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The very last service you can offer anyone Greg Watts investigates the different ways that London's many religions carry out funeral rites

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.

"In Islam we will often have prayers in the mosque for several dead people simultaneously. We bury a person without a coffin. A man will be wrapped in three sheets and a woman in five sheets. Wood or bamboo will usually be placed on top of the body.

"Mourners are expected to scatter the soil in a gentle and respectful way.

"We mark the grave not with a memorial but with a tree, piece of wood or natural stone. We don't allow flowers. This is because they don't give a deceased person any benefit. What a deceased person needs is prayer. We see flowers as a waste of money." He points out that in Islamic countries funerals are not carried out by professional funeral directors but by the family.

As there are no ordained clergy for Britain's 6,000 Bahai's, funerals are arranged by the families, but with the help of the local spiritual assembly, if necessary, explains Dr Wendi Momen, assistant secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahai's of the UK. "It's up to the individual where the funeral service is held and what form it takes. Normally, the family nominates someone to lead things and make sure they run smoothly. Very often Bahai's will have prayers, readings, music, poetry and a short eulogy. But the obligatory prayer for the dead must be said while all present are standing."

The Bahai's follow the practices of Judaism and Islam - which the faith grew out of in 19th century Iran - in not allowing cremation, and embalming only when the law requires it. But they part company when it comes to the place of burial, adds Dr Momen. "Bahai's have to be buried no more than one hour's travelling from the place where they die.

"If you die while you are on holiday, you are not sent home. For example, the great grandson of our founder was buried at the Great Northern Cemetery in New Southgate rather than



GENERALLY speaking, religious funeral rites are conducted by priests, ministers, rabbis, imans and others who are invested with authority by a particular faith body, each of which has its own methods of training and formation. In the Catholic Church permanent deacons, ordained men working part-time for the Church, are allowed to officiate at a funeral, while the Baptist Church permits any of its members to preside. For the non-religious, the British Humanist Association, which conducts around 4,000 funerals a year, offers training for those wanting to officiate at funerals. Conducting a funeral requires sensitivity, good organisational and communication skills, and an understanding of bereavement. For more details about conducting funerals, contact the National Society of Allied & Independent Funeral Directors: 01279 726777;

©Copyright 2001, Evening Standard (London)

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