It can be hard to know what to say when someone dies, especially if you have a different faith or cultural heritage to the bereaved person. This quick guide can help you to send the right message to someone who has lost a loved one, from Islam and Christianity to atheists and agnostics, across the continents.
Death and grief are universal experiences, but our cultural and religious traditions for showing empathy with people who have lost a loved one can vary widely. Supporting a grieving friend or relative can bring you closer together, as long as you respect their boundaries and beliefs. Keep an open mind and remember that we all process grief differently.
A good starting point is to find out if the person grieving is religious or not. If you are afraid to ask, this map showing the size and spread of the world’s biggest faiths might give you some clues. By doing some research you’ll have a good chance of getting it right and showing that you care.
As the world’s largest religion, Christian traditions surrounding death and grieving are interwoven with local ones. A Mexican Catholic may invite you to offer gifts and prayers at a 48-hour vigil, while an Orthodox Ethiopian might expect to be cared for by their community ahead of a final celebration on their 40th day of mourning. As all Christians base their faith on the Bible, offering a verse or prayer for their loved one, or a simple message of kindness and support in a card, could be a real source of comfort.
Muslims see death as a transition to the afterlife, and funerals take place as quickly as possible after someone passes away. Traditions vary between countries and groups, however mourners usually avoid colourful clothes and jewellery, express their feelings quietly during the funeral or prayer service, and always take their shoes off beforehand. You can offer your condolences to the family afterwards. The mourning period can last up to 40 days, during which bereaved families often appreciate flowers, cards, words from the Qur’an, charity donations and gifts of (halal) food.
Around 16 per cent of the world’s population are unaffiliated with any religion, including humanists, atheists and agnostics, now forming the second biggest belief system in Europe and North America. Ways of grieving vary, however many choose to celebrate their loved one’s life, our connections with each other and the planet, and see death as a final destination. Try keeping things simple and heartfelt, such as sharing a favourite memory of the deceased, sending flowers or a card expressing your sympathy and support.
Messages like these also work well if you aren’t sure how to refer to someone’s religion sensitively.
Most of the world’s 1 billion+ Hindus believe that the soul reincarnates into another being after death, depending on our Karma or actions in our previous life. Funeral mourners wear white (never black) and can expect an open casket followed by a cremation. You can send the family flowers ahead of the service but avoid sending food. Hindus observe 13 days of mourning, during which family, friends and community members visit to pay their respects. You can express your sympathy in many ways – including by simply offering your heartfelt condolences.
Buddhists believe that when we die we go through the process of samsara, or reincarnation, before we are reborn according to our thoughts and actions in our previous life. Funeral customs vary widely, with a common thread of peace and serenity. You can offer the family white or yellow flowers or a charity donation. Avoid anything red as it symbolises happiness. You can express your condolences in a card or in person, for example, by referring to Buddhism’s four perfect virtues or ‘immeasurables’: equanimity, love, compassion and joy.
Many Jewish groups have their own distinct grieving traditions, along with similarities such as burying their dead within a day whenever possible. Avoid sending flowers, wear dark clothes during the funeral, and feel free to place a small stone on the grave with your left hand. Most families observe “Shiva” – the mourning period – during which visitors can send or bring (kosher) food baskets. “May God console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem” is one of many ways to offer your condolences to a Jewish person.
Is there a particular religious or cultural tradition that you’ve found comforting? Let us know.