Nothing is certain but death and taxes. We may enjoy complaining about taxes but very few of us like to talk about death. In Discovering Through Death – Beliefs and Practices Suleman Nagdi suggests we change our ways, taking time to consider how Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists and other religious and non-religious groups deal with it and how we can all help one another.
Learning about the customs different faith groups follow is both fascinating and important in order to avoid giving offence to the bereaved. The author has consulted many religious leaders and provides an enlightening summary of beliefs and practices. Jains, for example, discourage the bringing of flowers to funerals to avoid violence to plants and instead provide a donation box with the contents donated to the family’s favourite charity. Muslims believe that the afterlife consists of a number of stages, the first a sojourn in the grave where the soul is questioned by angels. ‘If a person has led a good and responsible life, the grave will be spacious and full of blessings; if otherwise it may be narrow and tight and not so pleasant.’ Hindu religious texts, the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita, state clearly that the soul leaves the body taking with it all karma and experience. For this reason many Hindus donate their organs as an act of good will, but others may feel uncomfortable about it, reserving the right to make their own decision.
As chairman of the Muslim Burial Council of Leicestershire the author knows that for doctors, nurses, lawyers, social workers and the police providing the right kind of assistance is fraught with difficulties. Could something they say or do be inappropriate and give offence? How do they deal with those who do not follow a religion? Some hospitals now offer support from a volunteer Humanist chaplain.
Leicestershire is at the forefront in the development of good practice in this area, notably in promoting alternatives to invasive autopsies using MRI and CT scans, known as ‘virtual autopsy.’ When someone dies naturally at home the East Midlands Ambulance Service crew deals with the paperwork and the police attend only suspicious, violent and early deaths: a police car outside the home of the bereaved can cause embarrassment and stigma.
In some UK hospitals the staff show consideration to dying Muslim patients by turning the bed to face Mecca when practical, and though this is not essential it is much appreciated. And they need to be aware that it is the Jewish tradition to recite a special set of prayers, the Viduy (confession), before a person dies. Suleman Nagdi stresses that it is not only Muslims who desire early burial: it is also important in Judaism and to some cultural groups such as Christians of South Asian origin.
This is a practical guide aimed mainly at professionals. To this end the author has asked legal and medical authorities to offer their expertise in technical sections, which include palliative care, organ donation and inquests.
Understanding the ways people cope with bereavement is key to harmonious community relations and it is vital not to make assumptions. As Suleman Nagdi points out, not all Christians are white and English-speaking and not all Muslims are brown and speak Urdu, Gujarati or Bengali. And it is wrong to assume that everyone wants to follow set procedures: in multicultural Britain some people may be relaxed about traditional practices and want to cope with bereavement in more individual ways.
The author acknowledges the ambition of his book: ‘We have demonstrated once again that the United Kingdom is at the cutting edge of promoting positive relationships between its communities and that we have moved from dialogue to action.’
Judge Howard Morrison QC, says that this book ‘should be on the bookshelf of every medical professional, police officer, lawyer, religious leader, teaching staff and indeed anyone who has any doubts as to their understanding of this complicated and essential subject.’
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