Michael Ver Sprill/Thinkstock
Our faith traditions teach us how to honor our grief and come back to life.
This article appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of Spirituality & Health.
In the nineteenth century, mourners languished in their grief. Women draped themselves in black veils, men and children wore black armbands, and visits to the cemetery were virtually a weekly event. Even Victorian art depicted families in grief to exemplify religious devotion. Grief was emotional yet stoic, private yet public, pointing toward heavenly reunions, yet clinging desperately to tangible reminders of the deceased.
Nowadays, even as psychologists have delineated the stages of grief, our culture has largely lost touch with the rituals, traditions, and even the wisdom that teaches us how to grieve. We typically allow ourselves only brief services of "healing" and rarely wear black or any emblem to let others know that part of us is missing. Our aim is to get through difficulties quickly, to move on. But perhaps it's all become too fast and too private, so that we allow ourselves neither the time nor the space to feel, let alone to honor the process of grieving.
Fortunately, our faith traditions have preserved customs concerning death and bereavement. These practices can carry us from the moment of shock through the first year, defining stages of numbness and grief, when we cannot cope with everyday chores and responsibilities, to a gradual way to re-enter work, life, and relationships. Although the details vary from one faith tradition to another as well as from one culture to another, the processes are similar. Whether by making a final offering to the loved one, unveiling the headstone, or baking a special cake, these rituals for marking milestones along the mourning journe present constructive models of universal comfort.
Judaism has one of the most detailed systems of all the faith traditions for mourning and bereavement. It guides the mourner through each stage of grief, giving space and form to the process. Family members respond to news of a death by the very physical act of ripping their clothing. Those first few days after the death, a protective shield is put around the mourners. They are in a state of shock and need to be cared for in simple, basic ways. Food is brought in, details are handled for them; they shouldn't have to do anything they cannot manage.
After the funeral, usually held within 24 to 48 hours, "shiva," the seven-day period of deep mourning, begins. Loved ones come to the house, prayers are recited, and special attention is paid to the bereaved family. Traditionally, people coming to pay respects should not even speak to members of the family in mourning. It is the mourners' decision if they want to initiate conversation. The community is present, supporting the family in all ways.
The first 30 days of mourning are a testing period. It is up to the individual to determine the pace of reentry. The bereaved go back to work, assuming responsibilities as they are able, but mourning clothes are still worn and men do not shave. Outward symbols tell the world that they are still grieving.
The first anniversary is marked in several ways. The grave of the deceased, unmarked until now, receives the headstone. Many people give money to charity in honor of the loved one. Daily recitation of the mourner's prayer, kaddish, is no longer required, but rather recited on anniversaries, when the yahrzeit candle is lit. The first anniversary is truly a mark of reentry. Profound grief is over and the pangs of sadness are gradually healed.
Islamic tradition weaves funerary rites into community life, summoning everyone to attend to the last rites and final journey of a loved one. The body is ceremonially washed, shrouded in three sheets of white cloth, and laid directly in the grave on its right side, facing Mecca, hands folded in prayer, prepared to receive the Book of Deeds at the Final Judgment in the right hand.
Mourning is visible and emotional, and it's the women who are the most vocal with their wails of lament. It is the men who carry the body to the grave while the women prepare the home. Muslims believe that a mourner must cry and lament when death occurs, as both a physical and a spiritual release, so that the soul can then be free to carry on. The first days after death are usually the most profoundly grief-stricken, and the ones left behind are always in the presence of family and friends. The bereaved are never left alone.
The third day after the death, friends and family gather at the mosque for prayer, which is imperative to help the soul move into the afterlife. Prayers are said continuously for the first seven days. On the seventh day, the family goes to the grave, where a stone is placed on the mound. Family members wear black for 40 days. The first anniversary is marked by a trip to the place of burial, and prayers in memory of the deceased. Money may be given to charity on their behalf. The period of profound grief, however, is over. It is time to resume life.
Christian rituals in the United States have been assimilated into a broader cultural tradition. We have replaced religious practices with generic funeral home protocol. Memorial services have replaced graveside rituals, and grief is kept to a minimum. However, many Roman Catholic churches are now reviving an ancient tradition called the vigil, where the body is brought into the church the evening before the funeral, and family and friends gather to recite prayers. But primarily it is the cultural churches, such as most of the Eastern Rites, that have kept mourning intact.
For example, in the Greek Orthodox Church, prayer for the soul of the faithful departed is during trisagion, a funeral traditionally performed with an open casket. The entire first year, the family is in deep mourning and declines social invitations. The departed is honored on the fortieth day after death -- recalling 40 as a biblical sign of purification and completion -- with a memorial service known as mnimosinas.
These services are also held after three and nine months, as well as at the first, second, and third anniversaries. Always served is a richly decorated cake of boiled wheat, sugar, and almonds called the kolyva. As a reminder of the Resurrection, at one year it is customary for the family to make an offering of boiled wheat.
In Hinduism, death represents the completion of a cycle of the soul's existence. All life and death are seen as a part of that cycle and therefore mourning is geared toward this inevitability. The mourners take part in a story much larger than themselves. It is a time for ritual and purification as much as a time for grief.
When a person dies, the body is quickly prepared for cremation, the eldest son leading family and friends in the public funeral procession through the streets. A family death is a public event. After the bier is torched and the body is burned, the family gathers back at the home for food and company, and the deceased is remembered in loving detail.
The most profound period of grief ranges from 10 to 40 days. A senior male family member serves as chief mourner and the entire family practices austerity in their clothing and activities. This demonstrates devotion to the loved one, and creates a spiritual framework for grief. The greater the devotion, the more austere the practices.
After the first period of grief, the ashes of the deceased are gathered and dispersed in a body of water, symbolizing the return of the soul to the cosmos and the purification of the body now cast aside. Then, donning new clothes, the mourners begin to rejoin the world of the living. On the lunar anniversary of the death, Hindus honor their ancestors with offerings of pinda (rice balls), thus harmonizing the world of the living with the spiritual realm, and keeping the family, both living and dead, intact.
For Buddhists the soul must move into the next incarnation or into the Pure Land with the help and guidance of the loved ones left behind. The mourners are in a state of grief, of course, but that grief must be translated into prayer and rituals to benefit the dying. In some cultures, such as in China, the women express great emotion, wailing at the time of death and at the funeral. Great grief is a sign of respect and devotion.
The period of intense mourning continues through the first 49 days, the time it takes for the soul to travel to the next life. There is often another graveside service. Family members wear white, the color of mourning. This sets them apart, and the community shows them great respect.
The anniversary of death is marked by family prayers and offerings placed at the grave. Most Asian families honor the dead by placing offerings on the home altar as well. They know that their loved one is now in the land of the ancestors, and the relationship continues through the generations.