deceased. The prophet’s instructions also include details about the steps to be taken when death occurs, and dictate participation in the funeral procession and prayers as a communal obligation, or fard qifayah.[1]  Thus, it is the responsibility of all members of the community to ensure that every Muslim who dies is properly tended. The body of the deceased is washed with gentle care at least three times, usually by a family member, and then shrouded in white cloth. A communal prayer is performed at this stage, and then the shrouded body is placed without a casket in the grave, and laid on its right side facing Mecca. Based on a description in Quran of the honor given to the progeny of Adam and a Hadith stating that the treatment of a dead body should be similar to that of a living one,[2] cremation is strictly prohibited in Islam.

Given the historical context in which Jesus lived, I am not surprised that the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial followed Jewish rituals and customs. Since ancient times, Jewish tradition has dictated that once the body is washed, wrapped in shrouds and placed on a bier or in an unadorned coffin, it must be buried before nightfall.  Nowadays, burial may be delayed for mourners traveling great distances to be present.  If the body remains overnight—which modern refrigeration makes possible—it is never left unattended.  Instead, a member of the family or community is assigned to be a shomer, or guard, who sits with the body and recites Psalms.  All of the burial customs are expressions of the principle of k’vod ha-meit, respect for the dead. Embalming and applying make-up or clothing to the body are forbidden, and cremation is considered a desecration. While cremation may be gaining some acceptance among Jews in the U.S., most consider it inappropriate. Even Jews who are otherwise unconcerned about upholding the traditions are generally opposed to cremation out of respect for the many Jews who were cremated in death camps during the Holocaust.

[1] “The rights of a Muslim on the Muslims are to follow the funeral processions, to accept invitation, and to reply to the sneezer.” (Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 332)
[2] “Breaking the bones of a dead body is like breaking the bones of a living one.” (Related by Ahmad, Abu Dawud and Ibn Majah)