Funeral Customs

 *Please understand that funeral customs may change depending on how religious families are and/or the clergy or celebrant officiating the funeral service*

*The funeral customs below are general guidelines *


“Roman Catholic” refers to the Christian church that recognizes the Pope and Vatican as the authority and representation of God’s teachings. Today, there are about 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world. Catholics teach that Jesus died to redeem man from sin. They believe in immortality and that in death a person may be judged to go to Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. In Purgatory, God’s purifying mercy eventually obtains for the deceased a place in Heaven. Unlike some Protestant beliefs, Roman Catholics are not assured before death that they will go to heaven, and so mourners pray for their deceased loved one’s entrance into heaven. They believe in the eventual resurrection of the body and the reuniting of the body with the soul at Christ’s second coming. The first official who should be called upon the death of a Roman Catholic is the person’s priest. If the death was expected, the priest may have already attended the per-son and performed the last rites, or final prayers and ministrations preceding death. The next call should be to the funeral home.

Elements of a Catholic Funeral The most common elements of a Roman Catholic funeral are:

1. A Vigil service with either the body or cremated remains present. If the body is present, the casket may be either open or closed.

2. A Funeral Mass or service with either the body or cremated remains present. If the body is not present then the service is referred to as a Memorial Mass.

3. A Graveside service with burial of the body or cremated remains or the placing of the remains in a columbarium or mausoleum.

The Vigil (or Wake): A vigil is a prayer ceremony where friends and family gather together to pay their respects to the deceased and his or her family. It may take place at a funeral home, a church, the family home, or some other location. Typical elements include prayers lead by a priest or appropriate lay person. Eulogies, memorials, singing of hymns or secular music, readings and poems may be incorporated as well.

Funeral Mass: The funeral Mass (Memorial Mass if no body is present) is held at the church. At the entrance to the church, the remains are sprinkled with holy water and covered with a pall, a reminder of baptism. When the pro-cession reaches the front of the church an open bible and a crucifix, symbols of Christian faith, may be placed on the casket. An urn of cremated remains may be carried in procession or placed on a table at the front of the church before the service begins. A flag may be placed on a casket after communion. The Funeral Mass does not typically include eulogies though loved ones often participate in readings.

While a typical Mass is generally formal and follows traditional elements, some Catholic churches allow a slightly less formal service, including personal reflections and remembrances of the deceased, special music performances, and other aspects that are non-traditional. Holding a funeral Mass is preferred but is not a requirement. In cases where the family of the deceased decide that a Mass cannot be held, the funeral service will include the funeral prayers (funeral liturgy) that would normally be held during Mass.

Burial: After the service, the remains are usually trans-ported to a cemetery, where there is a formal committal or burial ceremony, presided over by the priest. In the case of cremation, this may take place at a columbarium or mausoleum.

Roman Catholics and Cremation:

Historically, the Catholic Church forbade cremation. How-ever, in the early 1960s the Church relaxed the rules and today many Catholics choose cremation. Recently the Church clarified its position on cremation for Catholics and in October 2016, the Pope issued updated guidelines. To-day, cremation is allowed but the ashes must be kept in a “sacred place” such as a church cemetery. Ashes should not be scattered or kept in an urn at home.

Catholic Funeral Etiquette for Non-Catholics:

When attending a Catholic funeral, non-Catholics should use the same etiquette they would for any funeral. Be respectful and aware that during Mass the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist (communion) will take place. As a non-Catholic you will not participate in communion. During the service, you can follow along, participate in the singing of hymns, and stand or kneel when others do.

Catholics commonly believe that death is the passing from the physical world to the afterlife, where the deceased’s soul will live in Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory.

While there are differing degrees of orthodoxy within Catholicism, Catholics commonly believe that death is the passing from the physical world to the afterlife, where the deceased’s soul will live in Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. At the end of time, when Christ returns, many Catholics believe that the bodies of the dead will be resurrected.

When Death Is Imminent:

When a Catholic is approaching death, a priest should be brought in to administer special rites and Holy Communion to the dying person.

After Death Occurs: After the death, a priest should be contacted so that the necessary rites can be administered and the funeral planning process can begin. It is common for local churches to have relationships with Catholic or Catholic-friendly funeral homes, and the deceased’s priest, your priest, or a local priest can point you in the right direction for finding a funeral home.

When To Hold A Catholic Funeral:

Funeral Masses may not be held on Holy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter), Good Friday (the Friday before Easter), Holy Saturday (the Saturday before Easter), or Easter Sunday. Funeral Masses are also prohibited on the Sundays during Advent (the period starting on the fourth Sunday before December 25 through December 25), Lent (the 40-day period before Easter), and the Easter Season (the 50-day period after Easter). A Funeral Mass may be held on Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), though ashes would not be distributed in the church.

Organ Donation:

Though there is some disagreement within the Catholic Church on the acceptability of organ donation, many Catholic leaders have accepted the medical definition of “brain death” (the end of brain function as the end of life) and see organ donation as a final charitable act that one may make.


Embalming is acceptable in the Catholic faith, and de-pending on the rules of the state and/or the funeral home that you’re working with, embalming before the Vigil may be necessary.


Historically, the Catholic Church has not supported cremation. However, these days it is acceptable for a Catholic to be cremated. That said, most churches prefer that the body be present for the Funeral Mass, meaning that cremation should occur after the Funeral Mass. Remains should be buried in the ground or at sea or entombed in a columbarium, and should not be scattered.

Viewing, Wake, Or Visitation Before A Catholic Funeral:

The Vigil is a prayer service usually held the evening be-fore the funeral. Much like a viewing or a wake, family and friends gather in the home of the deceased, in the funeral home, or in the church to pray and remember the de-ceased. A priest or deacon usually presides over the prayers, though a layperson with knowledge of the prayers and traditions may preside in the event that a priest or deacon is not available.

Eulogies And Tributes At A Catholic Funeral:

The Vigil is the appropriate time to eulogize the deceased or pay any fraternal or civil tributes. Eulogies are not de-livered at the funeral service.

Where To Hold A Catholic Funeral:

Catholic funerals are held in Catholic churches, though they may also be held in the chapels of Catholic assisted living or care facilities or in the chapels at Catholic cemeteries.

The Catholic Funeral Service Priests lead the Funeral Mass, and may also lead the funeral liturgy (service). If a priest is not available, deacons may lead the funeral liturgy. If a deacon is not available, a layperson with knowledge of the liturgy and traditions may lead the service. However, only a priest or a deacon may delivery the homily (sermon), which will also serve to remember the deceased by incorporating examples from the deceased’s life.

Specific Catholic Funeral Arrangements:

Throughout the service, no matter who is leading, laypeople may participate as readers, musicians, pallbearers, ushers, and in other usual roles. The music played at the Funeral Mass should be appropriate church music; popular or non-religious music is not appropriate. However, the family of the person who died may coordinate with the priest to have special or especially meaningful hymns, psalms, or readings included in the Mass.


The Rite of Committal is the Catholic interment service, at which the body is finally buried or interred. The Rite of Committal may take place at a gravesite, mausoleum crypt or tomb, or columbarium (in the event that the body was cremated). Family and friends gather together with a priest or deacon to pray over the body one last time. In or-der to make the burial or interment site a sacred place for the deceased, the priest or deacon will bless the place be-fore the body or remains are placed inside. After the site has been blessed, the body or remains will be committed to the earth. The priest or deacon will then recite more prayers, and then everyone will join in to say the Lord’s Prayer.

Mourning Period And Memorial Events:

There is no prescribed mourning period or memorial events in Catholicism.


In 1607, the English settlers in Jamestown, VA arrived with the Church of England as their faith. After the American Revolution however, these settlers wanted to separate their beliefs from those of the British Crown so they founded the Episcopal Church.

At first, the church was suspect because of its British origin, but establishing in new territories eventually won the Church its own identity. The Episcopal Church is less doctrine-oriented than some other Christian faiths and operates with a democratic structure, They believe that the Bible was an inspired account, but written by imperfect human beings. Interpretation and practice are largely left up its members who are urged to make moral decisions with the guidance of scripture, prayer and their ministers. As in other Christian faiths, funeral services are held in a church or funeral home. Guests may sit where they choose and are not expected to view the body. A priest leads the service and sometimes includes a Bible lesson as part of the program. Non-members are expected to sit, kneel and pray with the congregation as long as this doesn’t compromise their own beliefs.

Partaking in Communion, however, is reserved for Christians. There are no specific rituals for comforting the bereaved or holding anniversary services.


The Presbyterian Church was founded on the beliefs of John Calvin (1509-1564) who taught that a church should be a democracy under the authority of God. Historically, many differences led to various schisms that were overcome in 1983 when at least ten different denominations merged to form the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.

As other Christians, Presbyterians recognize Christ and the Holy Spirit as divine. Their theology focuses on the majesty of God whose essence is truth, will and purpose. For a human being, this means fulfilling God’s purpose in one’s own life. To this end, Presbyterians are often social activists who view their efforts as doing God’s work.

A funeral service is held a few days after the death. Guests are free to sit where they please and not expected to view a body. The pastor or minister presides over the ceremony. Programs are often distributed and non-members are invited to participate to the extent that they feel comfortable. After the service, mourners may go to the home of the bereaved, but there is no set tradition for these gatherings.


In the latter part of the 15th century, Martin Luther, a German, was one of many who objected to the Roman Catholic teaching that one is saved by faith and good works. In contrast, he believed in being saved by simply following Jesus. He also believed that the church should conduct services in the languages of its peoples and that the clergy should be able to marry. In response, the Church ousted Luther who then founded the Lutheran Church. The faith spread and German and Scandinavian immigrants brought it to the US. Today, Lutherans can be described as either Evangelical Lutherans, who are more theologically liberal or a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod who are more conservative. Lutherans regard death as a new beginning. They believe that those who have faith are assured eternal life with God.

At the service, guests are ushered to seating. If arriving late, they do not enter during the procession or prayer. A pastor presides over the service and reads from the Lutheran Book of Worship or The Lutheran Hymnal of Lutheran Worship. Christians are expected to fully participate, but non-Christians need not kneel, sing or pray with them. If interested in recording the service, permission should be received from the pastor prior to the service. There are no specific rituals for observing the anniversary of the death. There is no rule concerning when the bereaved may return to work and social activities, but visits from friends after the funeral are welcome.


Christians have a strong belief in the afterlife and much of their lives are directed at achieving eternal peace in Heaven. They believe that Jesus was the son of God and came to earth to teach through his actions and lessons. These writings are known as the Christian Bible and make up the scriptures, the Old and the New Testaments. According to the New Testament, Jesus sacrificed himself to his enemies and was crucified. This sacrifice was made to pay for the sins of all mankind. A true believer in Jesus and the Christian faith will be forgiven for sins as a result of Jesus’ sacrifice and gain eternal life in Heaven.

From Catholics to Mormons to Lutherans, Christianity has inspired many other religions, each with its own emphasis and interpretation of the Bible. Although these religions hold slightly different beliefs, they follow the same principles and share similar funeral rituals. Christian funeral services serve the same purpose: to pray for the soul of the deceased, as well as to offer comfort and support to the bereaved.

The typical Christian funeral includes:

  • An opening statement lead by the priest or minister.
  • Depending on the religion it may be either a prayer, a statement that shows support to the bereaved, or a combination of both.
  • Prayers and hymns are read and sung throughout the funeral. Guests are often encouraged to read or sing along at appropriate times.
  • Scripture readings are a common part of most services. Similar to prayer and hymns, the specific readings and their placement in the ceremony differ by religion.
  • A remembrance given by a close friend or family member honors the life and gifts of the deceased.
  • The service ends with closing words given by the minister. He states that the service is over and leads the procession to the cemetery.
  • Graveside services also differ by religion, but all services have some form of words of committal in which the minister either reads a prayer, praises Jesus and prays for the soul of the deceased.

Christian funeral services focus mainly on the deceased entry into Heaven and God’s ability to give the grieving strength to cope with their recent loss.


Buddhist funeral customs vary between traditions or “schools” and even within schools, depending on the country—for example, Zen in Taiwan and Zen in Japan are different. The following information is generalized to fit many or most Buddhist traditions. If you have specific questions relating to Buddhist funeral customs for an individual sect, we recommend that you consult with your spiritual advisor. Funeral customs differ within the various Buddhist sects and from one country to the next. Some funerals are very ritualistic and traditional, while others are quite simple, solemn, and dignified. Rather than spend lavishly on expensive but perhaps meaningless traditions and rituals, the family and friends may donate to a worthy cause and transfer the merit to the deceased. Peace and serenity are hallmarks of a Buddhist funeral. An altar is set up to display the deceased’s portrait, along with offerings of candles, incense, flowers, and fruit. An image of the Buddha is placed beside or in front of the altar.

According to Buddhist funeral customs, a service may be presided over by monks, who will deliver a sermon and perform Buddhist rites. If a monk is unavailable, others may conduct the service. Rituals that transfer merit to the deceased may be performed by family or other mourners, such as offering cloth to the presiding monk on the deceased’s behalf, pouring water from a vessel into an overflowing cup, preaching, and giving offerings or almsgiving.

At a traditional Buddhist funeral, the family will wear white or cover their clothing with a traditional white cloth, along with a headband or armband.

Mourners may also:

  • Walk with sticks to symbolize that grief has left them the need for support
  • Chant or sing appropriate sutras (prayers)
  • Bring offerings of flowers and fruit
  • Burn incense to sweeten the air
  • Ring gongs or bells

Although Buddhists understand that death is not an end, only a transition from one form to another, it is acceptable to show grief. In doing so, friends and family members acknowledge the loss of their loved one. The focus, however, should be on understanding the transiency of life, thinking about one’s own mortality as an impetus to make life meaningful, and performing good deeds on behalf of the deceased person. The deceased may be cremated or buried, although cremation is traditional. Monks, if present, will perform last rites before the casket is sealed. Family members may assist in lifting the casket as a final act of service, while others attending may observe a moment of respectful silence. During the funeral procession, family members may walk behind the hearse; all attendees should be sending good thoughts to the family and contemplating the impermanence of life.

The Buddha said, Life is a journey. Death is a return to earth. The universe is like an inn. The passing years are like dust. Regard this phantom world As a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, A flash of lightning in a summer cloud, A flickering lamp – a phantom – and a dream.


Hindu funeral service rituals vary between sects and subsects. The following information is generalized to be representative of Hindu funeral customs and traditions. If you have specific questions relating to Hindu funeral customs for an individual sect, we recommend that you consult with your spiritual advisor.

Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world. It is estimated to have nearly a billion followers. Unlike other religions, Hinduism has no founder and no common creed or doctrine. Most prevalent among Asian Indians, the religion teaches that God is within each being and object in the universe and also transcends every being and object. It teaches that the essence of each soul is divine; and that the purpose of life is to become aware of that divine essence.

The Hindu gods and goddesses can be called on to help. Their goal is to help believers transcend the world as it is ordinarily perceived and realize the divine presence. The many forms of Hindu worship, ritual and meditation are intended to lead the soul toward the direct experience of God or Self. Although the physical body dies, the individual soul has no beginning and no end. It may pass to another through reincarnation, depending on one’s karma (the consequences of one’s actions over lifetimes). If the soul has realized the true nature of reality, it may become one with the Brahman, the “One.”

Those of the Hindu faith prefer to die at home, surrounded by their family who will keep vigil. According to Hindu funeral customs, the body remains at the home until it is cremated, which is usually within 24 hours after death. The ashes are typically scattered at a sacred body of water or at some other place of importance to the deceased.

At the service, referred to as a wake, mourners may dress casually. White is the preferred color for both males and females. Black is considered inappropriate. An open casket will be present with a priest or “karta” presiding over the proceedings. Hymns and mantras are recited and some services include a fire sacrifice (home). Offerings are made to ancestors and gods. Flowers may be offered, but bringing food is not part of the Hindu custom. There is always an open casket and guests are expected to view the body. The Hindu priest and senior family members conduct the ceremony. Guests of other faiths, as well as Hindus, are welcome to participate, but not expected to do so. Using a camera or recorder of any kind is not considered polite. Ten days later, a ceremony is held at the home of the deceased in order to liberate the soul for its ascent into heaven. Visitors are expected to bring fruit. The mourning period ranges from 10 to 30 days after the death.


Jewish funeral service rituals and practices have traditionally followed a strong set of customs and beliefs which are based on the Torah. Although these beliefs remain important in the Orthodox and Conservative Jewish cultures, some of the traditional customs have been modified under Reform Judaism. The Jewish people hold the philosophy that one should embrace life while accepting the inevitability of death. The emphasis of Judaism concerns how one’s life should be lived and it does not specifically define an afterlife. However, it is implied that leading a praiseworthy life will prepare one for what comes after life.

Jewish burials are to take place as soon as possible. Exceptions are made when the family cannot be present in a short time and for other reasons of practicality. Jewish funerals emphasize simplicity to avoid embarrassment for the poor. It is traditional Jewish practice to perform a ritual washing of the body (“Tahara”) and then to dress it in a plain burial shroud. Watchers (“Chevra Kadisha”) remain with the body around-the-clock until the funeral.

According to traditional practices, the funeral is usually held in a synagogue or funeral home the day after the death. There is no visitation by friends in the presence of the body before the funeral. The body is placed in a simple wood coffin so as not to disturb its natural decomposition. An open casket or cremation is not generally accepted in the Jewish tradition. Male guests are expected to wear a jacket and tie with a yarmulke as a head covering, which is available at the funeral home or synagogue. Women wear conservative apparel, a skirt or dress of somber colors, but they are not expected to wear a head covering. They should dress modestly – nothing revealing – no short skirts, short sleeves or open-toed shoes.

The service is conducted by the rabbi and begins with the cutting of a black ribbon to symbolize the individual breaking away from loved ones. If you arrive late, it’s wise to wait for an opportune moment to enter, so as not to disturb the service. Cameras or tape recorders are discouraged. The rabbi leads the service and reads the eulogy. A “minyan” (at least 10 Jewish adults, traditionally males) is required to recite prayers. At the cemetery, more prayers are read and the family members usually participate in placing dirt on the coffin before it is buried. This symbolizes their acceptance of the finality of death. Jewish funerals are often held entirely at grave side. Flowers are not appropriate for most Jewish funerals. Rather, making a donation to a charity or Jewish organization is appreciated. Food, preferably kosher, is welcome.

For Jews, the initial mourning period lasts seven days and is called Shiva (Hebrew for seven). During this time, it is appropriate to visit the home of the bereaved. There, the family may practice traditions that may include: covering mirrors; burning memorial candles; or wearing the black ribbon that was cut. Men do not shave, women do not wear makeup, and couples refrain from intimacy. This break from daily routine symbolizes the disruption that death has brought to their lives and demonstrates grief through self-sacrifice. Twice a day, the bereaved pray for their loved one. They usually return to work within a week but the mourning period may last as long as a year. On the first anniversary of the death, the bereaved attend a service and unveil the tombstone at grave side. Candles are lit on the yearly anniversary of a death, known as Yahrzeit (YORtzait).


Sikhism is an eastern religion that started about 1500 A.D. in the Punjab region of southern Asia. It was born out of the teachings of Nanek, who developed a following after a revelation from God. He was considered the first guru and there have been ten subsequent gurus. All of the Sikh gurus are considered to have had the spirit of Nanek. The last guru, Guru Granth Sahib, is the guru in Scripture form. The main aspiration of Sikhs is to gain a close and intimate relationship with their deity. They do this by gaining enlightenment through following the teachings of the gurus. There is only one God for Sikhs and he has no form, but has many names. Sikhs can get an understanding of God through meditation.

Like Hinduism, Sikhism believes in reincarnation and karma. However, they reject the idea of a caste system. Everyone is equal in the eyes of God, according to their beliefs. Like Muslims, Sikhs also abstain from alcoholic drink or any other intoxicating element.

Sikh Funeral Traditions :

In regarding the body, death is a natural process of living. It is part of the cycle in Sikhism. This does not apply to the soul, however. The soul uses the body (life and death) in its journey back to God from where it came.

Sikhs prefer cremation over all other ways of disposal. Other methods (including burial in the ground or at sea) are permitted if the cremation is impossible. The cremated remains are typically submerged in a river. The body is just an empty shell to Sikhs. Therefore, there is typically no monument erected for the dead. Crying out, wailing, or other public displays of emotions are disapproved of. Even the closest of relatives try to stay detached from the emotion of the occasion. The body is taken to the place of worship before cremation. There, hymns are sung and prayers recited. At the site of the cremation, more hymns are sung and speeches are made about the deceased. At the close, a prayer is said. At that time, the youngest son or another close relative will start the cremation. He will either start the fire or start the process mechanically if that is available.


The word “Islam” means the “achievement of peace with Allah [god] and man, and complete resignation to Allah in thoughts, words, beliefs, and deeds.” Moslems, the followers of the Islamic religion, live by the Koran.

The Koran teaches:

  • There is one God, Allah.
  • There is a day of judgment and a life after death.
  • To pray five times a day.
  • To fight for the sake of Allah.
  • To perform duties of generosity.

Muslims view death as a transition from one state of being to another, not as an end. They believe that actions follow you to the afterlife. So, if you follow the law of the Koran and live a good life you will be rewarded in the afterlife. In death, you will be separated from the ugliness in the world. But if you live a dishonest and bad life, you will be separated from all the beauty of the world.

Islamic funeral customs require that:

  • The body be buried as soon as possible after death
  • The body be turned to face towards Mecca, the holy center of Islam.
  • Guests of the same sex should greet each other with a handshake and hug.
  • A person sitting next to the body reads from the Koran. An Imam presides over the service.
  • The deceased’s eyes and mouth are closed.
  • There is rarely an open casket.
  • Guests should not take photos or use recording devices.
  • The arms, legs, and hands of the body are stretched out in alignment with the body.
  • The death is immediately announced to all friends and relatives.
  • The body is bathed and covered in white cotton.
  • Within two days following the death, the body is carried to the graveyard by four men.
  • A procession of friends and relatives follow.
  • No discussion takes place at the time of burial, but all guests pray for the soul of the departed.
  • After the body is buried, all guests go to the house of the family of the deceased. A meal is prepared and guests usually stay for the entire day. Family members may stay for the whole week.
  • During this time, the family members socialize. It is believed that socializing helps to ease suffering.
  • If arriving late, guests should simply join in.

Under Islamic funeral customs, the mourning period officially lasts for 40 days. During that time, family members wear only black clothing. For one full year, the wife of the deceased continues to wear black, but the anniversary of the death is not observed. In the Islamic culture. death is accepted and viewed as a natural part of life. The belief that the deceased has moved on to a pleasant afterlife is an important belief and helps the bereaved cope with their suffering.


The humanist view rejects the idea of an afterlife and interprets death as the end to an individual’s consciousness. They believe that human beings are simply another part of nature — and that death is nature’s way of cleansing. Through death, we clear the way for new life. Humanists believe that an individual’s happiness and experiences are engraved into history. The deceased will live through the memories and experiences that his loved ones hold in their hearts. The humanist funeral serves as closure for friends and family. It helps conclude the relationships that existed be-tween the deceased and his loved ones. And, expressing emotions allows loved ones to come to terms with their painful feelings. The humanist funeral service can be held before interment or cremation, or as a memorial service after the body has been laid to rest. The traditional service begins with a 15- or 20-minute musical introduction while guests take their seats.

The service includes:

  • A short introduction that states the name of the deceased and the reasons for the service.
  • A reading that addresses the nature of death and the kinship that humans share with the earth.
  • Additional musical selections.
  • A second meditation, or reading, that more directly addresses human sorrow. It explains the immortality of the experience and feelings that were shared be-tween the decided and his loved ones.
  • Brief personal remarks of tribute spoken by family or friends.
  • A final reading may reflect upon human existence and its meaning. Here, guests are encouraged to live an ethical, happy, and good life.
  • A final musical arrangement may be followed by announcements about interment.