How do Baha’is deal with death?
The core Baha’i laws regarding such matters as the preparation of the body of the deceased and burial and interment are few in number, but of both physical and spiritual significance for all cultures and climes.
For example, one Baha’i law stipulates that the body should not be moved more than one hour’s journey from the place of death to the place of burial. If we examine this recommendation in terms of what has taken place in some cultures, where a body will be transported from place to place for purposes of commemoration, we can appreciate that the law might derive in part from the attempt to deter the spread of disease.
This aspect of the law becomes a bit more obvious when considered in conjunction with the Baha’i burial law that the body of the deceased not be embalmed, unless so required by local law. Likewise, the requirement that the body not be embalmed would seem to have both a spiritual and a physical component. Symbolically, allowing the body to return to the dust from which it came demonstrates the respectful Baha’i principle that the important life associated with the body is elsewhere, but that the physical temple was once a vehicle through which the soul could express itself.
However, both this law and the law forbidding removal of the body more than an hour’s distance might bear some relationship to the exhortation in the Baha’i teachings that the burial take place as soon as possible. While in places where refrigeration of the body can occur, this period may extend to several days, but here again we can discern a probable confluence of spiritual and physical exigencies. Naturally, these laws are not intended to discourage whatever memorial services the family or community might want to arrange later.
Another Baha’i law would seem to be almost entirely spiritual in nature, though the integration of the dual aspects of all laws would seem to make such speculation unwarranted. Baha’u’llah has forbidden cremation. The reason for this law might well have something to do with the notion in so many cultures that consigning something to the fire is a symbolic gesture of disdain and disrespect—but in an interesting philosophical perspective on this law, Abdu’l-Baha observed that burial is preferable because the decomposition of the body complies more completely with the basic laws of nature:
Now, if you consign this body to the flames, it will pass immediately into the mineral kingdom and will be kept back from its natural journey through the chain of all created things. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Wisdom of Burying the Dead, p. 3.
Baha’u’llah ordained that the casket itself be comprised of crystal, stone, or hardwood. These various choices indicate Baha’u’llah’s awareness that these laws must be capable of being implemented by all people in various economic and cultural conditions. In effect, he has allowed anything from the simplest to the most exquisite casket for the body. The theme here, as with all else concerned with this process, is reverence, respect, dignity, and an attempt on the part of the living to understand what has occurred regarding the continuation of the soul. It is, as it were, as much an educational exercise for the bereaved as it is an opportunity to honor the departed.
The final requirement for Baha’i burial is entirely spiritual in nature—reciting the Prayer for the Dead revealed by Baha’u’llah. This special prayer is used only for adult Baha’is, and is recited by one believer while all present remain standing:
O my God! This is Thy servant and the son [if the departed is female, then “Thy handmaiden and the daughter”] of Thy servant who hath believed in Thee and in Thy signs, and set his face towards Thee, wholly detached from all except Thee. Thou art, verily, of those who show mercy the most merciful.
Deal with him, O Thou Who forgivest the sins of men and concealest their faults, as beseemeth the heaven of Thy bounty and the ocean of Thy grace. Grant him admission within the precincts of Thy transcendent mercy that was before the foundation of earth and heaven. There is no God but Thee, the Ever-Forgiving, the Most Generous. – Baha’u’llah, Baha’i Prayers, pp. 39-40.
The one reciting the prayer then repeats six times the Baha’i greeting “Allah-u-Abha,” and then repeats nineteen times each of the following verses:
We all, verily, worship God.
We all, verily, bow down before God.
We all, verily, are devoted unto God.
We all, verily, give praise unto God.
We all, verily, yield thanks unto God.
We all, verily, are patient in God. – Ibid.