It was October 27th, and I entered the Forum in Shults at 5pm, the room saturated with conversation of people from all different backgrounds. People from four of the worlds biggest religions had gathered together for a discussion, one in which all religions share a universal sense of importance with. Alone, I sat at one of the many round tables throughout the room. People buzzed throughout the forum, meeting and greeting one another and preparing for the evening’s discussion: death. Despite this grim topic, the atmosphere remained light and vibrant. Most of the people, I would discover, were nursing students, there to learn about the importance of religious traditions regarding death. As I silently observed, the seats around me began to fill until more chairs had to be brought out. At 6pm, Dr. Muhammad Shafiq, a religious studies professor at Nazareth, gave his opening remarks. He spoke of the importance of the understanding of religion to nurses, and introduced the speakers for the evening.
The first speaker was Christine Bochen, also a professor at Nazareth of the Christian faith. She spoke of the significance of Jesus in regards to death for Christians, as he too had to suffer through the human experience and also face his own death. This stands as a source of comfort for Christians, and gives them hope that, like Christ, they will be able to reach the kingdom of heaven. Christians hold the body, as well as the soul, as to having equal importance at the time of death. The body is often covered in anointing oil, representing the healing ministry of Jesus. Dr. Bochen stressed at the end, however, that the needs of individuals themselves is the most important thing.
The next speaker was of the Hindu faith. Sanjay Mathur is the former president of the Hindu Temple of Rochester. He spoke with a calming voice that truly captured my attention. He spoke of the human condition in a much different perspective than Dr. Bochen. Mathur says that humans are spiritual beings, and that the body is nothing more than a vessel. Hindus have a much more positive outlook on death. They see it as the continuation of the journey of the person’s spirit as they are reincarnated into another life. Yama, the Hindu God of Death, picks you up upon your death and decides your role for the next life. In fact, in many cases after a Hindu has died, a stake will be pushed through the skull. This is done to show that the human body is nothing but tangible flesh and bone, that the spirit has left the body to the next stage of life. Hindus believe, in a manner of speaking, that humans are not real, as we are our spirits and not our human bodies.
Rachel Smookler has been a Rabbi since 1998, serving at Temple Beth David in Rochester. The Jewish perspective of death is more similar to that of Christianity’s. An important message within the Jewish faith is that all of human kind have a divine flame in them from the eternal flame that is God. She spoke about her personal experience working at a hospital with a holocaust survivor named Ester. As a follower of the Jewish faith, Ester’s body was pointed towards the door at the time of death and all the windows were opened, symbolizing the release of the human spirit back to God. In Judaism, the body and the soul are equally divine. The body is moved to a funeral home and is never left alone. Jews heavily emphasize modesty, dressing their dead in plain white garb and burying them in caskets made all from simple wood. This puts them all at an equal level when they return to God. Most of them are buried with a small pouch of dirt from Israel, so even if they are buried elsewhere they can be buried with their holy land.
Dr. Etin Anwar was the last speaker, where most of the traditions of death are written in the Qu’ran. Death is a natural part of life, where a Muslim will be judged by his reactions to the trials of life. Each soul will be judged on the fabled day of judgment, and will go either to heaven or hell. As a Muslim dies, prayers are recited to them to remind them of the almighty power of God. As they die, a mosque is alerted and the arrangements for burial are made. All debts that the deceased owed are paid immediately, and the body is prepared for burial. It is wrapped in white garbs similar to those worn on pilgrimages to Mecca, and the funeral takes place. A specific mourning period of about three days is recognized in Islam, for too long of a mourning is seen as unhealthy.
After the seminar, it is clear that religion dictates a wide array of different burial practices that are important for nurses to recognize and act upon. Death is, however inevitable, a very delicate time in a persons’ life, as well as to their loved ones. Being buried in a way that is most comfortable for them is important not only for the dead, but for all of us still living who want to remember them and believe that their souls have reached the proper destination, whatever that may be.