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The Differences in Religions and Their Burial Rituals Research Paper

Related Topics: Judaism Christianity Islam Death

Pages:10 (2909 words)




Document Type:Research Paper



The three dominant religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam all shares some common characteristics when it comes to burial rites, and yet each has their own cultural quirks and issues. Each religion has different sects as well. Christianity was dominated essentially by Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox for most of its history, but Protestant Christianity introduced myriad sects over the past five hundred years. Judaism has also seen various sectarian movements arise, but can generally be divided into Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism. Islam has its sects as well, including Sunni and Shia. This paper will compare and contrast the general burial rituals of Roman Catholics, Jews and Muslims, highlighting sectarian differences when appropriate, while also relying on my own personal history with family and friends to shed more light on the subject from my own perspective.

Rituals at the Time of Death

In the Roman Catholic tradition, the time of death is when the sacrament of Extreme Unction is given. Today, this sacrament is also known as the Sacrament of the Sick or Dying and the Last Rites. In the tradition of the Church, the purpose of the sacrament is to give spiritual assistance to the seriously sick or dying individual. The primary aim is for the remission of sins and the restoration of spiritual health and grace to the soul if it has been absent through mortal sin; and the conditional benefit can be the restoration of bodily health (Toner). The rite includes using oil blessed by the bishop of the diocese, which is touched to the eyes, ears, lips, hands, and nose of the sick person. The priest says, “Through this holy unction and His own most tender mercy may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed by sight, by hearing, smell, taste, touch, walking, carnal delectation” (Toner). The sacrament of Extreme Unction gives the dying person the opportunity to confess sins and prepare for judgment with a clear conscience and an infusion of grace into the soul. The individual does not have to be conscious for the sacrament to be administered but does need to conscious to make a last confession.

In Protestant rites, the sacrament is typically not provided. Neither Calvin nor Luther had anything but disgust for the sacrament, considering it a manmade institution rather than a divine one (Toner). Thus, this sacrament, which is considered highly important among both Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox at the time of death, is largely ignored among Protestants.

The Jewish ritual at the time of death focuses primarily on preparing the body. This includes the practice of washing the body, ritual purification, and dressing the body. Prayers from the Torah are read: the book of Psalms, Isaiah, Zechariah and others are common. The precise steps in the preparation of the body are:

1. Covering the body with a sheet to await the cleansing process.

2. Uncovering the body once the process is ready to be begun

3. Using water to purify the body, either by submersion or by water poured from three buckets

4. Drying the body

5. Dressing the body in the ceremonial burial clothing with a sash wrapped around the outside of the clothing and tied so as to show the Hebrew sign for the name of God.

6. The body is laid in a casket without lining (Goodman).

Once the deceased is in the casket, the chevra—i.e., the Jewish group tasked with overseeing the burial ritual—prays to God for forgiveness of the sins of the deceased (Brener). This preparation contrasts with the Catholic tradition, where the body is prepared for burial by placing a crucifix in the hands of the deceased, who is placed within a coffin.

In the Islamic tradition, variations will occur from one region to another and according to sectarian custom; however, the common rite at the time of death includes adhering to shariah law, which proscribes immediate burial of the dead without delay—thus within one day of death. The custom at the time of death is similar to that conducted in the Jewish tradition: the body is bathed, and then it is enshrouded in white cotton or linen, and the deceased is placed in a grave. The purpose of bathing the body is to clean it, and heated water is used for the custom. It is a custom that stems from the ritual of the Sunnah, practiced by Muhammad (Siddiqui). The ones who wash the body are the members of the family who are of the same sex as the deceased. In Islam there are no formal sacraments for the dying and no formal rite comparable to the Catholic sacrament of extreme unction—though imams will make visits to the dying to help them prepare spiritually for death (Sheikh, Gatrad).

The Burial

Traditionally in the Roman Catholic religion, the deceased will receive a Requiem Mass, which includes prayers for the dead at the foot of the altar. A procession would begin at the house of the deceased, with the priest reading the De Profundis and sprinkling the deceased with holy water. In my own experience, this practice is not done anymore and instead of a procession from the house, the family arranges with a funeral service to prepare the body for a layout (a wake), where a priest may or may not come to lead a rosary and recite the prayers for the dead. A funeral mass will be held typically the day after the layout and a procession will occur from the church to a Catholic…

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…all souls go back to God and that there is no resurrection of the dead (Reform Judaism).

In Islam there have been no significant changes to the burial rites, as this community is still very traditional. The only changes have been related to custom and sect and these will depend on location and where the community of Muslims is located in the world. A Muslim community in the Middle East will be vastly different from a Muslim community in the US, as the latter will be more subdued and the former will be more pronounced simply because of the acceptance of the culture.

This change as a result of culture is comparable among the three. The Catholic Church found itself more and more immersed in a world of Protestant Christianity and so adapted its rites to reflect a Protestant mentality. Reform Jews adapted their rites to reflect a Gentile exterior. Islam alone has mainly preserved its rites and has only dialed public expressions back because Muslims know that in the US and elsewhere in the West they are viewed with suspicion since 9/11 and that causes them to be more cautious in most places.


The burial rites of Roman Catholicism, Judaism and Islam compare and contrast well enough broadly speaking. All three incorporate some type of prayer process for the dead, at least traditionally. With reform movements have come a simplification of the burial rite for Catholics and Jews. The Tridentine rite is now only celebrated by traditional Catholics and most Jews today enjoy the Reform rites and believe that the burial process should be a life affirming process. This belief appears to be celebrated by Catholics as well in the new rite: instead of praying for the dead, they focus on sharing fond memories of the deceased. Only in the orthodox Jewish religion and in the Tridentine rite of Roman Catholicism is there any sense of seriousness about what death means and what awaits one on the other side. Islam retains this seriousness, too, as its rites have not changed much.

Catholics alone have a sacrament available for the dying at the time of death, however. Jews and Muslims do not have a sacramental rite that the dying or their family members can avail themselves of at the moment of death. Imams will visit the dying as will rabbis but these are informal visits meant to offer consolation; they are not formal rites. Orthodox communities will adhere to traditional norms, and this is true across all three religions; the most prescribed norms are found in Orthodox Judaism, which dictates the burial process as well as the mourning process. Islam is similar but Roman Catholicism is much more relaxed and traditionally recommends only the Requiem Mass followed by prayers for the dead at…

Sample Source(s) Used

Works Cited

Brener, Anne. Mourning and Mitzvah: A Guided Journal for Walking the Mourner’s Path Through Grief to Healing. Jewish Lights/Turner Publishing, 2017.

Goldstein, Z. “The Jewish Burial.”

Goodman, Arnold M.  A Plain Pine Box: A Return to Simple Jewish Funerals and Eternal Traditions. Ktav Publishing House, 2003.

Reform Judaism.

Sheikh, Aziz, and Abdul Rashid Gatrad, eds. Caring for Muslim patients. Radcliffe Publishing, 2008.

Siddiqui, Abdul Hamid. Sahih Muslim. Peace Vision, 2012.

Toner, Patrick. "Extreme Unction." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909.

Wilde, Melissa J. Vatican II: A sociological analysis of religious change. Princeton University Press, 2018.

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