In the ever-expanding cultural landscape of modern Australia chances are that you will one day be affected by the loss of someone who has a vastly different background to yourself. No one wants to be culturally insensitive, especially in times of turmoil. While your intentions might be good, remember that people can be extra sensitive and lost when they are grieving, and it's a good idea to make yourself aware of the customs, beliefs and appropriate responses that some different cultures hold about death and funeral behaviours.
Christianity: Broadly speaking, Christians believe that the soul of a deceased person goes to heaven, a place that is peaceful and is in the presence of God. While some denominations have differing beliefs about the soul going to purgatory to atone for sins or even hell, it is safest to speak to the family of a deceased Christian of rest and peace. Tributes may include the words requiescat in pace, rest in peace.
While traditionally black was worn to funerals, many churches no longer require it. It is best to attire yourself in conservative clothes and colours unless the funeral notice states otherwise.
If the funeral is taking place in a traditional Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox church, women are advised to take a scarf in case head coverings are required. Generally people of all faiths will be invited to attend Christian services. It is common to give charity donations in the name of the deceased, flowers for the church, casket or hearse, or family, or to make food for the grieving family. It is also appropriate to make short social calls or telephone them in the days following the funeral.
Hinduism: While there are many sects within this religion, Hindus generally believe that the soul of a deceased person will be reborn. The soul, which is part of a bigger, supreme being, begins a new life. As such, the common RIP phrase is inappropriate, as are images of the departed person 'living on.'
Interests and talents are not part of the soul, but good deeds are rewarded in the next life of the soul. As such it is more appropriate to emphasise the person's good qualities—generosity, kindness, gentleness or humility for example. While white is the traditional colour of Hindu funerary rites, many Hindu funerals or memorials in Australia have adopted western traditions and ask mourners to wear black. However, for traditional Hindus black is the colour of evil and could offend.
If in doubt, consult the funeral notice or family members. It is quite acceptable to phone mourning Hindus to offer condolences, but immediately following the funeral many Hindus will purify their homes, so it is not advised that you visit without prior notice to the family. Note that if the service is at a Hindu temple you will be expected to remove your shoes, and only immediate family members will be invited to the cremation.
Islam: Like Christians, Muslims believe that the soul departs the body after death and, depending on several factors, will enter heaven or hell. It is appropriate to mention that Allah, or God, is Most Gracious and Most Merciful, especially if departed was a suicide or considered less pious than the grieving family members, who may fear that the soul of their loved one will go to hell rather than speculating on the deceased person's life and deeds.
If it is appropriate to attend the funeral it is important to note that women and men will be expected to adhere to the seating allocations, that women are obliged to cover their heads, and that shoes are to be removed. While there will be an official three days of mourning it is appropriate to visit the grieving family in this time.
Judaism: While Judaism has a very structured approach to mourning, their beliefs regarding the soul and where it goes after death are less clear. It can be basically summed up as a belief that the soul continues on, and that the deeds of the deceased are important. While other faiths believe that the soul is the true essence of the person, it is important to note that many Jewish sects regard the body as very important, and that the body will be resurrected.
In Judaism the funeral is performed to honour the deceased, not to comfort the living. Honouring the deceased should be your focus at this time. However after the funeral the immediate family of the deceased will spend a week in intense mourning and spiritual refreshment called "shiva."
It is appropriate to make short social calls during this time, and offer to perform jobs or social obligations, as the mourners will not appear in public. It is more appropriate to honour the deceased with donations to charities rather than flowers, which are regarded as a waste of money. It is most appropriate to wear dark colours and conservative attire to Jewish funerals. Depending on the sect you may be required to cover your head, but most synagogues provide head coverings.
When in doubt, funeral directors like David W Bull will have a general idea of how you can respectfully attend a funeral of any faith.
Funerals can bring forth such a range of emotions: melancholy, grief, regret, relief and nostalgia. As an assistant at a funeral parlour, I am privileged to help people with organising their loved one’s final journey. I have learnt that a good funeral parlour can make the occasion truly commemorative. When I attend funerals for friends, I am saddened to see that so many ceremonies are traditional and joyless. I later find out that the family members simply weren’t aware of options such as a graveside memorial service. I love the fact that one of my tasks involves showing family members various venues and demonstrating what can be done. In this humble little blog, I hope to make it my mission to share some of the ideas – big and small – from the best funerals I have seen. Perhaps it will give you some inspiration at a difficult time. Bless.