PhotoIllustration/Robert Noyce

In the silence that follows death, a family burns incense while the sensei chants and gives a Dharma talk. He presents a Buddhist name for the deceased whose body lies before him. The soul of the dead person has started its journey to a new state of existence.

Buddhists have held makuragyo, or "pillow sutra," following a person's death for centuries. Immediately after the passing of a loved one, the family would call the sensei, who is invited to the home of the deceased. He holds the service at the pillow where the body lies.

"Our traditions have been established over hundreds of years to help us get through this difficult time," said the Rev. Jerry Hirano.

The Rev. Hirano has been with the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple for 16 years. He said some Buddhist traditions date back to the time of Shakyamuni Buddha about 2,500 years ago. But, in modern society, people generally don't die in their homes, and the makuragyo is now held amidst the hustle and bustle of a hospital or nursing home.

"The funeral is a personal experience," The Rev. Hirano said. "However, in many ways, it is very public."

For many cultures, funeral traditions are a public display of personal despair. Yet over time, the public has changed. And these sacred traditions, observed in order to honor and respect those who have passed, have evolved.

In Utah, several cultural and religious communities originated in other countries. In the event of a death, some families look to their roots and may find traditions that they did not know about or choose not to practice.

In an unpublished article he called "Generation to Generation," The Rev. Hirano wrote about the difficulties of remembering traditions as they seem to die a bit with the passing of each generation.

He wrote, "Now that we sensei are beginning to have to plan the funerals of our parents, I find that many of us are at a loss as to what is necessary."

He said the Buddhist temple in Salt Lake was established in 1912. But since then, the community has changed.

"Death," the Rev. Hirano said, "whether in Japan or the United States, is still the same. We go through the same emotions."

For many, the pain of losing a loved one is not buried with the body, nor does it disintegrate after cremation. According to the Rev. Hirano, a Buddhist tradition that continues memorial services after the funeral — Shonanoka, or "seventh day service" — is generally observed by friends, family and neighbors of the deceased seven days after the funeral. But one-fourth of the funerals the Rev. Hirano has been involved with are not followed by Shonanoka, he said in an e-mail.

"The reason it isn't done," the Rev. Hirano wrote, "is some families say it is inconvenient."

However, he wrote, death is not a convenience.

"The Shonanoka may be as important as the funerals to help you get through the grief," he said.

Other aspects of traditional Buddhist funerals in Utah also have been influenced by local culture.

"In Utah it is common for the family to hold a viewing. This is not Buddhist tradition," the Rev. Hirano wrote in his article. He said Japanese do traditionally have a wake service, or otsuya, but the viewing has taken the place of the otsuya.

Though traditions might be different for Tibetan, Vietnamese or Japanese people, the Rev. Hirano said the Salt Lake temple accommodates whatever Buddhist customs are requested by the family.

Brandon Burningham, general manager of Memorial Mortuaries in Utah, said that no matter the culture or religion, showing a respect for the dead hasn't changed throughout history. The key, he said, is to meet with the family in order to take care of every aspect of their traditional funeral.

"Special circumstances occur once or twice on a monthly basis," Burningham said.

For instance, he said, many Polynesian people use mats, burn incense and occasionally will take the body back to the home for a period of time. Buddhists use plenty of flowers and may have an altar for people to place their fruit offerings.

On the other hand, Jewish tradition calls for a simple burial as soon as possible after the person has died.

"It's not difficult to maintain Jewish traditions," said Rabbi Tracee Rosen of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City.

She said the Jewish community in Utah was established about 100 years ago. Jewish funeral traditions are an issue of community identity, and the extent that they are held depends on whether someone is Orthodox, or keeps all traditions; Conservative; or Reform, which is more assimilated into local culture. Orthodox Jews make up a small minority of Jewish people in Utah, Rabbi Rosen said.

For a typical Jewish funeral, burial of the deceased is done as soon as possible to show respect for the "sacred empty shell," Rabbi Rosen said.

"The body was on loan to us as humans," Rabbi Rosen said. "Now it belongs to God."

However, in Utah, many Jewish people have family who live far away. Consequently, this tradition is often modified to allow for family travel and funeral arrangements. Being buried so far from their Holy Land, Rabbi Rosen said, there is a Jewish custom to place dirt from Israel in the casket.

But the real challenge with Jewish funerals in Utah, Rabbi Rosen said, is not in the burial.

Shiva, or the seven days of mourning after death, is a time when the community essentially mourns together and friends and neighbors will bring food for the mourning family. It is the "most powerful, wise, meaningful Jewish tradition that exists," Rabbi Rosen said. "The vast majority here don't honor it."

Instead, Rabbi Rosen said, it will be one to three days.

"They don't want to be a burden on the community," Rabbi Rosen said. "It's very sad for families who forgo it."

Carol Hochstadt, chairwoman of Kol Ami Cemetery Association, said some Jewish traditions are therapeutic. When Hochstadt's father died, she said she remembers how good it felt to shovel the dirt on top of his casket after it had been lowered — a custom that may be shocking for those who have not done it before.

"Imagine the sound when the first shovelful of dirt hit the casket," Hochstadt said.

She said that was when reality hit. "This person is being buried," Hochstadt said.

Instead of for families, this moment of realization has been left to gravediggers.

Hochstadt is now trying to bring back another custom that has changed. Traditionally, from the time the person dies until he or she is buried, Jewish families would have people take turns sitting with the body 24 hours a day, watching over it and reading Psalms.

Hochstadt said that mortuaries don't often feel comfortable allowing that.

"It sounds very nice to me," Hochstadt said. "I would like someone to stay with me. It's comforting."

Hochstadt said it would be tragic if such traditions go by the wayside. And some changes in Utah Jewish funerals are becoming custom, according to Hochstadt, who has been in Utah more than 30 years.

"The service has gotten longer," Hochstadt said. "People are starting to share more about the deceased during the service."

Hochstadt said this custom is more typical for funerals for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah.

"They're very uplifting," Hochstadt said of the LDS funerals she has attended. She said, "I get to know the person more than I knew them in life."

Hochstadt said some Jewish funeral services in Utah have been 45 minutes. She said back East they are typically about 20 to 25 minutes.

"You won't find as much people sharing," Hochstadt said.

Because of mourning customs for Jews — women don't use makeup and men don't shave — it would not be expected for the family to get up in front of people.

"That's pressure," Hochstadt said.

Regardless of culture, religion or belief, everyone feels the pressure of putting on a funeral. The Rev. Hirano said, "There will be people who tell you, 'You must do this or you must do that,' but my recommendation is to look deep within yourself."

People also would do well to look about themselves in order to understand other cultural traditions. Burningham said mortuary employees are trained to "become what you need to become" in order to not offend anyone.

"It's a different community now," Burningham said.

Depending on the actions taken by the surrounding community, the pressure may or may not be lightened for the grieving family. For instance, well-meaning friends may take flowers to the grave of an Orthodox Jew, only to be told it is not allowed.

"I guess that's strange to someone not familiar with tradition," Hochstadt said. She said some traditions, like the use of flowers, depend on location. "If you go to Israel, there would be flowers there."

But, in finding a place in the community, Hochstadt said there is value in doing something different from the local community.

"If all Christians stopped using flowers," Hochstadt said, only somewhat jokingly, "we might start using them."


E-mail: MBennett@desnews.com