The meaning of death depends in part on what, if anything, you believe comes after it. On that matter Judaism offers answers ranging from nothing, to immortality of the soul, to bodily resurrection. The meaning of death also depends on how it influences life. Almost 2000 years ago, Rabbi Eliezer, one of the sages who appears in the Haggadah, taught that you should repent the day before you die. “Do you know when you will die?” he asked his students. “That being the case, repent today, lest you die tomorrow.”* The reality of death endows life with an urgency to live life to the fullest and to become our best selves.
God has created us in the image of the divine (Genesis 1:26). Yet, fashioned as we are out of the ground (adamah), ultimately we return to the earth. To be human is to be mortal; death, the great leveler, claims us all.
Christians view death through the lens of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his teaching and healing, Jesus disturbed the power class, for whom his commitment to God’s reign rather than Rome’s was threatening. As Jesus becomes aware of the danger to his life, he seeks to know God’s will. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke depict this struggle as the so-called “agony in the Garden”[of Gethsemane] in which Jesus prays through the night, finally saying, “Not my will but yours be done.” Shortly after, Jesus is arrested, questioned by authorities and ultimately crucified, the torturous mode of execution the Roman Empire used to enforce its rule. The story, however, does not end with his ignominious death on the cross, but in Jesus re-created, as it were, appearing to his disciples, and mandating them to carry on his mission.
Even Jesus, “God with us,” is not spared death. But death is not the final word for Jesus—nor is it for us. The love of God is stronger than death.
God created us in His image and breathed His spirit [Ruh] unto us (15:29). Life on earth is mortal and every living being will taste death. God created people and blessed their intellect and free will to test them in this life. The Qur’an says: “He who has created death as well as life, so that He might put you to a test [and thus show] which of you is best in conduct, and [make you realize that] He alone is almighty, truly forgiving” (67:2). The Qur’an makes it clear that people will live on earth for a while and then will die. From there they will be brought forth on Resurrection Day (7:25). Death in Islam is an end only to earthly life. The human spirit or soul does not die, but waits for resurrection on the day of judgment. Muslims believe in life after death, including heaven and hell.
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.
The concept of life after death can be understood in many ways. It can refer to the memories carried by a child of a deceased parent, to the ongoing influence the dead may exert on the living, to the immortality of the human soul, to a reward God grants the righteous, to a messianic era of eternal life that will succeed the era of finite existence, to the physical resurrection of the dead, and so forth. Jewish beliefs on the question run the gamut. Here, let’s concentrate on bodily resurrection.
Many Jews associate the concept of bodily resurrection with Christianity, but the truth is that until modern times this belief was part and parcel of Judaism as well. Still, Judaism encompasses a range of views on the question. Let’s take a look at how different denominations have handled the traditional language found in the Judaism’s central prayer, the Amidah (which means “standing prayer”), recited thrice daily.
This prayer speaks of God three times as “mechayei ha-meitim,” literally “the One who brings life to the dead.” A commonly used Orthodox prayer book translates this to mean “resurrection” or “resuscitation” of the dead. A commentary on the phrase explains that it refers to “the literal resuscitation of the dead that will take place in the Messianic age.”*
The Conservative prayer book renders “mechayei ha-meitim” as “Master of death and deliverance,” or “Master of life and death.” A commentary adds: “We experience God not only through our history, but through the very pulse of life and death and the wonders of nature that support it.”*
The Reform and Reconstructionist Movements, which tend to reject bodily resurrection, changed the Hebrew to “mechayei ha-kol,” “the One who gives life to all.” However, the most recent Reform Prayer book follows this with the traditional Hebrew in parentheses, though it notes that the phrase should be understood metaphorically.* The Reconstructionist Movement explains its rejection of the prayer’s traditional language as follows:
…[It demonstrates] an understanding that all of life is rooted in the world’s divine order and avoiding affirmation of life after death. We cannot know what happens to us after we die, but we can, by our thought and action, affirm the possibility of this-worldly salvation.*
One scholar notes that although the more liberal movements may have abandoned bodily resurrection, they did not necessarily reject the notion of life after death. “Judaism had provided an alternative, the doctrine of spiritual immortality. In most of our texts, this latter doctrine either replaces resurrection of the dead or is read back into it.”*
Despite a multiplicity of views, the conclusion of Chad Gadya, the Seder’s final and perhaps most popular song, provides a point of unity. The Haggadahs of all denominations conclude with a verse that speaks of God’s slaying the Angel of Death. Exactly what we mean when we sing those words remains a question.
I am struck at funerals by the boldness of this proclamation:
In him who rose from the dead,
our hope of resurrection dawned.
The sadness of death gives way
to the bright promise of immortality.
Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended.
When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death
we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.*
With the casket before our eyes, it is difficult to believe life has changed rather than ended—but that claim lies at the heart of Christianity. The apostle Paul tells the community at Corinth: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures . . .“ (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). Note that Paul is passing on a tradition taught to him, so this formulation is likely one of the oldest in the New Testament. Later in that same chapter, Paul speculates about what might transpire when our perishable bodies “put on imperishability” and immortality. In the “twinkling of an eye,” the “trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52-53). English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) ended one of his poems with this allusion to Paul:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood,
Is immortal diamond.*
To change the metaphor, Paul understood Jesus to be the “first fruit” of God’s power to create and re-create. So, too, will God’s creative power be at work in “those who have died in the peace of Christ and all the dead whose faith you [God] alone have known.”*
What is the nature of this changed life beyond the grave? We do not know. We live in hope, committing ourselves to walking the Way of Jesus. We hope, in the words of poet Mary Oliver:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.*
The Qur’an gives details of death, life after death, and heaven and hell. God in Islam is all-powerful. He gives life and death and holds sway over everything (Qur’an, 6:61). The angel of death is efficient and takes the souls of people on appointed times. For those who are good and pious, the angels greet them while they take their souls. The Qur’an says: “. . . those whom the angels gather in death while they are in a state of inner purity, greeting them thus: ‘Peace be upon you! Enter paradise by virtue of what you were doing [in life]’” (6:32). What happens to the soul after it is taken from the body? Certainly good souls are welcomed and bad souls feel the pressure of their sins. It is said that all souls are put to rest after death till the day of resurrection: The Qur’an says when the souls will be resurrected on the day of Judgment, “They will say: ‘Oh, woe unto us! Who has roused us from our sleep [of death]?’ [Whereupon they will be told:] ‘This is what the Most Gracious has promised! And His message-bearers spoke the truth!’”(36:52).
The Qur’an makes it clear that there will be accountability. No one will be able to hide anything and everyone will see what they did in their life. The Qur’an says: “the Day when they shall come forth [from death], with nothing of themselves hidden from God. With whom will sovereignty rest on that Day? With God, the One who holds absolute sway over all that exists!” (40:16). Good and bad are not equal and those who did good shall be acknowledged. The Qur’an says: “Now as for those who indulge in sinful doings – do they think that We place them, both in their life and their death, on an equal footing with those who have attained to faith and do righteous deeds? Bad, indeed, is their judgment” (45:21). The Qur’an says: “And so, he who shall have done an atom’s weight of good, shall behold it; and he who shall have done an atom’s weight of evil, shall behold it”(99:7-8). Those who will receive their reward in right hand will enter the heaven (17:71) and those who will receive it in the left hand will enter the hell fire (69: 25).
A merciful and forgiving God will decide the fate of everyone. The justice of God will follow His mercy and forgiveness and He will shower His blessings on those whom He wills. A righteous Muslim cannot be certain of his/her salvation, yet hopes to receive it through God’s grace and mercy.
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.”