Celebrating the dead: Comparing Christian, Jewish and Muslim views on death

by Alex Taylor

The 31st October is known throughout the world as the celebration of Halloween. The word ‘Halloween’ is a contraction of ‘All Hallows’ Eve’, the vigil before the feasts of All Saints and All Souls in the Western Church (1st and 2nd November respectively). Despite this Christian etymology, the day and its festivities have evolved from far older pagan beliefs relating to the concept of death. Questions of death and the afterlife are at the heart of religious faith, and almost without exception every major religious tradition devotes a substantial amount of time to considering their implications.

This article will focus on a brief overview of the approach to death in the three major religious traditions of the West: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The Abrahamic faiths share many beliefs and sacred writings, and yet have developed different understandings of life after death. This article will demonstrate both the similarities and the contrasts by reflecting on the doctrines and rituals of these three great faiths.

How might a Christian approach death? Despite variances between denominations, central to all Christian understandings of death is the belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians believe that through Christ’s death and resurrection, they too may be raised after the end of their earthly life to dwell in eternal life with God. This faith in an afterlife is reflected in the rituals for commemorating a person’s death. Often a priest or minister may administer a special blessing called the last rites for a Christian who is approaching death. There will usually be a funeral in church at which the person’s life is celebrated with prayers, readings and hymns. The body of the deceased can be either buried or cremated, with an affirmation in the promise of Jesus, who said: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live’ (John 11:25). Many Christians believe that, after death, the soul must gradually enter into God’s presence. In order to aid this journey, special prayers or services may be said for the departed, such as at the great feasts of All Saints and All Souls. This is a special time to celebrate those who have gone before in the faith; for despite the sorrow and sadness for those left behind, death has been conquered and all those who have confessed the Christian faith are part of one body (often called the Communion of the Saints) that unites both the living and the death. Many Christians believe that this promise of eternal life will be extended to all of creation, not only to those who have followed the path of Jesus. Christianity sees death, as cruel and dark as it may seem, as the gate to a new life of joy and love in God.

Let us compare this to the understandings and celebrations of death in Judaism. Judaism is the parent of both Christianity and Islam, and both religions have drawn deeply upon Jewish traditions and belief. Compared with Christianity, Judaism places less importance on the notion of an afterlife. There are mentions in the Hebrew Bible of departed souls going to a realm of shades called Sheol, although the Book of Daniel also suggests that G-d will eventually raise the dead to face judgement. However, whilst most Jews believe that there will be a life with G-d after death, they tend to emphasize living good and righteous lives on Earth rather than focusing on a life hereafter. On approaching death, a Jew might say the Shema, a prayer affirming their faith in the One G-d. After death, a funeral prayer called the Kaddish will be chanted, and the body will be wrapped in a shroud. Most Jews believe that a person should be buried, although many Reform Jews also accept cremation. Following the funeral, there will be a seven-day mourning period, and the deceased person will be remembered regularly by their family from then on. When visiting a Jewish grave it is customary to place a stone upon it as a sign of respect. Judaism shares with Christianity a belief that life continues after death, but it is less concerned with the practicalities of this. Judaism emphasizes the importance of the life here and now, and as such the celebration of death trusts more in placing the departed person into the hands of G-d than in any particular notion of the afterlife. Both Jewish and Christian funeral rites embody the essential messages of their faiths, and see death as the next step in that ongoing journey.

Finally, we will consider the attitude towards death within the third of the three great religions of Abraham: Islam. Central to Islamic faith is the belief that Allah has ordained all that will happen, including the lives and deaths of each human being. Muslims believe that this earthly life is a preparation for the life after death. The departed will lie in their graves until the Day of Judgement, when Allah will raise all the souls of the dead to face judgement according to their deeds in life. Islamic funeral rites reflect this notion of death as the entrance to an eternal life. When a Muslim is approaching death, they will try to say the last words of the Prophet Muhammad: ‘Allah, help me through the hardship and agony of death’. After death, the body will be wrapped in a shroud and buried facing the direction of the holy city of Mecca. Cremation is not permitted due to the belief in a physical resurrection of the body on the Day of Judgement. During the funeral, passages are read from the Qur’an that reminds mourners of the grace and mercy of Allah and his promise of eternal life to all who follow him. The family of the deceased Muslim will often offer prayers and works of charity on their behalf. These funeral rites demonstrate the importance of a good and faithful earthly life in the Islamic notion of the life after death. Like both Judaism and Christianity, Islam believes that life on earth is not the end and that human existence will continue after death. However, Islam shares with Christianity a strong notion that this life is a preparation for the afterlife, with an emphasis on divine judgement; a belief that Judaism does not share to quite the same extent.

It seems that Christianity, Judaism and Islam share many similar notions about death. For instance, all three faiths are characterised by a belief in faithfulness and righteousness in this life as being of great importance in the life after death. This can be seen in the many different funeral rites, which place great importance on the forgiveness of sins and the need for the mercy of the Almighty. However, there are also notable differences. Judaism tends to emphasize the importance of living a good life here on Earth, and as such has a less defined concept of an afterlife. Christianity strongly focuses on Christ’s death and resurrection as opening the way to eternal life, and is more concerned with understanding the afterlife than Judaism. Islam shares with Christianity a belief in the ultimate importance of the next life, as well as the resurrection of the physical body on the Day of Judgement.

These three faiths help their followers to consider some of the most important questions that humans can ask. As such, questions about death and the afterlife are very significant to all of them. Understanding the similarities and differences between the approaches of these faiths enables us to grow in respect and appreciation for each other, and to continue to ask those questions that define who and what we truly are.

Israel-04820 – Sarcophagi” by Dennis Jarvis is licensed under CC by SA 2.0