Your Family's Funeral Traditions

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My Italian-American mother-in-law would make a regular pilgrimage to the graves of her loved ones and tell their stories. She had her own rituals, pink cemetery cushion and her own routine. She did this her whole life. She is gone now, but we still have this equally hysterical and heart-wrenching docu-short that I did of one of her visits.
View the short documentary »

by Tonya Hurley
Green Burials

A green burial looks to ensure that the burial site stays as natural as possible. No embalming fluid is used, and no concrete vaults are made. Additionally, those who wish to have green burials use biodegradable caskets or burial shrouds. Additionally, the planting of trees or shrubs instead of the use of a headstone encourages the restoration of a natural habitat around the burial site.

Traditions from the Philippines

1. 24-hour wake for 3 nights, usually held in the house. People bring food and gambling tables are set up. Proceeds go to the family to defray expenses. This cannot be adapted in the U.S. because funeral homes won't allow it and people cannot attend 72-hour wakes.
2. The deceased is usually holding a rosary. The rosary loop MUST BE broken. To release the spirit.
3. Mirrors must be covered
4. During the wake, the body must be facing West.
5. 9-day prayer for the dead (novena) must be said, starting either on the day when the person died or after burial.
6. While the casket is being taken outside the house for the funeral procession to Church, a drinking glass is thrown to the floor to break it. Something about the spirit not lingering.
7. On the 40th day after death, prayers are said and a reception held, redolent of Jesus' Ascension.

by Chris Torres
Remembering Nicholas Robert Reda

My husband Nicholas Robert Reda, passed away several years ago. He died of cancer and thus had time to express his funeral wishes. His family , being Catholic, hoped he'd have a traditional funeral but he, an avowed atheist wished to be cremated, no flowers, no fuss. When the time came to make the actual arrangements, his mom now had Alzheimer's and his dad had passed. His brothers and sisters agreed to allow cremation. I arranged for a simple closed casket cebration and displayed a wonderful photo if the man he'd been. I also made some collages of pictures depicting Bob and the events of his life. At the cemetery, before cremation, we had a brief ceremony where family members shared their memories - these included his daughter, his eldest brother, his eldest nephew, his eldest grandchild, a close friend and myself. An American flag was draped on his casket and he'd lay wearing his favorite team clothes - Jets, Giants, Yankees. We later received his ashes and scattered them over a local beach since that was favorite place! These were new traditions formed out of love and respect for a loved one belonging to a blended family.

by Damaris Reda
The New Orleans Jazz Funeral

The New Orleans jazz funeral is a unique American tradition in that city. During the procession to the cemetery, a large brass band plays hymns, dirges and spirituals. Once burial has taken place, the music becomes strikingly upbeat and starts to swing. Family and friends, as well as onlookers, join the parade and dance to celebrate the life of the deceased.

The Coffinmaker

I recently made a short, contemplative film about a fascinating man who makes traditional wooden coffins on Vashon Island.
Watch the short documentary »

by Dan McComb
The "Irish Wake"

The phrase "Irish wake" refers to the joyous, and sometimes raucous, parties following the death of a loved one traditional among the Irish. Music is commonly played and particularly funny and poignant memories of the deceased are shared. Beer, whiskey and other alcoholic beverages are often served at an Irish wake. For some people of Irish heritage in the United States, going to the "official" wake or viewing at the funeral home and then visiting and celebrating the deceased's life with the family afterward is very important.

Jewish Burial and Sitting Shiva

Jewish tradition doesn't allow for embalming or decorative caskets. Instead, all are buried in plain pine boxes in order to emphasize that the body is returning to the earth and bringing as little back with it as possible. The funeral service is usually very simple and stark. Afterward, those closest to the deceased go to the cemetery. Once prayers have been said, the casket is lowered into the ground and loved ones begin the process of burying the dead, one shovel of dirt at a time. One home is designated for mourning for the week following the funeral. Immediate family members perform certain rituals, known as "sitting shiva," in that home for the following seven days, while friends visit and give their condolences.

Famadihana in Madagascar

Inhabitants of the island of Madagascar have a very unique ritual to honor the deceased that is practiced by members of various religions. Families return to their family crypts and exhume the remains of their ancestors. They hold and touch the remains, re-wrap them in clean burial shrouds and proceed to dance to live music while carrying these wrapped remains on their shoulders. People who practice this say that it strengthens family bonds and gives them more of a chance to connect with those who have passed than merely visiting their gravesites.

The Catholic Funeral

The Catholic funeral itself is generally a somber event. The funeral mass is traditional with a few added sections of prayers and some added rituals, such as the burning of incense and the sprinkling of holy water around the casket. Although at one time there was not an official eulogy in the funeral mass, most funeral masses now include one, and the eulogy is typically seen as the "biggest" event of the mass. Usually the speech is emotional and somber, although, depending on the family and the pastor at the church, a eulogy can be very funny and very much a speech that pushes people from a solemn mood to one that is more cheery and celebratory.

Elaborate Coffins in Ghana

Elaborate coffins have gained notice in Ghana. Usually such a coffin is shaped to resemble something from the deceased's life, such as a fish if he was an expert fisherman, or a market if he was a vendor. One studio that designs these coffins is Kane Kwei Carpentery Workshop.
Watch a video about Kane Kwei Workshop in Ghana »

Rituals in Hinduism

The majority of Hindus are cremated after death. Traditionally, over the 10 days after cremation, family members stay at home as part of the funeral ritual. Since Hindus believe in reincarnation, there is no reason to preserve a body; it is believed that the soul leaves the body upon death and is eventually reborn into another body.

Antam Sanskaar

The Sikh funeral ceremony is called Antam Sanskaar. The body is traditionally cremated, and the ashes are buried in the earth or scattered over flowing water. Sikhs observe a 10-day formal mourning period following the death of a loved one. During this time, a formal sequence of prayers is recited.

Mourning in Islam

Muslims traditionally try to bury their dead as soon as possible after death to avoid the need for embalming or other procedures that would disturb the body. The body is then washed and wrapped in a shroud. Prayers are said over the body, and then men accompany the body to the gravesite to be buried. The family of the deceased then observes a three-day mourning period. Widows observe a longer mourning period of four months and 10 days.

Buddhist Funeral Traditions

For most practitioners of Buddhism, cremation is a standard practice. However, in Tibet, where firewood is scarce, the "Sky Burial" tradition is customary. This involves placing the body out on a ledge as an offering to scavenging birds. For Buddhists, death is the path toward a new life through reincarnation, so preservation of the body is not necessary. Additionally, depending on which school of Buddhism the deceased practiced, prayers to help guide the soul through the realm between life and rebirth may be recited by monks and family for up to 49 days.

Funerals in the Bahá'í Faith

For people of the Baha'Ă­ Faith, embalming or cremation is strictly prohibited, unless it is required by law. They believe that the body should be allowed to decompose naturally and the process should not be sped up or slowed down. Also, the body is to be buried close enough to the place of death that it takes no more than one hour to go from one to the other. The body is wrapped in a shroud before death and at the gravesite one person recites the Prayer for the Dead, along with any other prayers the family requests. There is no formal order of funeral prayers or rituals, and the funeral service follows the family's wishes.

Rituals in Jainism

Jains are cremated as soon as possible after death, although in the West there are some formalities that prevent this from happening. The community typically will console a family by offering prayers that highlight the impermanence of the body and the permanence of the soul.

Shinto Funerals

Since Shinto ranks alongside Buddhism in popularity in Japan, most funerals take on characteristics of both practices—cremation is required, a wake, typically one hour in length, is held before the burial and sometimes an overnight candlelight vigil is held by family members who stay awake in the room with the deceased.