World Funeral Customs: Quaker Funeral Traditions

Religious/Cultural Traditions

Posted on October 06, 2015 by Morgan Marant

About The Quaker Religion

Although Quakerism has evolved greatly since the outset, its founding principle still prevails throughout the religion. This primary belief is that the ‘inner light’ of Christ (and by extension, God) lives inside the soul of every human. And, thus, this ‘light’ should be cultivated individually without reliance on Priests or the Bible. Instead of going to a sermon, as with other religions, Quakers frequent monthly "meetings" where they sit for an hour or so in quiet, thoughtful reprieve and contemplation. Accordingly, Quakerism espouses religious self-discovery and modest, informal worship. The Quaker religion is officially known as the Religious Society of Friends. Fittingly, Quaker worshippers refer to themselves as Friends. The religion was founded in England in the mid-17th century as a counter-movement to traditional Christianity.

Emotional Tone on Quaker Deaths

The Religious Society of Friends has no unified belief on life after death. Though the religion is rooted in Christianity, many Quakers reject traditional Christian notions of Heaven and Hell. Thus, Quaker funerals focus on the life the person was known to have had on Earth. This remembrance generally takes on a celebratory tone, as opposed to one of mourning. Crying over the loss of a loved one is certainly acceptable behavior, but overall, Quakers aim to rejoice in the goodness that the deceased exhibited while on Earth.

Quaker Death Rituals

There are no uniform Quaker rituals practiced in the immediate moments leading up to and following death. Naturally, however, this is a good time for friends and family to gather, pray and show support for the loved one.

Quaker Views on Organ Donation and Embalming

There are no Quaker beliefs prohibiting organ donation. On the contrary, Quakers believe that the salvation of humanity depends on lives lived in the service of good deeds. So organ donation is an opportunity for Quakers to live out this doctrine. There are no specific Quaker regulations that forbid embalming, either. However, this practice could be seen as at odds with the Quakers’ disdain for religious pretension. Many Quakers utilize refrigeration instead of embalming especially since embalming is not permitted at many Quaker cemeteries. This practice of a natural or green burial is increasing popular.

Quaker Beliefs in Body Disposition

Burial and cremation are equally acceptable within the religion. Burial is the traditional method, but cremation has gained a lot of traction in recent years due to its relatively low cost. If burial is chosen, a simple, inexpensive casket should be used. The cremation urn should be similarly plain. A memorial minute is prepared and sometimes placed on the tract rack or table.

Body Preparation

There are no specific religious procedures for body preparation before the funeral and final disposition. That said, modesty is key when it comes to appearance. Some Meetings use a "Care Group" instead of a funeral director to handle preparation for the burial or cremation.

Dress Code

Since black is the western color for mourning, Quakers tend to avoid wearing it to funerals. This is in part because they feel thankful for having known the deceased, not mournful that they have passed on. Again, Quakers always try to exercise modesty appearance-wise when attending religious events. Plain formal attire is recommended for all funeral-goers. But more casual clothes are also acceptable.

Visitation

The body should not be displayed at Quaker funeral events. Therefore, viewings and wakes are rarely held. However, the family may choose to have a visitation before the funeral service. This can be held at the family home, Quaker Meeting House, or at a funeral home

Quaker Funeral Services

The Religious Society of Friends traditionally calls the funeral service a

“Meeting for Worship in Thanksgiving for the Grace of God, as shown in the life of our Friend.”

The service aims to celebrate the life of the deceased while applying it to the grand scope of existence. The service also emphasizes the eternal presence and love of God. The funeral service – which usually lasts 30 to 60 minutes – takes place in a Quaker church, known as a "meeting house". It is important to note that the service follows the same format as any other weekly “Meeting for Worship.” As such, the remains of the deceased are most cases present at the event. There are no priests or ministers within the Quaker religion. Instead, two elders of the church congregation (or “meeting”) usually sit at the front of the room (facing the group) and lead everyone through the service. To start, one of the elders may welcome the group and then recite a prayer, story, poem, song or other material. Then the elder may deliver a brief eulogy. Afterwards, each member of the group will have a chance to stand up, one at a time, and candidly share whatever they wish with the group, if they feel so inclined. This part of the Meeting is known as “Open Worship.” The group may sit in silence for stretches of time until someone feels inspired to get up and speak. At the end of the Meeting, the second elder in front will provide a closing prayer or remark. Once he finishes, he turns and shakes the hand of the other elder, signaling the end of the formal service. The group members are then encouraged to likewise shake the hands of their neighbors and informally socialize with one another.

Quaker Burial Ceremony

If cremation is not chosen, a burial ceremony usually takes place right outside the meeting house, in an adjacent graveyard. Everyone who attended the funeral service is welcome to attend. The ceremony is usually very brief and features some additional prayers and spoken remembrances. The casket is oftentimes already buried (or at least lowered into the grave) before the ceremony begins. In keeping with Quaker simplicity, gravestones are usually small and virtually flat to the ground. Only one’s name and dates of birth and death are listed on the stone.

Quaker Funeral Reception

It is increasingly common for Quaker families to hold informal gatherings following funeral and burial services. The reception is usually held in a designated social room of the meetinghouse. It often includes refreshments. This a great time for funeral guests to chat with the immediate family and offer condolences for their loss. Everyone in the funeral group is invited to attend.

Extended Mourning / Memorials

There is no set mourning period or any specific memorial events for Quakers to attend. However, memorial services can be organized at any time and held at a Quaker meetinghouse if the family and community feel inclined. These memorial services follow the same basic format as the funeral service.