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Comparative Analysis of Death Rituals

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Grief and Loss

July 19, 2004

Comparative Analysis of Death Rituals

All prominent cultures and religions in the world devote specific rites and rituals to their respective societies and faiths. Rites are acts of social, spiritual and religious origins and apply not only to ceremonies for the living, but to ceremonies for the dead as well. This paper will compare and contrast the rituals practiced by my Italian-American family with the rituals practiced by those of Muslim beliefs.

My family identifies strongly with its Italian roots and actively participates in the Roman-Catholic faith. I have a large extended family, which generally is involved in most family functions. This holds true when dealing with deaths in the family as well. It has been my experience thus far that deaths in my family have been anticipated, due to cancer or other long illness. This generally sets the stage for the extended family to band together and offer support in a multitude of ways. There is always someone to run errands, do chores around the house, make meals for the family, and to just visit and offer emotional support. The home is visited by the family's priest, who prays, gives communion, and administers the Anointing of the Sick, a Catholic Sacrament that prepares a person's soul for death through forgiveness of sin and affirmation of faith. This also allows time for the family to plan ahead for the funeral Mass, and the readings and music it will include. The support of extended family and clergy members allows for death to occur in the home, in comfortable surroundings and with loved ones.

Following the death, the immediate family is generally inundated with offers of condolence and food galore. A contingent of people generally shows up to accept offerings and keep things clean and running smoothly. They handle phone calls, record visitors and the offerings of food they have brought, and keep the house organized. Italian families traditionally have taken care of their own, supporting the extended family, and this seems to be a continuation of this tradition. It allows the immediate family time to mourn and plan for the services without having to worry about the everyday normal activities of cleaning house and planning meals.

The arrangements for funeral services are made as soon as possible. The funeral home is called and they arrive to take the deceased and prepare their body for viewing. Arrangements are made for the body to be laid out for one to two days at the funeral home. During this time flower arrangements are set up around the deceased and a table is available for visitors to leave sympathy and Mass cards. Our family has always set up boards with pictures and mementos near the casket. Anyone is welcome to add something that is meaningful to them and that reflects their relationship with the deceased. It is a bittersweet ritual, reflecting on happier times together yet feeling such profound loss. The immediate family forms a receiving line leading up to the casket for visitors to offer their sympathies. The arrangement of the line can vary, but usually the spouse is closest to the casket, and children follow according to age (oldest next to parent, youngest at the end). Siblings of the deceased may also stand in the receiving line if room permits. Prayers are said at the conclusion of the viewing hours and another prayer service is held immediately before leaving the funeral home for the main Mass in the Church. At the conclusion of this prayer service, family members are called individually and they are given a final chance to view the open casket and say their good-byes. This is often an opportunity for children and other loved ones to leave behind a special memento in the casket, for the deceased to take with them on their journey.

The funeral Mass itself follows Roman-Catholic tradition. The casket is present at the foot of the altar during a Requiem Mass, covered in a white pall, sprinkled with holy water, and incensed by the Priest, absolving the deceased of all sin and echoing the affirmation of baptism into the Catholic faith. There are readings from the Bible, religious songs, celebration of Communion, and often a family member or close friend of the deceased performs a brief eulogy. Following the Mass, the funeral procession leads to the cemetery for the Rite of Committal. Special prayers are said committing the body to the ground and the life of the deceased to God.

It is traditional for a gathering to be held for attendees following the funeral and burial. This sometimes takes place at the home of the family, with guests assisting in food preparation and cleanup, or it can be held at a restaurant at the family's expense. This gathering serves several purposes. It allows for memories of the deceased to be shared, helps the family deal with mourning, and provides hospitality for those who have traveled long distances to attend the funeral. Overall, the Italian-American funeral process is a large family-centered affair steeped in Roman-Catholic ritual.

Islam is a religion with much less propensity toward ritualistic behaviors. Muslims view the individual as a whole and its followers model their lives according to the teachings of Islam in every aspect of their lives, religious or otherwise. Muslims, therefore, tend to place much more emphasis on character than on actions, which makes the performing of rituals less essential to demonstrating ones faith. This does not mean that rituals are completely absent from the Islamic faith. Muslims do, in fact, believe that when certain rituals are performed in the approved manner, man can be morally and spiritually elevated. According to the Muslim holy book, the Koran, those that believe in the oneness of God and do good works during their life will be rewarded with everlasting Paradise in death. Muslim life is a constant preparation for the soul to become worthy to pass through the transition of death and into the eternity of Paradise. The belief is that after death, Allah will judge each person according to his or her beliefs and acts during this life and judged according to their individual situation, beliefs and acts toward others. Those who live as the Koran directs, to the best of their ability, will be rewarded in Paradise, yet those who have rejected the teachings of Islam shall face eternal torment in hell. Muslims do not believe they are given a second chance to prove their faith, so it is held that fate is dependent upon their actions in life.

As the Bible is read to those of the Catholic faith, Islamic scripture is read when a Muslim is facing death and they are reminded of the Shahadah, the primary belief of Islam, "There is no other God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet."

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