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 on."

Other cultures have their own traditions to help mourners accept the fact of death.

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 or 473-7212.

©Copyright 2001, Lincoln Journal Star

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