When people are given a medical diagnosis that their life will end in the foreseeable future, it often changes them dramatically. Try to imagine that you have been given less than a year to live, and have confirmed and accepted this diagnosis.
Would you continue to go to work?
Would you stay in your current relationship?
Would you apologize to those you have wronged or become very vocal about wrongs that you have experienced yourself?
Would you turn to religion for comfort and forgiveness?
Would you live your waning days happier or would you become angry and bitter?
Because the subject of death is generally something to be avoided in our culture, we may not have had the opportunity to talk honestly with someone who is facing death. Although it is a certainty for all of us, we spend very little time thinking about or discussing it with others. We may find it depressing or even frightening. Some find comfort in the belief that as long as you’ve accomplished certain things or accepted a particular deity, you will be rewarded with an awesome eternal afterlife. Some believe that no matter what horrific things they may have done during their lives, they will be forgiven all of them at death because they are card carrying members of the right group. Others believe in karma which keeps you in an endless cycle of birth, life and death until you balance the bad with good. This seems like a superior belief system if we’d like to live in harmony with one another in a civilized, humane society. But it is just another belief system.
Maybe we believe we just fade to black and there’s nothing beyond our one single life as there’s no evidence otherwise, only beliefs.
How would our society be different if, say at age 18, we were all given our death dates? Would the choices we make throughout our lives be different from those made without any regard for it’s imminent end?
Why bring up death when there are so many happier topics? It’s something we’re all going to experience no matter who we are, where we live, or what we believe. It may be a natural death, and accident or a mass catastrophe. For example, there are an increasing number of experts who are now classifying the on-going disaster at Fukushima as an Extinction Level Event. There is very little information about this event being made available through the mainstream media for understandable reasons, but it’s still available for those who want to be informed. The news aggregator enenews.com is an excellent source.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a physician who noticed how many dying patients were either ignored by family or were given little to no opportunity to talk honestly about their impending deaths. Their uncomfortable visitors were more likely to talk about the weather or last night’s hockey game as their remaining days of life ticked by.
Watching a peaceful death of a human being reminds us of a falling star; one of a million lights in a vast sky that flares up for a brief moment only to disappear into the endless night forever. ~Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
― Mark Twain
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” ― Hunter S. Thompson, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967
We cannot banish dangers, but we can banish fears. We must not demean life by standing in awe of death. ~David Sarnoff
And death as beautiful as autumn leaves.
Buddhists believe in rebirth and that when they die they will be reborn again. The goal is to escape the cycle of death and rebirth and attain nirvana or a state of perfect peace. There are lots of different types of Buddhism and many different ways of dealing with death. Buddhists believe the spirit leaves the body immediately but may linger in an in between state near the body. In this case it is important the body is treated with respect so that the spirit can continue its journey to a happy state. The time it is believed to take for the spirit to be reborn can vary depending on the type of Buddhism practised.
PREPARING The dying person may ask a monk or nun in their particular Buddhist tradition to help them make the transition from life to death as peaceful as possible. Buddhists believe that a person’s state of mind as they die is very important so they can find a happy state of rebirth when they pass away. Before and at the moment of death and for a period after death, the monk, nun or spiritual friends may chant from the Buddhist scriptures.
AT THE TIME Buddhists believe the spirit leaves the body immediately but may linger in an in between state near the body. In this case it is important the body is treated with respect so that the spirit can continue its journey to a happy state. The time it is believed to take for the spirit to be reborn can vary depending on the type of Buddhism practised.
FUNERAL Because there are so many different types of Buddhist funeral traditions vary. Funerals will usually consist of a simple service held at the crematorium chapel. The coffin may be surrounded by objects significant to the person who has died. Monks may come with the family to the funeral and scriptures may be chanted.
BURIAL The person may either be cremated or buried depending on their tradition. There may be speeches and chants on the impermanence of life.
AFTER The grave may be visited by friends and family in remembrance of the person who has passed away. The importance of the gravesite will depend on the particular Buddhist tradition. Buddhists believe that it is just the physical body that lies in the grave because the person’s spirit has been reborn. Buddhists will often do things to wish for the happiness of the deceased person. For example in Southeast Asia lay people give offerings to the monks in memory of the dead person.
Christians trust they will go to heaven to be with God once they have died and so in some respects a funeral is a time of joy, although also sadness, as the person will be missed by friends and loved ones.
PREPARING The church minister may come and visit the person and their family to discuss any concerns and to help the person to prepare for their death. Depending on the form of Christianity (i.e. Anglican, Presbyterian etc.) and the particular church, there may be slightly different customs that will be followed.
AT THE TIME The church minister will offer any comfort or assistance the family needs to help them cope with the death and to organise the funeral. Friends will often send their sympathies in the form of cards and/or flowers to the deceased’s family.
FUNERAL A Christian may be either buried or cremated, depending on their preference. The ceremony will typically be held at the deceased person’s church and conducted by the minister, but it could also be held at a funeral home. The ceremony may involve hymns, readings and prayer by both the minister and the deceased’s family and friends. The casket may be present in the room during the ceremony and carried out at the end by pallbearers – usually members of the deceased’s immediate family. There is often the opportunity for people to view the deceased and to say their last goodbyes before the deceased is buried.
BURIAL If the deceased has been cremated the ashes may be scattered. Otherwise, the ashes or body will be buried in a cemetery and marked with a gravestone to remember the deceased.
AFTER On special occasions such as the deceased’s birthday, Christmas or anniversary of the death, family and friends may come and visit the grave. Often, flowers or other objects to remember the deceased will be placed on the grave as a sign of respect.
Hinduism embraces a pantheon of gods and goddesses, with individual Hindus worshipping one or more of these. Hindus believe in reincarnation. When a person dies their soul merely moves from one body to the next on its path to reach Nirvana (Heaven). So, while it is a sad time when someone dies, it is also a time of celebration.
PREPARING Family and a priest may come to pray with the dying person, sing holy songs and read holy texts. The priest may perform last rites. Other rituals can include the tying of a thread around the neck and wrist of the dying patient, the sprinkling of Ganges water, or the placing of a leaf from the sacred basil bush on the tongue.
AT THE TIME Family will pray around the body soon after death. People try to avoid touching the body as it is considered unclean. Sacred threads and other religious objects should not be removed.
FUNERAL The deceased will be bathed and dressed in white traditional Indian clothing. If a woman dies before her husband she will be dressed in red. The procession might pass by places that were important to the deceased. Prayers are said at the entrance to the crematorium. The body is decorated with sandalwood and flowers. Someone will read from the scriptures. The head mourner is usually a male or the eldest son and he will pray for the body’s soul.
BURIAL Hindus are cremated as they believe burning the body releases the spirit. The flames represent Brahma (the creator).
Jewish beliefs may vary depending on whether the Jewish person is Orthodox, Reform or Conservative. Jews believe that when they die they will go to Heaven to be with God. This next world is called Olam HaEmet or ‘the world of truth’. Death is seen as a part of life and a part of God’s plan.
PREPARING Family and friends will gather. A rabbi may be called to offer comfort and to pray for the person who is dying. It is a basic tenet of Judaism that a dying person should not be left alone. The reading of Psalm 23 and the reciting of the Shema prayer may be desired.
AT THE TIME The person’s eyes are closed, the body is covered and laid on the floor and candles are lit. The body is never left alone. Eating and drinking are not allowed near the body as a sign of respect. In Jewish law, being around a dead body causes uncleanliness so often the washing of the body and preparations for burial will be carried out by a special group of volunteers from the Jewish community. This is considered a holy act.
FUNERAL Jews may not be cremated or embalmed. In Israel a coffin might not always be used but outside of Israel a coffin is almost always used. The body is wrapped in a white shroud. Mourners have the opportunity to express anguish. Tears are seen as a sign of sadness and show that the mourner is confronting death. Mourners also tear their clothing as an expression of grief.
Muslim There are two types of Muslims – Shi’ite and Sunni, so beliefs and customs may be slightly different for each. Muslims believe that the soul continues to exist after death. During life a person can shape their soul for better or worse depending on how they live their life. Muslims believe there will be a day of judgment by Allah (God). Until then, the deceased remain in their graves but on judgment day they will either go to Heaven or Hell. Muslims accept death as God’s will.
PREPARING Muslims should be prepared for death at any time, which is partly why daily prayers are so important. A dying person may wish to die facing Mecca, the Muslim holy city. Family members and elders recite the Muslim scripture called the Koran and pray for the person. If there is no family, any Muslim can do this. Grief counselling is often not well accepted and may be considered an intrusion of privacy.
AT THE TIME The eyes of the deceased will be closed and the body is laid out with their arms across their chest and head facing Mecca. The body will be washed by family or friends. It will be wrapped in a white shroud and prayers will be said. Contact between the body and non-Muslims is discouraged. If a non-Muslim needs to touch the body, gloves should be worn. Male staff should handle male patients, female with female patients.
FUNERAL The body will be buried within 24 hours as Muslims believe the soul leaves the body at the moment of death. The funeral will take place either at the graveside and involve prayer and readings from the Koran.
BURIAL No women are allowed to go into the graveyard. Before burial a prayer will be recited. Mourners are forbidden from excessive demonstrations of grief. The body will not be cremated as this is not permitted in Islam. The deceased will be buried with their face turned to the right facing Mecca. A coffin is usually not used but a chamber dug into the grave and sealed with wooden boards so no earth touches the body. The grave will usually be simple without any fancy decoration.
AFTER Three days of mourning follows where visitors are received and a special meal to remember the departed may be held. Mourners avoid decorative jewellery and clothing. Male family members go to visit the grave daily or weekly for 40 days. There will also be prayer gatherings at the home for 40 days. After one year there will be a large prayer gathering of family and friends. After that, male family and friends visit the grave and everyone remembers the deceased in prayers.
Sikhs believe in reincarnation but also that if a person lives their life according to God’s plan then they can end the cycle of rebirth in this life. They believe in an afterlife where the soul meets God
PREPARING Friends and relations will be with the dying person and recite from the Sukhnami Sahib or the Guru Granth Sahib.
AT THE TIME After passing away the deceased will be washed and dressed in clean clothes. If the deceased has fulfilled the Sikh baptismal ritual then the five symbols of Sikh membership will also be placed in the coffin. Non-Sikhs may attend the body at death.
FUNERAL Friend and family drive in procession to the crematorium which takes place as soon as is possible. Death is not seen as a sad occasion but an act of God and so it is forbidden to cry. There may be an opportunity to view the deceased. Hymns may be sung, prayers and the poem Sohila recited.
BURIAL Cremation is the norm although Sikhs and only small children and babies will be buried. A male family member will switch the cremation oven on. The ashes will be spread in running water and are traditionally sent to India.
AFTER Afterwards the mourners will come to the temple for more hymns and readings as well as the distribution of parsad, a kind of bread/pudding, which is a symbol of God’s blessing. For days after the death, Guru Granth Sahib will be read or sung regularly in order to ease the sorrows of the family. After ten days another ceremony, the Bhog, is held to formally end the mourning period.