As with all other aspects of life, the practices of mourning are governed by Jewish law that Jews observe with a range of stringency. The laws of mourning apply to the loss of parents, siblings, children and spouse, with variations in each category. Judaism’s mourning customs align well with contemporary mental health practices, emphasizing the importance of grieving and of mourning as a process of multiple stages.
When learning of a death it is customary to recite the following:” Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, the true judge” (or a shortned version, “Blessed is the true judge.” Shafiq describes a similar practice among Muslims.
The first stage of mourning is the brief period between death and burial. This period of bereavement is so raw that consolation is inappropriate: “Do not comfort a person when his dead lies before him,” says Judaism’s oldest law code.* During this time the mourner is exempt from positive commandments such as daily prayer. For information about washing the dead and washing hands after leaving the cemetery see link to “As ritual washing occupies”
At the burial (or sometimes upon learning of the death), mourners rend their garments (or sometimes tear a ribbon affixed to their shirts or jackets), and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish (‘sanctification’). This prayer praises God’s mercy and asks for peace, but curiously makes no mention of death. The deceased is traditionally buried in a plain pine box and those attending the burial fill the grave with earth. The simple pine box and the sound of the earth and stone falling upon it bring home the reality of the loss with stark clarity.
The next phase, shiva (which means ‘seven’) extends for seven days after burial. Mourners typically stay at home or gather at a family member’s home and receive visitors. Visitors console the bereaved and share memories of the deceased. Mirrors, said to be a symbol of vanity, are covered and the mourner sits on a low chair or box. A minyan, a prayer quorum of 10 Jews, gathers twice daily at the shiva site. A minyan is required for the recitation public prayer, including the kaddish. Friends customarily supply the mourners with meals, so they are not distracted by the need to cook.
Shiva encourages mourners to concentrate on mourning. During shiva Jewish law prohibits going to work, using cosmetics, having a haircut, shaving, listening to music or partaking in other forms of entertainment, wearing new clothes and engaging in sexual relations. On the Sabbath during shiva , mourners attend synagogue and are formally welcomed back into the community. When shiva ends, mourners take a walk around the block, as if to demonstrate that an element of normalcy has returned. If participated in fully, shiva can be such an intense experience that when it ends, one is ready to move to the next level of mourning. The sense of being embraced by family and community helps give mourners the strength to go on.
Next comes the shloshim (which means ‘30’), a stage extending for 30 days after burial. Mourners return to work, may engage in sexual relations, but refrain from entertainment. Men often don’t shave during this period. During the shloshim mourners attend the prayer minyan and recite kaddish in the three daily services, morning, afternoon and evening. For the loss of siblings, children or a spouse, formal mourning ends after 30 days. For the death of a parent, mourning is extended for eleven or twelve months and includes kaddish and the avoidance of entertainment.
On four holidays throughout the year a congregational memorial service takes place. Everyone who has ever lost a parent, sibling or spouse recites kaddish. Kaddish is also recited on the anniversary of a relative’s death.
Many benefits flow from Judaism’s approach to mourning. It confronts the mourner with full reality of the loss and encourages the expression of grief. To counteract the tendency to withdraw in the face of suffering, it assures that certain elements of mourning will take place within the community. In many communities, the daily prayer minyan includes persons who have come to say kaddish. Mourners are thus surrounded by others at different stages in the process of mourning and witness its healing power.
While the various Christian traditions differ significantly in worship styles, several common features are notable. A community comes together to mourn the loss of one of their members, showing compassion and care for those closest to the one who has died. The Scriptures are proclaimed; most frequently, Christians draw upon Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) and upon sayings of Jesus, such as “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). Often, music enhances the service, whether a selection from one of the great Requiems or beloved hymns such as “Precious Lord, Take my Hand.”
In some Christian traditions, the casket is covered with a white cloth as a reminder of the baptism of the deceased: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6: 3-4).
The power and beauty of such rituals do not eradicate grief. Lamenting the loss of the beloved dead helps mourners to heal and to anticipate that time when God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
Muslims are advised to say when they hear about death of any person, relative or a stranger: “Verily, unto God do we belong and, verily, unto Him we shall return”(2:156). The Qur’an stresses patience and returning to God in times of calamity or death and promises great rewards for them. The Qur’an says: “It is they upon whom their Sustainer’s blessings and grace are bestowed, and it is they, they who are on the right path” (2:157). Recently one of my friends lost his young college-age son in an accident. He was driving when he got the message. Upon hearing the news, the bereaved father said: “We come from God and we shall return to Him,” – and continued driving. His friend in the passenger seat offered to take over the wheel. The father’s response: that he was sad but submissive to the will of God. He continued driving.
Mourning in Islam lasts for three days. I went to Pakistan in December 2012 to visit my brother who was very sick. After staying with him for a few days, I asked his permission to visit our native village for a day or so. Upon my return, my other brother accompanied me to see our sick brother. After our visit, he had a heart attack and died in the hospital in my presence. This was the first time I was physically present at a deathbed. In pain and tears, we transported the dead body back to our village. I was amazed to see how our village people took care of the body as well as our entire family. The body was washed properly, shrouded and made ready for burial. Hundreds of people came from surrounding villages to participate in the funeral prayers. As my brother’s body was lowered into the grave, I led the concluding prayers, weeping. The response from our village and surrounding community was very comforting.
The hospitality and the care from our village people were consistent with the religion of Islam. This was my first time in some 20 years to receive people as head of the family and attend the ritual of mourning. The village people brought food and served tea and meals to everyone who arrived to offer condolences. Our own family was not allowed to cook for three days and we were served and kept busy. Concluding the rituals of mourning, we invited all people from our village and others to a lunch on the fourth day and to say goodbye.
Like the Jewish community, Muslims try to bury their deceased on the day of death or the following day. The Rochester, NY, Muslim community organizes the funeral prayers and burial the same way as our village people did. They take food to the family home of the deceased. Close friends stay in contact with them for three days. The rituals are ended on the evening of the third day, with recitation of the Qur’an, supplications and public dinner.