Bahai News - Traditions help people deal with the loss of a loved one
Saturday, May. 26, 2001
Traditions help people deal with the loss of a loved one
BY BOB REEVES Lincoln Journal Star
For all people everywhere, the death of a loved one is a difficult time. But
most religions and cultural traditions have practices and ceremonies that
help people deal with their grief and separation, while encouraging positive
thoughts about the one who has died.
In the Jewish tradition, for example, mourners tear a garment as a sign of
grief. "It's a sign of tearing the fabric of your life" because the loved
one is gone, explained Rabbi Stanley Rosenbaum of Tifereth Israel Synagogue.
In ancient times, people tore whatever clothing they were wearing, he
said. Afterward, they sewed up the rip but kept it as a visible reminder of
the deceased. Today, many people wear an old shirt, tie or scarf to the
funeral, specifically to be torn. Some people even wear a piece of black
ribbon and cut it to symbolize a torn garment.
People need to remember the meaning of a tradition and not just do it
without thinking, Rosenbaum said. Many Jewish traditions are intended to
emphasize the reality of death, he said. "To remind us that the person will
no longer be with us in this life, but we have to pick up the pieces and go
Other cultures have their own traditions to help mourners accept the fact of
For example, many members of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska take turns
shoveling dirt into the grave rather than leaving it for cemetery employees,
and family members encourage children to walk over the covered grave.
"Children are never kept away from a funeral," and walking on the grave
helps them understand that the loved one is gone, said Emma Phillips, a
member of the Omaha Tribe.
For Vietnamese Buddhists, cremation is often the preferred way to dispose
of a body. The family and other mourners hold a prayer ceremony at the
mortuary, then go as a group to the crematorium and may even pull the
switch, said Dau Nguyen, president of the Tinh Tam Council of Buddhist
Study in Lincoln.
The cremains (ashes) are usually placed in an urn and kept in a family's
home or taken to the Buddhist temple and placed on the altar, he said.
Families who get a chance to return to Vietnam often take the cremains of
their deceased relatives back to be placed in a temple there, buried or
scattered in a river in their homeland, he said.
Cremation is widely practiced by Buddhists and Hindus because of the Indian
custom of having funeral pyres. However, many western religious traditions -
including Jews, many Christians and Muslims - adamantly oppose the practice.
Jews believe that the body should be placed back into the earth
from which, according to the Bible, human beings were created, Rosenbaum
said. Memories of Nazi crematoria during the Holocaust make it even more
distasteful, he said.
Jews, Muslims and Baha'is do not embalm the body, but allow it
to decay naturally.
Traditionally, Jews buried their dead within 24 hours. Today,
the body may be kept refrigerated for two or three days until relatives
arrive for the service, Rosenbaum said. Baha'is may not transport a body
more than a mile from where the person died; however, that is
interpreted to mean not more than a mile from the city limits.
Bahai's also have a custom of placing a specially inscribed ring
on the body before burial. It reads, "I came forth from God and return
unto Him, detached from all save Him, holding fast to His Name, the
Merciful, the Compassionate."
Many Christians believe that cremation would somehow interfere with the
resurrection of the body, as proclaimed in the biblical Book of Revelation.
The Roman Catholic Church has removed its prohibition on
cremation, but does specify that cremains be buried, said Father Bill
Grant, pastor of St. Michael Parish in Fairbury and St. Mary in
Alexandria. Grant studied sacramental theology in Rome.
Many Catholic rituals, he said, point away from the death of the
body to the survival of the soul after death. For example, during a
Catholic funeral the priest sprinkles holy water on the casket
symbolizing the baptism of the deceased into a new life in heaven. A
white cloth called a pall is placed over the casket to symbolize "the
white garment the deceased wears after passing on," he said.
Both Catholics and Jews place candles around the body and keep a
vigil prior to burial. Catholics often place a "Pascal candle,"
signifying the risen Christ, near the coffin, Grant said.
Specific prayers used as part of funeral services and vigils
help comfort the bereaved and turn their thoughts to God.
Catholics often say the Rosary (a series of prayers focusing on the
mysteries of the faith) for a departed friend or family member, and Jews
repeat Kaddish (a prayer affirming God) in memory of those who have died.
Jews "sit shiva," a seven-day period in which mourners remain at
home while friends come to visit them. During this time, all mirrors in
the house are covered. "The idea is not to look at yourself, but think
about the one who died," Rosenbaum said. "Perhaps it's also a reminder
that the image of God is not physical."
Omaha tribal members gather around the body in the hospital or
the family home for a "cedaring" ceremony, led by a spiritual leader.
"When someone passes away, we believe that the spirit is going
to go out for three days and three nights," Phillips said. "If their
spirit is cedared, the spirit won't get lost and it will come back."
On the third night, when the morning star appears in the sky at
about 3 a.m., there is a final cedaring and prayer ceremony, after which
Omahas believe the spirit has departed the body for good.
Periods of mourning and specific days set aside to remember the
dead are important to help people honor those who have passed on.
Vietnamese Buddhists have three days each year on which they
honor deceased relatives: Thanh Minh Day, a day in early spring similar
to the American Memorial Day; Vu Lan Day, a late summer holiday similar
to Mother's Day; and Lunar New Year, which comes in late January or
early February. On each occasion, many families honor their deceased
relatives by placing fruit or flowers on temple altars or at shrines in
their homes, Nguyen said.
Jews observe a 30-day mourning period for friends or relatives,
but a one-year mourning for a deceased parent. On the Jahrzeit, the
anniversary of the person's death, the tradition is to light a 24-hour
candle for the dead.
The synagogue has a "wall of memory" with plaques bearing the
names of the deceased, in English and Hebrew, the date of death and an
electric light that is lit during the first year of mourning and each
year during the anniversary of the week in which the person died.
Many Catholics observe the first month of a relative's death,
and then the one-year anniversary, by having an "intentional Mass" said
for them, Grant said. "They see those as eternal birthdays, the day of
their birth into heaven."
Vietnamese Buddhists observe a 49-day period after a person's
death, offering prayers for the "formless body" that is seeking
reincarnation, Nguyen explained. Prayers can help the deceased find
their way to a higher incarnation, or even to Nirvana - the release from
the cycle of birth and death, he said.
Buddhists also believe that the best way to honor the memory of
the dead is to do good deeds and think good thoughts. "We should treat
other people well, contribute to charity, do social work, don't fight,"
Nguyen said. "That's a good custom."
Reach Bob Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org or 473-7212.
©Copyright 2001, Lincoln Journal Star
Page last updated/revised 052601
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