Our attitudes on how we care for the living are often reflected in or attitudes on how we care for the dead. Respect and cultural sensitivity should always be maintained when dealing with the deceased and their families.
Here is a quick introduction to the customs and rituals surrounding death of some of the worlds major religions.

Islam

As death approaches.

Muslims believe in an afterlife and a day of judgment. Death is considered to be Allah’s will and is not the final end but a temporary separation. As death approaches, it is important for a Muslim to seek forgiveness for violations against humans and forgiveness from God for sins committed.
A Muslim dying in hospital may have many visitors. Visiting a person who is ill is considered a form of worship resulting in blessings bestowed upon the visitor.
As death moves near, relatives may give holy water (zam zam) to drink. Verses from the Koran are often read. The patient may wish to face Mecca .

When death is imminent.

The dying person is encouraged to re-declare their faith. The declaration of Faith (Shahada) is recited and, if possible, the dying person responds: I bear witness that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his Messenger .

Following death.

The face of the deceased should be turned towards Mecca . If this is not possible, turning it towards the right is acceptable. Non-Muslim nurses should ask permission to touch the body and should do so using disposable gloves. The arms and legs should be straightened and the eyes and mouth closed. All clothing should be removed from the body by a person of the same sex. The body should then be covered with a sheet.
Soon after death there should be a ritual washing of the body by same sex Muslims (usually by respected elders who are experienced in this ritual).
It is a religious requirement that the body be buried as quickly as is possible.

Special customs.

Prolonging life unnecessarily by artificial means (ventilation, medications etc) is disapproved unless a reasonable likelihood of recovery is expected.
Postmortems are not encouraged as the body is now considered sacred and belonging to God.
As a mark of respect, immediate family members may not eat until after the funeral.
Muslims are always buried, never cremated.
Organ donation is not explicitly dealt with by the Koran and should be discussed with sensitivity by the transplant team.

christianity

As death approaches:

The patient may wish to be anointed by a minister or priest. Prayers are often recited.

When death is imminent.

Many christians will want to receive Communion. Prayers of commendation may also be recited.

Following death.

The body should be treated with respect.

judaism

As death approaches:

The patient may require a Rabbi to recite prayers and facilitate the recitation of the Confession on a Death Bed.

When death is imminent:

The dying person should not be left alone.
Any Jews present should recite psalms and when death occurs, the declaration of Faith (Shema).

Following death.

The body should be handled as little as is possible. It should be covered in a white sheet. A ritual washing may be performed.

Special Customs.

Burial should occur as soon as possible (but not on the Sabbath or holy days).
Post mortems are disliked.

hinduism

As death approaches:

Hindus may be comforted by hymns and readings from the Hindu holy books.
Some may wish to lie on the floor. The family should be allowed to be present.

When death is imminent:

A Hindu priest may be called to perform holy rites. Hindus wish to die with the name of God being recited.

Following death:

The family may wish to wash the body themselves. The eyes should be closed and limbs straightened. Religious objects and jewelry should not be removed.
Hindus wish to be cremated as soon as possible with the exception of children under 3 who are buried.

Special customs:

sikhism

As death approaches.

A Sikh may receive comfort from a relative or practicing Sikh reciting hymns from the Sikh holy book.

When death is imminent:

A Sikh wishes to die with the name of God, Waheguru (Wonderful Lord) being recited.
Holy water (Amrit) may be placed in the mouth at this time.

Following death:

The hair or beard should not be trimmed. The body should be covered in plain white cloth. Family members may wish to bathe the body themselves. The 5K’s should remain on the body. The 5K’s or 5 articles of faith are:

  • Kes/Kesh/Keski:uncut hair and beard, as given by God, to sustain him or her in higher consciousness. And a turban, the crown of spirituality
  • Kanga:  a wooden comb to properly groom the hair as a symbol of cleanliness.
  • Kara:  An Iron bracelet.   (Not Gold, nor Steel) worn on the wrist, signifying bondage to truth and freedom from material and aesthetic entanglement.
  • Kachara/Kaccha: Modest and specially designed cotton undergarment
  • Kirpan: the sword with which the Khalsa is committed to righteously defend the fine line of the Truth.

buddhism

As death approaches.

Buddhists needs at the time of death will vary depending on the particular lineage they follow. There are no uniform sets of rituals or rites.
A fundamental belief is that all phenomena are inherently impermanent and in a constant state of flux. Death is merely the separation of causes and conditions that have formed the body and mind.
The patient should be notified of their prognosis as soon as is possible. This will enable both the patient and family to prepare.
Alternatively the patient may wish to be alone to engage in meditation practice and preparation for the time of death. A monk or lay practitioner may assist with this process.

When death is imminent:

Family members may wish to be at the bedside.
The patients state of mind at the moment of death is of utmost importance as it is believed to influence the rebirth process. The goal is to die in a state of calmness and clarity.

Following death:

Some lineages (particularly Tibetan) believe that the death process is not over at the cessation of breathing, and that it may take a day or so for the consciousness to leave the body and reach the formless state between death and rebirth (Bardo). For this reason the patient should be disturbed as little as is possible in the moments before and immediately following death.
Once consciousness has departed the body it is considered to be merely an abandoned shell and there are no special rites for the disposal of the body.

Special practices:

Most buddhists have no objection to autopsies and many will be happy for organ donation to occur as an act of compassion.
Buddhists do not object to the majority of medical interventions including blood transfusions. As clarity of mind is very important during the dying process, any medications that might cloud the mind (eg analgesics) may be declined.

5 Responses to “care of the dead.”

  1. Compassion is the best and final gift always. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I am an student of life for over 81 of our earth counted years.I am a “returned one” from clinical certified dead (3days) a world traveler (all continents)a health practicioner in a Hospita/surgical enviroment.The act of departing our conciousness state is a most magnificent one, irrespective of apparent circumstances and the one we are prepared the least for ( In general)

  3. Your article is very informative. To die is the culminating act of departing the material world to a different dimenssion, regardless of our beliefs, and the most important on our lives. Most unfortunate our society ignores this fact and the great mayority is fearful, and confused unnecesarily, and it should not be this way.We need education on our most important final event in our existence.
    “we are not material beings having an spiritual experience, but spiritual ones having a physical one. A mayor difference”

  4. [...] Care of the dead. Organ donation. The box. The moment after the last. Link love: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. [...]

  5. Soooo very useful, thanks Ian!

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