Death & Mourning

Egyptian professional mourners in a sorrowful gesture of mourning
Egyptian professional mourners in a sorrowful gesture of mourning. Source: Alma E. Guinness [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

There are some similarities in the ways that all Arabs, irrespective of religion, view death and the mourning of loved ones. In both the Islamic tradition and the Christian tradition, the death of a person is viewed as the time at which the body ceases to live and departs from the earthly life. Both traditions hold that eternal life of the person’s soul is to come, when on the Day of Judgement, the faithful will enter heaven and those who are not faithful and have led a sinful life will enter the equivalent of hell.

In both traditions, the loved ones of the deceased offer prayers at the deathbed and during the funeral service, so that the deceased’s soul may find peace in their eternal life:

  • Arab Christian Death Rituals Open or Close
    The old Christian Coptic necropolis at Al-Bagawat in the Kharga Oasis (3-7th century CE) - western Egypt
    The old Christian Coptic necropolis at Al-Bagawat in the Kharga Oasis (3-7th century CE) - western Egypt. Source: Kabaeh49 at German Wikipedia (mein bild) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons

    Death rituals for Arab Christians are similar to practices common to followers of Christianity across the world. Arab Christians may have a bible next to their dying relative and would most certainly organise a visit from the priest of their local church. If the person is in your care, the family may ask you for assistance to organise this. Please use our Directory to search for Christian places of worship and contact the priest of the relevant Christian denomination.

    Arab Christians are accepting of medical interventions to prolong life if possible. Although cremation is not permitted, autopsies and organ donation are allowed. Traditionally, Orthodox Christians wash and prepare the body of the deceased and this is usually undertaken by family members, although in Australia, some Arab Orthodox Christians may choose for this to be done by funeral directors.

    Special prayers are held on the ninth day after death and importantly, on the fortieth day after death. The forty day period has great significance in the Orthodox Church, as it is considered the period in which the soul of the deceased wanders the earth and on the fortieth day, the ascension of the soul occurs. Memorial services are held at various times after death: forty days, three months, six months, nine months, twelve months and annually thereafter.

    Unlike the Islamic tradition, the Christian tradition holds that extended mourning for the deceased as important for the soul’s peace. Societal custom also has Christian Arabs wearing black clothing after the death of a family member for at least forty days, often for one year, and in the case of widows, this could extend to the rest of their life.

  • Islamic Death Rituals Open or Close
    Cemetery for Muslims in Morocco
    Cemetery for Muslims in Morocco. Source: Dorieo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    Death rituals for Muslims include turning of the person’s bed to face the holy city of Mecca and reading from the Qur’an. The body of the deceased is bathed as an essential ritual of Islam and this is undertaken by immediate family members of the same gender. This is done within hours of death and the body is then shrouded in a simple white cotton cloth. The body may remain like this for several hours, allowing family and loved ones to pass on their respects and condolences. The body may be perfumed, but not embalmed, as the funeral is conducted as soon as possible, preferably within 24 hours of death. There are Islamic specific funeral services in Australia. If you are caring for a Muslim client who is dying, the family members may request your support to contact relevant funeral services.  Please use our Directory to search for Islamic funeral service providers.

    There are clear guidelines pertaining to funeral prayers and the body is buried in a grave without a casket. The grave should be aligned perpendicular to Mecca and the body is placed in the grave lying on its right side facing Mecca. Cremation is strictly forbidden and autopsies are to be avoided, thus ensuring that the body remains intact as much as possible, in preparation for Judgement Day.

    In Islam, the normal mourning period is for three days, when loved ones visit the deceased’s family offering sympathies and cooked food. Widows observe an extended morning period, called “iddah”, which lasts four months and ten days. During this time, she is not to remarry, move from her home, or wear decorative clothing or jewellery.