The Very Last Service You Can Offer Anyone; Greg Watts Investigates the Different Ways That London's Many Religions Carry out Funeral Rites

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RELIGION may well be in decline in Britain, but with around 60,000 funerals each year in London - two-thirds of them ending up at the doors of the crematorium - dying still provides plenty of work for the capital's religious institutions, who all take very different approaches in marking our final rite of passage.

Rabbi Meir Salasnik of Bushey United Synagogue, who is involved in around 40 funerals a year, explains that in Orthodox Judaism, where possible, burials take place within 24 hours.

"There will be certain occasions where the coroner takes over or where a doctor says that there should be a postmortem. But to have a funeral a week later is not our way of doing things."

In Orthodoxy, cremations are not allowed, he says, and embalming is rarely carried out. "The Bible tells us that you should bury. Also, we believe in a physical resurrection and it's a resurrection of soul and body. It is usual in the Jewish community that people will belong to a burial society. And generally Jews are buried in their own cemeteries or in Jewish sections of municipal cemeteries."

Generally, the service (levaya) is held at a hall in the cemetery, after which the mourners are encouraged to fill the grave in. White shrouds and plain coffins are provided. "Immediate mourners tear a garment of their own, usually one close to the heart. The reason is that bereavement is a time of anger. This is a way of taking the anger out on a garment rather than a being."

He adds that being involved in a burial is one of the highest acts of kindness in Orthodoxy because the deceased person can't return the favour.

These days funerals shouldn't be like a conveyer belt, suggests Fr Alan McLean, parish priest at the Catholic church of The Most Holy Trinity, Bermondsey.

"I will always meet the family and plan the funeral.

Some have ideas about what they want, while others want you to say thanks for the person who died. Others are in too much pain to think about what the funeral should be like."

So would he allow secular music at a requiem mass?

"You don't want to turn the funeral into a pop concert, but I have had popular music played at funerals, such as that of a young boy who died of a brain tumour.

He was a fan of Madness, so at the end of the service one of their songs with a spiritual dimension was played.

This was appropriate as the church was full of young people."

He adds that the move from black to white vestments emphasises the hope in the resurrection, which is at the heart of Catholic belief, and that cremation is no longer frowned upon.

"For me the funeral is about saying thank you for the life and gifts of the deceased person and establishing that this is a journey, not the end."

According to Islamic belief, a person should be buried as soon as possible and the funeral should be very simple, says Abdul Qayum, iman at the East London Mosque in Whitechapel. …


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