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Mourning rites

Mourning rites. One among several kinds of rites performed by a community (or an individual) upon the death of one of its members. Mourning rites characteristically function initially to separate those related (in various ways) to the deceased from the rest of the living community. They also constitute a process of transition through which the mourners are finally reintegrated into their community. Mourning rites are thus a kind of rite of passage undergone in almost all societies by those in some way connected to one who has died. They are to be distinguished from funeral rites, which concern the disposition of the remains of deceased. Through them, the living in many cultures express a mixture of affection for the deceased, fear of the corpse, and self-protection against the return of a malicious ghost or spirit.

During the biblical period, Jewish mourning customs included the rending of garments (Genesis 37. 34), wearing sackcloth (Psalm 30. 12), sitting on the ground (Jonah 3. 6), placing dust on the head (Jeremiah 6. 26), fasting (Ezekiel 10. 6), and abstaining from washing (2 Samuel 12. 20). In contemporary practice, the mourning period begins after the funeral. The bereaved put on special clothes, stay at home for seven days (shivah), receive visitors sitting on a low stool, and only attend synagogue on the Sabbath. No work may be done and sexual relations are forbidden. Modified mourning continues for a year after the burial. A yahrzeit lamp is kindled during the mourning period and kaddish is said every day. Subsequently the lamp is lit and kaddish recited on the anniversary of the death. In Christianity, mourning adapts itself to the customs of the country or community, while bringing them under the control of belief in the efficacy of Christ's atoning death and of the resurrection. The former has made prayers for the dead controversial, when or if it implies that the prayers of the living can add to the benefits of the atonement. However, some Christians (especially Catholics) maintain that after death those who have not wholly alienated themselves from God but who fall short of perfection enter purgatory. Here they may be aided by the prayers of the faithful, so that mourning may include such prayers, including requiem masses. These are made annually on All Souls' Day.

In Islam, death belongs to the order and will of God, so that mourning should not be excessive. According to Jabir b. Atik, Muḥammad allowed lamentation for the sick until the moment of death, but not after. Tears and weeping are believed traditionally to disturb the dead during ‘the period in the grave’. Yet in fact niyaha (‘lamentation’) occurs throughout the Muslim world, an instance of local custom and human sentiment overcoming doctrinal correctness and religious injunction.

In Indian religions, the understanding of death is controlled by the understanding of rebirth (or of release). Thus mourning is made practical by rituals which sustain the dead, bring merit to them, and ward off evil. The extreme of these is satī on the part of a Hindu widow, but short of that, there are obligations on the part of the living to the dead which convert mourning into action. In Japan, this is also the case, though set in the context of different beliefs about the status of ancestors. On the seventh day after death, the dead soul may receive a posthumous name (kaimyō), in a ceremony which draws a line on this world and gives the soul new identity in the next. See also DEATH; FUNERAL RITES.

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