Funeral customs from around the world

Each religion or community worldwide has a different way of commemorating their loved ones who have passed on. In the UK, we have a diverse range of cultures each with different practices, funeral rites and rituals. These customs help the bereaved to find comfort in the face of loss by sending their loved ones off with a ceremony that reflects their wishes and beliefs. But these types of ceremonies can often be unfamiliar to us as a country with a largely Christian denomination.

If you’re attending a funeral or ceremony with customs that aren’t familiar to you, you may wish to keep reading this guide to know what to expect. While there are many different funeral practices, the ones listed below are some of the most common ones that can be found in the UK.

British funeral customs

British funeral customs may differ depending on the branch of religion or belief, but there is a general format that most funerals in Britain adhere to. With over 46% of the population identifying as Christian, lots of funeral ceremonies take a similar approach, regardless of religious denomination or belief system. This format includes everyone gathering at a place of worship or at a crematorium for a service led by a vicar or celebrant, in which stories and eulogies are shared about the life of the person who has died. In most cases, songs selected by the family will be played or hymns will be sung.

Many ceremonies will also include a committal service at the end of the main service, this is a chance for families to say their final goodbyes before the body is buried or the curtains close around the coffin. In addition to this, there are several long-standing traditions that families may wish to abide by, such as wearing all-black clothing and having a funeral procession with floral tributes or hosting a wake after the event. It is best to check with the family of the deceased if they have any kind of requirements such as wearing a specific colour or whether they’d like you to be part of the service or attend only the wake.

You may have heard the term ‘humanist funeral’, which is growing in popularity as the nation shifts towards a more non-religious approach to end-of-life rites. This refers to the use of a celebrant as mentioned above, who will refrain from mentioning faith or god during the service. However, this is at the discretion of the family, with some bereaved opting to have more of a focus on the person’s life and personality by asking mourners to wear brightly coloured clothing or playing their favourite songs rather than sombre music.

Jewish funeral customs

Since only around 2% of the population identifies as Jewish in the UK, the customs of this type of funeral may not be familiar to you. The traditions of a Jewish funeral differ greatly from typical British customs, so it is important that you know what to expect, especially as Jewish funerals take place within one day after death. Though, there is an allowance for burials to take place at a later date if the family must accommodate travel, or if the original date falls on the Shabbat or other Jewish holidays.

The service will take place at a synagogue and be led by a Rabbi, it will typically last no longer than one hour and consists of prayers, scripture readings, and eulogies. After the ceremony has ended, the family will be invited to the burial place where the body will be interred and they can help to fill in the grave. Flowers and music are not a part of Jewish funerals, so aside from hymns, you should not expect to hear any music played at any part of the service. As with all religions, some branches may vary in their practices. For example, where Orthodox Jews may be buried in simple wooden caskets, Reform Jews often take a preference to cremation. In any case, Jewish people will enter a 7-day mourning period called ‘Shiva’ after the body is buried or cremated, where further traditions take place such as lighting candles for the deceased.

Buddhist funeral customs

Again making up a small percentage of the population, Buddhists have a specific way of saying farewell to their loved ones and though they can be buried or cremated, there is usually a preference towards the latter as Buddha himself was cremated. Ceremonies can take place at the monastery or at the home of the bereaved and involve monks reading eulogies or leading chants which attendees can participate in if they wish. These chants or funeral songs (sutras) are often detailed scriptures from the teachings of the respective Buddhist school of thought (Tibetan, Tendai, Zen, etc.). 

As with other religions, Buddhist funeral rites can be varied and diverse with the service occurring either before or after the cremation. You will find that the place of rest is decorated with incense, candles, and symbols, but it is imperative that you know what is appropriate to give as an offering and what you can wear when attending this sacred space. Whilst flowers are a generally accepted gift in Buddhist funerals, you should only give white or yellow flowers to symbolise mourning, some families may also prefer offerings of fruit. Mourners should never give red flowers, nor wear red to the funeral as this is seen as a colour that represents joy and happiness. Darker-coloured clothing is a respectable choice for attendees, as close family members will be dressed in white to signify that they are in mourning.

Some families will choose to host a reception after the service, and according to Buddhist funeral etiquette, further services may be held on the 3rd, 7th, 49th, and 100th day after the death at the discretion of the departed’s family.

Chinese funeral customs

Chinese funeral rites can be very complex and overwhelming to those who haven’t experienced them before. The funeral customs carried out are dependent on social circumstances, such as age, marital status, cause of death, and religion. Despite this, most Chinese funerals will follow a similar format which starts with the practice of Shou Ling. 

Shou Ling is conducted before the funeral service and involves family members keeping watch over the deceased, taking turns to sit with the body whilst mourners bring offerings such as money, food, and incense. Mourners may also bring items made of joss paper which will be burned, this is thought to help the spirit prepare for the afterlife. As Chinese culture is heavily influenced by Buddhism, money must be given in a white envelope and not a red one, as white signifies mourning and red signifies joy.

After this period, the ceremony takes place in which eulogies are read and prayers are likely to be recited. Guests may be given a red envelope with a coin or sweet in it for good luck, or they may be given a red decoration which should be tied to a door to ward off evil spirits. Following the ceremony, guests may be invited to follow the procession to bury the body, this procession usually includes a band which will be playing music to deter bad spirits. 

In addition, Chinese rites are centred around feng shui and death is seen as an upset to the cosmological balance, so both the date and the location of the interment are extremely important for recompense. The date and location are usually decided between a priest or monk and the bereaved family using the Chinese almanack and feng shui lore. Once the body is interred, the family will hold a banquet to feed everyone who attended the funeral.

Mourners may wear grieving colours for up to 100 days after the death to give enough time for the deceased to pass into the next life, some may find it inappropriate to attend celebratory events during this time so it’s important to be mindful. During this time grieving family members may not visit your home in case they bring bad luck to you, however, you can visit their home if you wish. In early April, tomb sweeping day will occur in which families clean the graves of their ancestors, bring offerings, and remember those they have lost.

Islamic funeral customs

In Islamic cultures, it is important to bury the body and conduct the funeral as quickly as possible. This could be just hours after the person passes away, or there could be a delay to accommodate travelling mourners if necessary. The burial takes place immediately after the ceremony has finished, meaning that the whole process happens very quickly. As with each different culture on this list, there are varied rules and death rites depending on the religious denomination or sect. For example, in some branches of Islam, women will not be allowed to attend the burial but can attend the service. This is entirely personal to the family, so if you’re attending an Islamic funeral, you must check what is appropriate to show respect to the bereaved and their departed. 

Where permitted Muslims would prefer not to have a coffin and instead have the body wrapped in a white shroud, but this is only allowed in certain cemeteries with the majority accepting a simple wooden coffin. The burial plot must be facing towards Mecca, no matter where in the world the burial takes place. Each funeral attendee will throw three handfuls of soil into the plot before a collective prayer is recited. After the body is interred, mourners may gather at the family home for a meal and the official mourning period begins, this can be anywhere from 3-15 days, except in the case of the deceased’s wife who will mourn for 4 months and 10 days. 

During the mourning period, guests may visit the home to pay their respects. Halal food offerings are accepted gifts, but flowers are generally not welcomed. It is important to bear in mind that widowed women are not permitted to speak to mahram men (men whom they could potentially marry) during the mourning period, and whilst non-muslims are usually welcome to attend services, they must grieve in a quiet and dignified manner alongside the Muslim guests. 

Muslim funerals are very modest and simplified, elaborate decorations, tombstones, and clothing are not permitted. If you are attending an Islamic funeral, do not wear any jewellery or makeup and wear loose-fitting clothes that cover the skin. It is important to follow this etiquette, if you’re unsure of how to act or what you are allowed to do, ask the family of the deceased how to honour their traditions respectfully.

Learn more about funeral customs with Heart of England

A funeral is generally a sad occasion, but careful planning can allow grieving friends and family members to find solace in saying a final goodbye. If you’re attending a funeral and you wish to prepare yourself for the occasion, you can learn more about funeral services by reading our breakdown on the different types of funerals. Alternatively, if you need advice on planning a  service, you can find out more using our guide which highlights the different planning aspects.