Death and Dying: Religious Customs and Rituals
Join us for our new ABODE Academy 4, a six-week series via Zoom, 6:30-7:30 p.m., Thursday evenings, starting April 7. This series is open to everyone anywhere and is part of our mission to teach the art of contemplative living and dying.
ABODE Academy 4 focuses on Death and Dying: Religious Customs and Rituals. While most of us are familiar with customs and rituals in our own faith communities, those of our neighbors can seem a bit of a mystery. Which faiths favor cremation? Which favor burial? Which believe in reincarnation? What special prayers and anointments are needed? What medications are acceptable? And how about dietary considerations, dress codes and whether those dying should face east – or west?
A better understanding of our friends and neighbors helps ensure that we can take better care of one another in our final days.
Below is our lineup of ABODE Academy 4 sessions – each includes plenty of time for Q&A. Participate in all or indicate those of most interest to you when you RSVP. This series is free. If you’d like to make a tax-deductible gift to ABODE, please use our DONATE button.
ABODE Academy 4 is brought to you by ABODE Contemplative Care for the Dying in collaboration with the City’s Faith-Based Initiative, Compassionate San Antonio. ABODE Board Member Beverly Tuomala RN and the City’s Ann Helmke will introduce the series.
Six Thursdays starting Thursday, April 7
April 7 – The Jewish Faith
Speaker: Rabbi Samuel Stahl, Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth El
When someone dies in the Jewish faith, their body is never left alone between the time of death and the burial. Most synagogues or communities have a burial committee whose members wash and shroud the dead and sit with them until the burial takes place, usually as quickly as possible following a death. For seven days, the family sits shiva (literally seven). Friends visit, bringing food and sharing stories of the person who has died. When family members visit a grave, they often leave a small stone on top of the grave marker.
About Rabbi Stahl: For 26 years, Rabbi Stahl served as the Temple Beth El’s Senior Rabbi. Before that, he was a Chaplain in the US Army and the Rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in Galveston. He earned a doctorate degree in medieval Bible commentaries along with two honorary doctorates, including one from Oblate School of Theology. Rabbi Stahl is deeply committed to enhancing interfaith relations. He is the author of Making the Timeless Timely: Thoughts and Reflections of a Contemporary Reform Rabbi and Boundaries, Not Barriers: Some Uniquely Jewish Perspectives on Life.
Rabbi Stahl also was appointed Theologian-in-Residence at Chautauqua Institution, where he serves on the staff of its Department of Religion and frequently lectures.
April 14 – The Hindu Faith
Speaker: Veena Prasad, PhD, University of Texas Long School of Medicine
Hindus believe in reincarnation and that the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives (samsara) until liberation from reincarnation, pain and suffering occurs and enlightenment (moksha) is attained.
Hindus also believe that karma influences the form of rebirth a person experiences. Funeral rituals are based on the Vedas, an ancient set of scriptures, the oldest layers of which (the Samhitas) detail the correct performance of ritual.
About Veena Prasad, PhD: As a service to the community, Dr. Prasad performs all the Hindu rituals including cremation ceremonies. She also chants Gita and reads scriptures to those in their last hours on the request of families. Dr. Prasad works at the UT Health Long School of Medicine as a behavioral health consultant. She’s partnering with a UT palliative care physician to develop a resource and training for culturally competent end-of-life care and conversations.
April 21 – The Muslim Faith
Speaker: Imam O. Adib Shakir, Resident Imam at Masjid Bilal Ibn Rabah
Islam teaches that the body resides in a coffin until the Day of Judgement. This is a period of trial where angels question the person about their beliefs and practices. The coffin seems like a paradise for the righteous whereas for the unrighteous it will be torture. On the Day of Judgement, a horn will blow and the dead will be resurrected to face final judgement.
As death nears, it’s common for immediate family to stay near their loved one’s bedside reciting the Qur’an. Muslims pray towards Mecca, so it’s appropriate to position the dying person toward Mecca, if possible. Since Muslims believe in physical resurrection, cremation is not encouraged. Burial take place as quickly as possible after death.
About Imam Shakir: Imam Shakir was raised in the Baptist tradition until the age of 14 when he was introduced to the religion of Al-Islam (Islam). At the age of 16, he embraced Al-Islam under the leadership of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed. He was elected
Resident Imam (Leader) of the local Muslim community in Schenectady, NY, when he was 25.
The Imam moved his family to San Antonio in 1986 and is currently the Resident Imam at Masjid Bilal Ibn Rabah. He also has served as Chaplain with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, retiring after 25 years of service. As Chaplain, he served the State of Texas prisons and jails teaching, counseling, mentoring and resolving conflicts for the inmate population and the department’s employees.
The Imam is a regular participant in ecumenical services and interfaith dialog. He lectures at many local colleges, universities and churches, and he has made the pilgrimage (Hajj) to the sacred house in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
April 28 – The Catholic and Orthodox Faiths
Speakers: Sr. Constanza Fernández Cano Salgado, F.Sp.S. of the Mexican American Catholic College and Father David of St. Anthony the Great Eastern Orthodox Church
Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Churches tend to favor burial over cremation due to a belief in the physical resurrection of the body. However, the Roman Catholic Church has permitted cremation since 1963, as long as doing so does not reflect a lack of faith in bodily resurrection. In some Orthodox traditions, services are held 8 days, 30 days and one year after death.
Mexican traditions focus on death as a new beginning. Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), for example, is a time to remember, honor and celebrate those who have passed. All over the country, Mexicans take to the streets in joyful song and dance and leave offerings at cemeteries for the deceased. Some even sleep next to their loved one’s graves at night.
Roman Catholic and Orthodox funerals tend to focus strongly on a ritual and liturgical formula and may not include a eulogy – this is generally left to memorials or gatherings following the funeral. This is because the main purpose of the funeral is often seen as intercession on behalf of the person who has died in order to ease their passage into heaven.
About Sister Constanza: Sister Constanza Fernández Cano Salgado is originally from Mexico City. She belongs to the Catholic Congregation of the Daughters of the Holy Spirit and is part of the Pastoral Team and Faculty of the Mexican American Catholic College where she coordinates projects and gives classes and workshops on Intercultural Competencies for Pastoral Ministry.
About Father David: Father David is the Priest at St. Anthony the Great Eastern Orthodox Church in San Antonio’s Lavaca neighborhood. He holds a M.Div. from Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and was ordained into the Holy Priesthood in 2012.
May 5 – The Buddhist Faith
Speakers: Covita and Christopher Moroney, The Tibetan Buddhist Center for World Peace
Buddhists believe in reincarnation and that deeds from prior lives (karma) influence future suffering through the cycle of rebirths with the goal of ending the cycle and attaining nirvana. There are no universally agreed death or funeral rites prescribed in Buddhism, and Buddhists often follow the common tradition in the country they are living in. Cremation is quite common.
One of the most interesting forms of the Buddhist death ritual is the Tibetan Sky Burial (or Bird Scattering). The deceased is placed on a mountain to be eaten by vultures and other scavengers. Using one’s own body to feed the wildlife is also seen as an act of great dana (charity) showing the the Buddhist virtues of metta (loving kindness) and karuna (compassion).
The body should not be disturbed or touched for three to eight hours after breathing stops, as Buddhist believe the soul does not immediately leave the body and can be affected by what happens to the body.
About the Moroneys: Covita and Christopher are longtime members and board members of the Tibetan Buddhism Center for World Peace, studying and practicing Mahayana Buddhism in the Tibetan tradition. Both are artists and musicians.
May 12 – The Protestant Faith
Speakers: Pastor RW Douglas of Revelation Christian Church and Chaplain (Maj. Gen.) Howard D. Stendahl
Protestant churches tend to emphasize the distinction between body and soul and the assumption is often that the soul will proceed to heaven while the body is of little importance and can be put to rest through burial or cremation. Comfort and dying with dignity are desired; but a belief in miracles and the sanctity of life may prolong an individual’s desire for aggressive care.
Post-death rituals vary among the Christian denominations. When someone is approaching death, therefore, their pastor/priest should be notified so appropriate rites and sacraments can be performed and funeral planning can begin. In addition, our military has its own certain customs – from draping the casket with the flag to the 21 gun salute.
About Pastor RW Douglas: Pastor Douglas is Pastor of Revelation Christian Church. He was ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and holds a Master’s of Divinity degree from Southern Methodist University.
About Chaplain (Maj. Gen.) Howard D. Stendahl: Chaplain Stendahl is the Chief of Chaplains, U.S. Air Force. He establishes guidance and provides advice on all matters pertaining to the religious and moral welfare of Air Force personnel and is responsible for establishing an effective chaplain program to meet the religious needs of all members of the Air Force and their dependents. As Chief of Chaplains, he is the senior pastor for more than 680,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve and civilian forces serving in the U.S. and overseas.
Howard retired from active duty in 2015. Since then, he has been adjunct professor at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C., and beginning in 2018, Pastor of Christ Lutheran Church of Alamo Heights, here in San Antonio.
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