One of the central tenets of Judaism’s approach to the ill or dying is to preserve their dignity. This extends from talking at eye level to someone who is bedridden rather than standing over and looking down at the person, to being with an individual near death so he or she doesn’t die alone. The obligation to visit the sick, bikkur cholim, is incumbent on everyone, not just the clergy. Indeed the Talmud notes that visiting the sick is one of the few commandments that is rewarded both in this world and the world to come. Sensing the healing power of these visits, the Talmud holds that visiting the sick diminishes one-sixtieth of the patient’s illness.* Many synagogues have a standing committee of volunteers who visit members of the congregation who are ill. In synagogue, on Saturday, Monday and Thursday (when the Torah is read), it is customary to read the names of those in the community who are ill and recite a blessing for their healing. This benefits the sick because they know their community remembers them as well as informs the community of those who are ailing. When death is near, it is customary to help the dying recite a deathbed supplication. Before concluding with the Shema, an affirmation of the oneness of God, the dying individual asks for healing.
May it be Your will to heal me fully; but if death is imminent, may I accept it gracefully, and may my death serves as atonement for all the sins for which I have been responsible before You. Grant me a portion of the reward of the righteous. Teach me the ways of eternal life. Guardian of the bereaved, trustee of the widowed, protect my beloved family, for my life is bound up with their lives. I place my spirit in Your care. You have redeemed me, Adonai, God of truth. Amen. Amen.
As an expression of respect, between the time of death and burial, the body of the deceased is never left unattended.
Care for the sick and dying is essential to the Christian life—one of the “works of mercy” on which we will be judged (see Matthew 25:39, 44). In some Christian traditions, the sick are prayed for and anointed with oil, following the imperative of the Letter of James: “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord” (5:14-15). Often, family and congregants sit with the dying person, praying silently and/or aloud, offering comfort and presence.
While not limited to Christianity, the hospice movement has helped many to die in greater peace, acknowledging that further medical intervention will only prolong the dying process. In some places, music thanatologists may accompany the dying with harp or other musical instruments.
An ancient tradition in Catholic Christianity is for the dying to receive Communion. This is termed Viaticum—provisions for the journey. The person is blessed: “May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life.”
There are several responsibilities of a Muslim with respect to other Muslims. One of them is to visit the sick. Prophet Muhammad ordered us to do seven things and forbade us to do seven others. The seven orders are: to follow the funeral procession, to visit the sick, to accept invitations, to help the oppressed, to fulfill the oaths, to return the greeting, and to reply to one who sneezes by saying, “May Allah be merciful on you,” provided the sneezer says, “All the praises are for Allah.” He forbade us to use silver utensils and dishes and to wear golden rings, silk clothes, Dibaj (pure silk cloth), Qissi and Istabraq (two kinds of silk cloths). (Sahih Bukhari Chapter No: 23, book of Funerals, Hadith no: 331).
The following Hadith is powerful and remarkable: “Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: ‘Indeed Allah would say on the Day of Resurrection: ‘O son of Adam! I fell ill but you visited Me not.’ He will say: ‘How could I visit You while You are the Lord of the worlds?’ Allah will say: ‘Did you not know that My slave so-and-so was sick but you visited him not? Did you not know that if you had visited him, you would have found Me by him? O son of Adam! I asked you for food but you fed Me not.’ The slave will say: ‘O Lord! How could I feed You whereas You are the Lord of the worlds?’ Allah will say: ‘Do you not know that such and such slave of Mine asked you for food but you did not feed him. Did you not know that if you had fed him, you would surely have found that with Me. O son of Adam! I asked you to give Me a drink but you gave Me not a drink.’ The slave will say: ‘O Lord! How should I give You a drink while You are the Lord of the worlds?’ Allah will say: ‘My slave so-and-so asked you to give him a drink but you gave him no drink. Had you provided him a drink, you would have surely found the reward for doing so with Me.’” (This Hadith is called Hadith Qudsi, meaning it is inspired by God and the words are from the Prophet. Such traditions are authentic and highly respected in the religion (40 Hadith Qudsi, Chapter 1, Hadith no 18).
Muslims are told to take care of the sick, even shortening their congregational worship because there may be sick people present. Abu Hurairah said that the Prophet (saw) said: “When any one of you leads the people in prayer, let him make it short, for among them are the sick, the weak and the elderly. And when any one of you prays by himself, let him make it as long as he wishes.” (Sunan An-Nasai Chapter No: 10, in the of the Book of Leading Prayers, Hadith no. 824)
The sick are allowed to pray their daily prayers in the way that is easy for them. If they cannot stand up, they may sit or even lie down to fulfill their obligation. The Prophet spoke about the daily worship (Salat) of a sick person and he said, “He should offer it standing up. If he cannot, then sitting down, but if he cannot offer it even sitting down then lying down.” (Sunan at-Tirmidhi (Jami-al-Tirmidhi, Chapter No: 2, in the Book of Prayers, Hadith no. 372)
Children shall care most for the sick, first for parents and then for other relatives. The Qur’an makes this clear: “for thy Sustainer has ordained that you shall worship none but Him. And do good unto [thy] parents. Should one of them, or both, attain to old age in thy care, never say ‘Ugh’ to them or scold them, but [always] speak unto them with reverent speech” (17:23). In another verse the Qur’an says: “NOW [among the best of the deeds which] We have enjoined upon man is goodness towards his parents. In pain did his mother bear him, and in pain did she give him birth; and her bearing him and his utter dependence on her took thirty months. and so, when he attains to full maturity and reaches forty years, he [that is righteous] prays: ‘O my Sustainer! Inspire me so that I may forever be grateful for those blessings of Thine with which Thou hast graced me and my parents, and that I may do what is right [in a manner] that will meet with Thy goodly acceptance; and grant me righteousness in my offspring [as well]. Verily, unto Thee have I turned in repentance: for, verily, I am of those who have surrendered themselves unto Thee!’”(46:15).
It is said that a young man heard the Prophet emphasize care for sick and aged parents. His mother was elderly and ill, and had not been to pilgrimage. So he took her on pilgrimage to Makkah, carrying her on his back and performing all the rituals. Upon his return, he told the story to the Prophet and asked him whether he had fulfilled his obligation to his mother. The Prophet replied that he had not, because when he was carrying his mother, he thought of her death so that he would be no longer be tested. The Prophet also told him that when as a child he was sick, his mother prayed for his life and never thought of his death as a way to end her responsibilities.
Visiting the sick is a communal responsibility. The obligation is fulfilled when some from the community visit the sick; otherwise the whole community is responsible. There are many narrations in Bukhari and Muslims (the two authentic sources of Hadith) in which the Prophet is reported to have said that if someone calls on his sick, it is as if he walks reaping the fruits of Paradise until he/she sits. When he/she sits he/she is showered in mercy, and if this is in the morning, thousands of angels pray for him/her until the evening, and if this is in the evening, thousands of angels pray for him/her until the morning. The prophet himself visited sick people, briefly stayed with them and prayed for them. It is reported that if someone fell sick, the Prophet would pass his right hand over them while saying the following prayer: ‘O Lord of humanity! take away the suffering, bring the recovery, there is no cure but Your cure that leaves no illness.”