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Funeral etiquette: customs across cultures

The United States is home to people from many nations and religious traditions, each with its own unique way of marking life's passages, such as birth, marriage, and death and dying. When a friend, neighbor, or coworker from another culture dies, it's helpful to understand the rituals and customs of that culture in regard to funeral services and expressions of sympathy. The following funeral information will help you to honor those customs and to extend your condolences appropriately without inadvertently causing offence.

Buddhist funerals

Buddhists believe in reincarnation and see death as a transition to the next incarnation, bringing the soul closer to nirvana, a state of absolute bliss. Buddhist funerals are, therefore, occasions of celebration, marking the soul's ascent from the body.

During the viewing of the body, guests offer condolences to the family, bowing in front of the casket to honor the fleeting nature of life. Guests are not expected to participate in the ceremony, but rather to quietly observe the rituals, standing or sitting as directed.

For a temple ceremony, men should wear a tie and women may wear a dress or skirt and blouse – comfortable clothing that is suitable for sitting on the floor during meditation. In the Buddhist tradition, flowers or donations may be sent to the family, but gifts of food are considered inappropriate.

Hindu funerals

Hindu funerals are usually held within 24 hours of the death. Friends may call on the family at home where the body is usually kept until the traditional cremation. Visitors may bring flowers, which are placed at the feet of the deceased. Guests leave the funeral service as soon as the cremation begins, and then gather with the family for a meal and prayers. Friends may also visit the family to offer comfort during the 13-day mourning period. Traditionally, visitors bring gifts of fruit to the grieving family.

Jewish funerals

A Jewish funeral service is conducted in a funeral home or the family home as soon as possible after death – typically within 24 hours. Funeral attire consists of dark-colored clothing, a dress or skirt and blouse for women, and a jacket and tie for men. Men also wear a head covering known as a yarmulke, which will be provided by the funeral director for non-Jewish male guests. Guests should refrain from wearing symbols of other religions, such as a cross.

Only family members attend the burial. Condolence visits by friends and extended family are welcomed during the seven-day mourning period known as shivah. Friends and neighbors may prepare the family's first meal following the funeral and may also bring gifts of food during shivah. If you bring food, make sure it is kosher, unless you know for certain that the family doesn't keep kosher.

Charitable donations are fitting memorial gifts, but floral gifts are inappropriate at the funeral or during shivah.

Muslim funerals

Muslims bury their dead as soon as possible in order to free the soul from the body, according to Islamic custom. At the simple funeral service preceding the burial, men and women are seated separately, and women cover their heads and arms. At the cemetery, mourners accompany the body in a silent procession to the grave site.

The Muslim period of mourning is three days, and condolence visits are welcomed during this time. Friends share their sympathy by listening to the family's expression of grief, asking Allah to show mercy on the deceased, and encouraging acceptance of His will. Friends may bring food to the grieving family, but gifts of flowers are inappropriate.

Protestant funerals

Protestants are members of any of a large number of non-Catholic Christian denominations, including Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Baptist, among others. Protestant funerals may incorporate a variety of customs according to the wishes of the deceased and the family. The funeral is held at a funeral home or at a church, typically within three days following the death. Appropriate expressions of sympathy include writing a note of condolence, attending the viewing of the body or the funeral itself, sending flowers, making a donation to the church or a favorite charity of the deceased, or bringing food to the family's home. Funeral guests should dress in a respectable manner, although black clothing is no longer considered essential.

Roman Catholic funerals

Most Catholic funerals include a wake, a funeral service, and prayers at the graveside where the body will be laid to rest. On the day of burial, a brief funeral service may be held at the funeral home, or the body may be transported to the church, where a Mass known as the Rite of Christian Burial is offered. At both the wake and the funeral, non-Catholics are welcome to participate or to sit and witness the ceremonies silently; only Catholics are invited to receive communion at Mass, however.

Floral arrangements sent to the funeral home or to the family's residence and donations for Masses to be offered in memory of the deceased are fitting expressions of condolence at a Catholic funeral.

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Further sources of information

You may find our other articles in the Funerals: everything you need to know section helpful too.

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