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Death in… a personal perspective

Sairah Rehman

Back in 2013, when we were gearing up to open Newman Brothers and wanted to know more about funerary traditions we asked volunteer Sairah Rehman to research and write some features about how different faith groups deal with death and burial.

Sairah writes from a fresh and personal perspective. She has written three articles looking at death in Islam, Judaism and Christianity.


Death in Islam

Cultural beliefs about death permeate into most aspects of life, and at no point more so than in the Victorian period, where funerals became increasingly elaborate and lavish. But what about modern day attitudes towards death?

Different religious beliefs often determine what we do with the dead, and our attitudes towards death. And whereas Victorian England was a largely Christian society, increased immigration and exposure to different religions, as well as a general decrease in religiosity means that funerals in Britain have become very different affairs. Here, I am going to be looking at Islamic funerals in Britain, based largely on my own experience.

It is odd when someone dies, in terms of how much ritual takes over. The speed at which Muslims are buried is imperative. The key is to be buried as quickly as possible. I missed my grandfather’s burial because it was literally hours after he passed away, but this was done in accordance with Islamic beliefs and so would have been what he wanted. Men attend the burial, women are prohibited from doing so, and so, often bodies are available to view for a short time before the funeral.

Three days are given to mourn the deceased, except in the case of a widow, who is to stay in mourning, for four months and ten days, referred to as iddah (in order to prove paternity if they are pregnant). Mourners are encouraged to not wear decorative clothing and do extra prayers for the deceased, and offer collective prayers referred to as the Salaat Al-Janazaah. In the case of the widow, her activity must be limited, overnight stays prohibited and remarriage only allowed after the mourning period is over. In my own experience, visitors from further afield might come to pay their respects after the three day period, simply because they could not come any sooner. Pakistani Muslim grieving and prayers, ‘Duas’ as we refer to them, I feel, add to the sense of community in Britain. Although, especially over the last ten years, this British Asian community has been seen as largely insular, funerals, like weddings, keep the younger generation, like myself, close to our cultural heritage. In my family, we are usually informed of deaths through our grandmother, who hears about them on the mosque radio, and we go and pay our respects. Ritualised grief, then, keeps us bound to our cultural roots.

Perhaps most difficult to grasp in terms of how the modern British view the dead, is the idea that an adult close family member, of the same sex of the deceased are supposed to wash the body, as soon as possible after death. The body should be washed an odd number of times, with a cloth hiding its awrah, the parts of the body that should be hidden, according to sharia law. This, to many might be difficult – a dead body is perhaps as alien to us as many Victorian beliefs and ways of life (and indeed, they were much more used to dead bodies).  My mother has washed two bodies of our close family, and when I question her about it, she claims that she does not find it difficult because it is the right thing to do. To wash the dead before burial is Sunnah, meaning that it is following in the steps of the Prophet Muhammed and a part of sharia law. However, I know several people who have found it too difficult, emotionally, and others have stepped in for them. The further we move from the immigrant generation, the less familiar we are with death in a country and a time where there are people to deal with the physical dead body for you. That is not to say that I believe the washing of the body by close family will die out, I simply mean that it will become perhaps more difficult than it was for our forefathers, in the same way that the Victorians dealt with death in an infinitely more personal and arguably stylish way than we do now.

After being washed, the corpse is wrapped in a simple cloth called the kafan, three pieces of cloth for men, and five for women. This is the state in which the body may be viewed for a short period. The grave is prepared to face towards Mecca, on a northeast to southwest axis. The body is placed into the grave by Muslim men (if the deceased is female, her male relations), the head placed at the southwest end, facing towards Mecca. Mourners around the grave throw in earth reciting specific prayers. Marking the grave is permitted, but lavish displays are not, and burial is a necessity, as cremation is not permitted in Islam.

Though specific practices vary from region to region, Islamic funerals in Britain are becoming more commonplace. It was common, when I was a child, for those first generation immigrants who still saw Pakistan as home to ask for their bodies to be flown back there (some would say in contradiction of the orthodox interpretation of sharia law). However, this seems to be happening less and less, with more understanding about different religious funeral rites in Britain. Even as young people, like myself, become more detached from our place of ethnic origin, it is those cultural idiosyncrasies, including funerals, that keep us as part of a community, that keep us returning to those cultural roots we share, and that, in a sense, are a part of who we are. Like the Victorians who influenced the opening of the Newman Brothers Coffin Fittings Works in 1894, different faiths and their burials in Britain have meant that that the funeral industry has had to develop, and in developing, kept traditions alive.

Sairah Rehman

January 2013

Death in Judaism

Having never really learnt about death in Judaism before, I found myself immersed in a very specific mourning procedure, with several similarities to both Christianity and Islam, which also maintained a very separate and individual identity.

The Hebrew titles were a little more difficult to get around, as they can mean very specific things, so I apologise in advance to anyone with a better knowledge of Hebrew than myself if I have over-simplified. I have to say, I found this research into Judaism fascinating; the rules around death help the mourners to deal with their loss whilst maintaining the dignity and ritual of the faith.

Jewish people try to say a prayer (the Shema) as they die, to show their belief in one God and when someone dies Jews say Kaddish. Often Kaddish is called a funeral prayer, or mourner’s prayer,  but it is actually a prayer about the public proclamation of God’s greatness. This faith in God at a time of great emotional turmoil fits in with the concept of faith and ritual helping those close to the deceased. This idea is common throughout most religion I feel, and particularly strong in the Abrahamic faiths.

Like the Muslim funerals that I have discussed (again, possibly stemming from the fact that the religion was founded in a hot region) as soon as someone dies preparations are made for burial which has to take place as quickly as possible, out of respect for the dead. The chevra kadisha, a Jewish burial society, usually made up of volunteers, men and women prepare the deceased for proper Jewish burial. The body is washed (the Taharah) and dressed in tachrichim, which is a simple white shroud. Men are also wrapped in their tallit, a prayer shawl. The fringes are cut off the tallit to symbolise the deceased man’s freedom from religious laws.

From the time of death until burial, the body is never left alone, constantly guarded or watched, as a sign of respect, and those who remain with the body are called shomerim (guards). This whole idea of taking care of the deceased’s body seems to be something that many religions share, but Judaism is the first religion I’ve encountered where the body must be watched. There are also several symbolic gestures one makes when someone dies, for example, before the burial the mourners make a tear in their garments (the act of keriah) which shows their grief.

The body is put in a plain wooden coffin which is sealed. No flowers are given at a Jewish funeral and the service is short, in contrast to the more elaborate acts of mourning around the deceased. Orthodox Jews, like Muslims, and some Christians do not usually allow cremation.  A prayer is said after the burial, simply: ‘May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.’ The tombstone is usually only put on the grave just prior to the first anniversary of the death.

The family then return home to sit Shiva (meaning ‘seven’ as it is a seven-day mourning ritual). For this period, a candle is kept burning and the mirrors in the house are covered. The mourners stay at home, do not shave or cut their hair and sit on low stools.

Kaddish is said three times a day. The garment torn through keriah is worn throughout. If a festival occurs during this time however, public mourning (such as wearing the torn clothing) is temporarily suspended for the duration of the festival.

The thirty days after burial are called Sheloshim (meaning ‘thirty), when the mourners do not engage in celebrations nor go out for fun; continuing to mourn. For the eleven months after the death Kaddish is said every day. From then on, the dead person is remembered each year on the anniversary of their death through lighting a Yahrzeit candle and reciting Kaddish.

The final period of formal mourning is called Avelut, observed only for the death of a parent, and lasting twelve months after the burial. During that time, mourners avoid parties, celebrations, and other events for pleasure. For eleven months of that period, starting from the point of burial, the son of the deceased recites the mourner’s Kaddish every day.

Judaism, then, it seems has very specific rules and regulations regarding the dead, and as it is not portrayed very often in mainstream media, and partially as Britain has a relatively small Jewish population, it was all quite new to me. I was aware of sitting Shiva, but the stages of mourning, the acts both of public and private mourning, and the focus on the mourners, and their bodies, was new to me, as someone who viewed funerals as simply quick affairs.

Though Islam and Judaism share similarities, for example in terms of the body being buried quickly, the way that grief becomes regulated by the two religions is very different. In comparison to Christianity, Judaism is extremely regulated, I think, which helps with the grieving process through structure and stability. It allows the mourners to use their own bodies and actions to remember the deceased, reminding them of their loss, their own mortality and their humanity

The idea of remembering the deceased is not one that I have encountered to this degree before, and the idea that the dead will not be forgotten, and will have an impact on life after they are gone, I am sure gives comfort to the living. Through this research, I was reminded of how little we know about the ritual of other communities, and what seems second-nature to others, may be completely new to us. It seems that death again unites each religion, through the shared knowledge of how to do a particular religious funeral, rather than just wanting to be buried the ‘proper way,’ as I’ve said before. In this respect, I wonder about the Newman Brothers Coffin Fitting Works. They had the knowledge of funerals, of fashion and what people wanted in death, and that representation of people’s funerals was the basis for a whole thriving business. For all those who wanted it, Newman Brothers could provide the tradition, stability and appearance that we all crave, through the most seemingly insignificant of things; coffin furniture.

Death In Christianity

Death in Christianity is something I think everyone growing up in Britain, or indeed the western world is going to be familiar with. Despite the decline of regular church-going Christians in this country, and the depiction of both weddings and funerals in Western media, tends to depict Christian ceremonies.

It is no surprise then, that when someone says ‘funeral’ to me, I picture Christian ones, made so familiar to me by books and television; a casket in a church, a wake, a burial in a cemetery. It is also interesting that when speaking to friends who do not identify as being particularly Christian, that they still want a Christian funeral, as it is the culturally-sanctioned way of doing things.

Like weddings, Christian funerals are steeped in traditions that people wish to continue. But what do we really know about Christian funerals and death, when we are constantly informed by popular culture rather than our own experience? I’m going to be looking at the basic aspects of Catholicism and Protestantism funerals in this piece, and the ways in which they differ. The idea of death as an ending, and new beginning, is explored through both denominations; prayers on the deathbed with a priest or minister is an aspect of both religions though.

For Roman Catholics the body is often anointed with holy oil by a minister, known as the Last Rites, again something that most people are aware of through its depiction within film and in books. The evocation of ritual in the face of death I feel is especially powerful, as we cling to tradition in leaving life. The treatment of the body after death, then, serves to utilise ritual through specific features as to how the body is treated.

After death, the body is placed in a coffin, and the coffin is sometimes left open, for mourners to view the body. The coffin is then taken to a church or chapel, where a priest will read from the Bible, and say a few words about the person, and say prayers hoping that the deceased is in heaven. In the Roman Catholic Church a special Eucharist, called a Requiem Mass, is held where prayers are offered for the deceased’s soul. The coffin is then taken from the church to be buried or cremated. Although, even as I type this, these rituals seem painfully obvious, they are not to everyone outside of our society, where the Christian funeral has become the norm.

It is important then, I feel, to view Christian funerals as specifically religious and culturally developed; just because we know the gestures does not mean that we know the full meaning behind it. The ‘obvious’ is never thought about.

The concept of cremation in Christianity, for example, has an interesting cultural history. It has not always been approved of. There was the belief that if cremated, the person would not be resurrected on the Day of Judgement.  In the Apostles’ Creed, for example, it states: ‘I believe in … the resurrection of the body’. This specific referral to the physical body implied a need for a physical body in death.  However, if we take the fact that St Paul said that: ‘”On earth it is a physical body but in heaven it will be a spiritual body”’, the earthly body is not needed in order to be resurrected in Christianity. Hence today it is generally a personal choice as to whether a Christian is buried or cremated.

The concept of cremation as we see it in the modern day began to be explored as a sanitary burial option in the mid-1870s by the Cremation Society of England, founded by Sir Henry Thompson, Surgeon to Queen Victoria. Initially aiming to build a crematorium on a piece of land in Woking, the Cremation Society was halted by local opposition; so instead they focused on changing views about cremation. In 1884, Dr William Price of Llantrisant, a physician, Welsh Nationalist and Druid cremated his son lesu Grist. He had died at the age of five months.  Price was prosecuted but successfully argued that the law did not specifically state that cremation was illegal, and was found not guilty. This ruling effectively made cremation legal, and led to the passing of the Cremation Act of 1902.

Although certain branches of Christianity were against cremation, this attitude has lapsed a little in many denominations including in the Church of England. Now, for example, if the deceased is to be cremated, prayers are said at a crematorium and the coffin is then taken away to be cremated. The ashes are then returned to relatives to be buried or scattered. In contrast, at a burial the body is lowered into a hole in a cemetery (in consecrated ground) and then covered with earth. At both services the priest or minister recites the now common-knowledge recitation: “we commit this body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. This aspect of funerals, often recreated for the depictions of funerals in modern media, emphasises the idea of returning to God, and the fleeting nature of human life.

The nature of Christian funerals through my re-examination of what I thought I knew highlights a fascinating mixture of tradition, ritual and the exploration of death. Though I would expect anyone reading this to certainly be familiar with the Christian funeral, the rich history that I have touched on provides food for thought in how Christianity has evolved whilst maintaining its traditions. This is why I feel the Christian funeral is such an enduring image and why people continue to have them.

Sairah Rehman

April 2013