Brake Family Liaison Officer Handbook: Faith issues following a death on the road

We need to be sensitive to cultural or religious issues that may arise when liaising with families, particularly those from ethnic minority groups. Below are some guidelines about general customs and religious practices relating to death and funerals in some of the major religions practised in the UK today. This list is not exhaustive and is offered only as a general guide. Above all, we should remember that people are individuals and what is right for one person may not be right for another. If in doubt, it is best to ask - very few people will be offended and many will appreciate this.

General tips for FLOs and other support workers:

Many people in the UK refer to their 'Christian name' and 'surname'. However, asking for a 'Christian name' may be offensive to non-Christians. Asking for a 'first name' and 'second name' may lead to confusion with some naming traditions. It is best to ask for someone's 'full name'. If you need to distinguish between different parts of a person's name, you can ask for their 'personal name' and 'family name'.    

In the UK, it is traditional to cross the arms of a dead person across their chest. However, it should be noted that this is a Christian tradition (the sign of the cross is a sign of Christianity) and may be offensive to non-Christians. It is best to make sure that the arms of the dead person are not crossed before family and friends view the body.   

In the UK, it is traditionally a sign of respect to remove headgear when entering a house. In some traditions, the opposite is true. It is best to check whether someone would like you to cover or uncover your head and whether or not they wish you to remove your shoes before entering their house.   

Many people find their faith and religious community a comfort in time of crisis. However, it is also common for a traumatic event, such as a death on the road, to lead people to question the assumptions they hold about the world and this may include questioning their religious beliefs. Individuals may or may not feel strongly about different aspects of their faith.

Christians    

Christianity is the most common religion in the UK, although numbers of practising Christians are declining. The Christian holy book is the Bible. Most Christians in the UK belong to the Church of England and are known as 'Anglicans', but there are significant numbers of Christians from other churches. These include Catholics (sometimes called 'Roman' Catholics), Methodists, Baptists, the Salvation Army, Orthodox Christians, Pentecostal Christians, Quakers and others. Their beliefs are very similar, but some beliefs and practices differ.   

Religious leaders and places of worship: Each type of Christian church has a slightly different religious hierarchy, but local religious leaders are usually ordained 'priests' (sometimes known as 'ministers', 'vicars' or 'pastors'), although for Quakers, they will be a leader appointed from the community. The Christian place of worship is a 'church', although the Quaker place of worship is known as a 'meeting house’.

Some Christians may wish a religious leader from their own church to be present after someone dies. It is particularly important to Catholics (and some Anglicans) to have a priest perform the 'last rites' (also known as the 'sacrament of the sick') when someone dies.   

When contacting a Christian Church, it is usually best to ask to speak to the priest.  

Holy days: The Christian holy day is Sunday, when Christians usually attend a church service.   

Beliefs about death: Christians believe in life after death, where everyone will be judged by God and sent, accordingly, to heaven or hell. However, these beliefs are open to a wide variety of interpretation. For example, some Christians believe that everyone will go to hell when they die, unless they repent of their sins and accept Jesus, the son of God, as their 'saviour' - others interpret the notion of hell more symbolically, as a state of existing 'without God'.

Practices following death     

Positioning the body: Traditionally, Christians may cross the arms of a person who has died, or place the hands together, as if in prayer.   

Personal possessions: Some Christians may wear jewellery in the shape of a cross, or a fish. There are no particular religious reasons for offence if this jewellery needs to be removed.     

Funeral: Christians often bury their dead, due to the traditional belief that the physical body is resurrected after death. However, many Christians believe in a spiritual, rather than a physical resurrection. There is no restriction on cremation for Christians, which is becoming more popular.   

Procedures following a death on the road

Post-mortems: Most Christians have no religious objections to organ post-mortems, although those who Christians who hold the traditional belief that the physical body is resurrected after death may object.   

Organ and tissue donation: Most Christians have no religious objections to organ and tissue donation although those Christians who hold the traditional belief that the physical body is resurrected after death may object.    

Speaking to Christians

Names: Christians tend to follow the naming system of the country they live in.

Visiting a Christian home 

Entering a Christian home: Some items of particular religious significance may be found in some Christian homes, including: the Bible; a cross or crucifix; and rosary beads, which are used in prayer. These items should not be touched without permission.   

Muslims   

The Muslim religion is called 'Islam'. Its holy book is the Quran or Koran, which Muslims believe to be the word of God (Allah) conveyed through his prophet Mohammed. Most Muslims in the UK are Sunni Muslims or Shi'ite (pronounced 'shee-ite') Muslims. Their beliefs are very similar, but their practice of Islam differs.   

Religious leaders and places of worship: A Muslim religious leader may be called an 'imam', but this term means different things to Sunnis and Shi'ites, who have different ways of appointing their religious leaders. The Muslim place of worship is a 'mosque', which is run by a committee of local Muslims, rather than an ordained religious leader. It is not necessary to have a religious leader present after someone dies, as family members or any practising Muslim may perform the necessary rites. However, a bereaved Muslim may wish to contact the imam at the local mosque, particularly if they have no family present.   

When contacting a Muslim mosque, it is usually best to ask to speak to the Secretary of the Committee.

Holy days: All Muslims say set prayers five times every day, but on Fridays male Muslims go to pray at the mosque. Women and children usually say their prayers at home, but some mosques may provide a separate room for them to worship.  

Beliefs about death: Muslims believe in life after death, and that they will be judged by Allah on the life they have led and sent, accordingly, to heaven or hell. They believe that the physical body is resurrected after death. Some Muslims may try not to show grief following a death, to show that they accept it as being Allah's will, and that death is only a temporary separation.

Practices following death

Time factors: Muslim tradition requires the dead to be buried as soon as possible.   

Positioning the body: Traditionally, Muslims close the eyes and straighten the limbs of a dead person before wrapping them in a white sheet and turning their head to face their right shoulder so that they can be buried to face Mecca. Further preparation for burial, including washing the body will be carried out, by the family, at the person's home, at the mosque, or at the funeral director's before burial.   

Touching the body: Many Muslims prefer that the body is not touched by anyone who is not a Muslim themselves. If this is necessary, the non-Muslim should wear disposable gloves.    

Viewing the body: It is important that the head of the deceased Muslim is covered before the family sees it.   

Personal possessions: Some Muslims may wear a 'taviz' (a small piece of cloth, leather or metal inscribed with words from the Quran) on a black string around their arm, waist, or neck. This should not be removed without permission from the family.   

Funeral: Traditionally, Muslims bury their dead, but do not use a coffin and do not mark the grave, though the ground is raised. They are never cremated. However, for burials in the UK, it is a legal requirement to use a coffin and mark the grave. Some local authorities provide a specific area for Muslim burials, but others do not, which may cause distress. If possible, a Muslim funeral director should be used. Some Muslim families may wish to take their dead to a Muslim country so they can follow traditional requirements for burial.

Procedures following a death on the road:    

Time factors: Muslim tradition requires the dead to be buried as soon as possible. The procedures that follow a death on the road may delay burial, which can cause distress. The need for these procedures should be explained sensitively.   

Identification procedures: It is important that the head of the deceased Muslim is covered before the family sees it.   

Post-mortems: This is a legal requirement following fatal road crashes, but it is a procedure that is unacceptable to many Muslims. The need for a post-mortem should be explained sensitively.   

Organ and tissue donation: Strict Muslims will not want any part of a body to be donated, but some may consider it acceptable.    

Speaking to Muslims   

Names: As the naming system is very different to the traditional system used in the UK, care should be taken when addressing or referring to Muslim men and women. In order to avoid any confusion it is always best to use the full name (eg. Mohammed Khalid; Fatma Bibi). Avoid the use of Mr or Mrs unless you use it in conjunction with two personal names (eg. Mrs Fatma Bibi NOT Mrs Bibi, which could refer to a number of different women).   

Speaking to a Muslim woman: When speaking to a Muslim woman, it is preferable if a relative or a female police officer is present.    

Visiting a Muslim home   

Entering a Muslim home: It is polite to offer to remove your footwear before entering the house of a Muslim family.   

Sikhs   

Sikhism is based on belief in one God and the teachings of the ten Gurus (teachers), who were the first leaders of the Sikh religion. These teachings are found in the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. Some Sikhs are baptised and wear the five signs of Sikhism: Kesh (uncut hair, often concealed beneath a turban or scarf); kangha (a comb); kara (a steel bangle); kirpan (a symbolic dagger); kaccha (special underwear). Other Sikhs may or may not be baptised and may wear some or none of the five signs.   

Religious leaders and places of worship: Sikhs worship in the prayer room of a temple (Gurdwara). There is no religious hierarchy in Sikhism. Any Sikh can act as a 'granthi' (person who reads the Guru Granth Sahib). A scholar and preacher is known as a 'giani'. The temple is run by an elected lay committee.    

When contacting a Sikh temple, it is usually best to ask to speak to the Secretary of the committee.   

Holy days: Sikhs usually visit the temple on Sundays.   

Beliefs about death: Sikhs believe in reincarnation - that each soul is re-born until it reaches perfection and avoids returning to earth. They believe that a person's 'karma' - behaviour, thoughts and deeds from their past life - influences their current life, but that karma can be improved by the grace of God. The attitude towards death is not one of sadness.   

Practices following death

Time factors: It is customary that cremation takes place as soon as possible, usually within 24 hours.   

Positioning the body: The eyes and mouth should be closed, limbs straightened and body wrapped in a plain sheet.   

Touching the body: Sikhs have no religious objection to health workers or funeral directors touching the body, but Asian Sikh families may prefer to wash and lay out the body themselves.   

Personal possessions: The five signs of Sikhism should not be removed from the body.   

Funeral: Sikhs are traditionally cremated, accompanied by the five signs of Sikhism and their ashes are scattered in a river, at sea, or in a holy place. Sikhs wear white clothing at funerals.  

Procedures following a death on the road

Time factors: It is customary that cremation takes place as soon as possible, usually within 24 hours. Sikhs tend to accept that the procedures that follow a death on the road may delay burial. The need for these procedures should be explained sensitively.     

Post-mortems: Sikhs have no religious objection to post mortems.   

Organ and tissue donation: Sikhs have no religious objection to organ transplants.

Speaking to Sikhs

Names: Some Sikhs in the UK have re-adopted their family name, which may be used after their religious name. If the family name is used instead of the religious name, it is important to note whether the person is male or female (as this is impossible to tell from a Sikh's personal name).   

Speaking to a Sikh woman: A Sikh woman may feel more comfortable if other family members are present when a male officer visits her home.   

Visiting a Sikh home

Entering a Sikh home: Some Sikh families may keep a complete copy of their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, in a special room in their home. No-one should enter this room without an invitation. If invited, you should offer to remove your footwear and cover your head. Other prayer books should also be treated with respect and never placed on the floor.

Hindus   

Hinduism is not only a religion, it is a social system as well. As there is no one holy book and there are hundreds of Hindu gods, Hindus follow their religion in diverse ways and will celebrate different festivals and in different ways depending upon their social and geographical background.

The three most important Hindu gods are Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the protector) and Shiva (the destroyer). Whichever god/s they tend to worship, Hindus are united in believing in one supreme spirit, Parabrahma (or Paramatma), 'karma', which is the force that provides natural rewards and punishments for behaviour; and the cycle of reincarnation, through which everyone must progress in order to be reunited with Parabrahma.   

Religious leaders and places of worship: Hindu worship may take place at shrines in the mandir (temple) or in the home. Hindus have religious teachers, called 'gurus', but they do not run the mandir: it is run by an elected committee of local Hindus.   

When contacting a Hindu mandir, it is usually best to ask to speak to the Secretary of the Committee.

Holy days: Hindus worship at the mandir or in the home. There is no particular day set aside for worship. The holy days they celebrate may vary.   

Beliefs about death: Hindus believe in reincarnation - that each soul is re-born until it reaches perfection and avoids returning to earth. They believe that a person's 'karma' - behaviour, thoughts and deeds from their past life - influences the state their soul is born into in their current life. Hindus believe that when a person's soul becomes pure enough, it is united with Brahma.

Practices following death

Time factors: It is customary that the funeral takes place as soon as possible.  

Positioning the body: The eyes should be closed, limbs straightened and body wrapped in a plain sheet, but permission to touch the body should be gained from the family before doing this, if possible.   

Touching the body: The body should not be touched, if possible, until permission is given by the person's family. It may cause some Hindus distress if the body is touched by a non-Hindu.   

Personal possessions: Any jewellery worn by a Hindu may have religious or social significance and should not be removed without permission. Many Hindus wear a necklace and a thread which passes diagonally across their body, from shoulder to waist. These have special religious significance and should not be removed. In addition, many Hindu wives wear a brooch given to them by their husband, which denotes their married status (sometimes worn on a necklace of gold or black beads). They may also wear glass and/ or gold wedding bangles as well as one or more wedding rings.    

As Hindus consider the feet to be the dirtiest part of the body, shoes should not be returned in the same bag as other possessions. In particular, holy books should not be placed on the floor, or near feet or shoes.   

Funeral: Hindus are always cremated and their ashes are sprinkled into the sea, or a river. Some Hindus travel to India, in order to sprinkle a loved one's ashes into the river Ganges, which has special religious significance for Hindus.   

Procedures following a death on the road

Time factors: Cremation takes place as soon as possible after death.   

Post-mortems: Although this is a legal requirement following fatal road crashes, officers should be aware that this procedure is considered deeply disrespectful in Hinduism. Officers should use tact and sensitivity when explaining the need for this procedure.    

Organ and tissue donation: Hindus have no religious objection to organ and tissue donation.   

Speaking to Hindus   

Names: Hindus usually have a personal name, followed by a middle name (which is usually their father's name) and a family name, which denotes the person's social status.   

Speaking to a Hindu woman: Male officers should not speak to a Hindu woman on her own, another family member should be present.  

Visiting a Hindu home  

Entering a Hindu home: It is polite to offer to remove your footwear before entering the house of a Hindu family.   

Entering a room containing a shrine: Most Hindu homes contain a room with a small shrine where the family can worship. The shrine usually consists of statues of one or more gods, pictures of gods and saints and incense. There may be symbolic offerings of food left at the shrine. You should not enter this room, or touch anything on the shrine, without an invitation to do so. Anyone still wearing footwear should offer to remove it before entering and women should offer to cover their heads.   

Jews   

Judaism is one of the world's oldest religions. Jews believe that there is one God and that they are his 'chosen people'. The Jewish holy book is called the 'Torah' and Jews believe that it reveals God's will. The Ten Commandments are a central part of God's instructions for his people. There are several different groups of Jews: Orthodox Jews, who follow the instructions of the Torah very strictly; and non-orthodox Jews, who may be part of the Reform, Progressive, Conservative or Liberal movements, who believe that the Torah's teachings may be adapted to modern life.   

Religious leaders and places of worship: Jewish teachers are called 'rabbis' and will often lead the service at the 'synagogue', the Jewish place of worship, although any Jew may do this. The synagogue is often run by a committee of local Jews and not every synagogue in the UK will have its own rabbi.   

When contacting a Jewish synagogue, it is usually best to ask to speak to the Secretary of the committee.   

Holy days: The Jewish holy day is the Sabbath, which runs from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Jews are forbidden from doing any work on the Sabbath, which is set aside for prayer and visiting the synagogue. For many Jews, the restriction on working on the Sabbath extends to activities such as driving a car, using the telephone, cooking and watching television.   

Beliefs about death: Jews believe in life after death, when their soul will be resurrected to be with God in heaven. Some Orthodox Jews believe that their body will be resurrected as well as their soul.   

Practices following death

Time factors: It is Jewish custom to bury the dead as quickly as possible, usually within two days, but not on the Sabbath or another holy day.   

Positioning the body: The eyes and mouth should be closed, limbs straightened and arms placed by the side of the body, with the hands unclenched.   

Touching the body: Jews will wish to wash the body and cover it with a white sheet to prepare it for burial. It is usual for a group of Jewish men to prepare a male body and a group of Jewish women to prepare a female body for burial.

Viewing the body: Jews will not want the body to be left unattended until the time of the funeral and it may be upsetting if this is not possible.  

Personal possessions: Some orthodox Jewish men wear a 'kippah' (skull cap) or wide-brimmed hat. If possible, this should not be removed. 

Funeral: The majority of Jews are buried, although nowadays some are cremated. The funeral is often followed by a seven-day mourning period, called 'shiva', in which friends and family visit the immediate family of the person who has died to comfort them and pray with them. Some Jews may also observe a 30-day period of mourning called 'shaloshim'. During 'shiva' and 'shaloshim' Jews may not cut their hair, wear new clothes, or attend any celebration, including listening to music.   

Procedures following a death on the road

Time factors: It is Jewish custom to bury the dead as quickly as possible, usually within two days.   

Post-mortems: Although this is a legal requirement following fatal road crashes, this procedure is unacceptable under Jewish law. Tact and sensitivity should be used when explaining the need for this procedure.  

Organ and tissue donation: Orthodox Jews are unlikely to agree to organ and tissue donation, but some other Jews may. It is best to ask, but with tact and sensitivity.   

Speaking to Jews

Names: Jews tend to follow the naming system of the country they live in, but may have a Hebrew name in addition to the name they use.   

Visiting a Jewish home

Entering a Jewish home: It is polite to ask if Jews would like you to cover your head before entering their home. Some Jews may prefer not to be visited on the Sabbath, but if in doubt, check. Some Jewish houses may have a small container (a 'mezuzah') fixed to the door post. This contains words from Jewish holy scrolls and Jews often touch it when entering or leaving the house.   

Items in a Jewish home: Some items in a Jewish home, including some candlesticks and silver cups, may have great religious significance and should not be touched. If in doubt, ask.   

Buddhists   

Buddhism is more a philosophy, or way of life, than a religion. It incorporates a number of different beliefs and practices, but all Buddhists seek 'Nirvana', a state of enlightenment in which personal needs and wishes are unimportant and suffering does not exist. Buddhists do not believe in any god or gods, but in the cycle of life and the desirability of achieving a state of Nirvana. There are two main traditions of Buddhism: 'Theravada' and 'Mahayana'. Customs and practices vary in these traditions.   

Religious leaders and places of worship: As Buddhists do not believe in a god or gods, they do not worship: instead they meditate, or reflect, in temples or 'viharas' which are smaller meeting houses. Temples and viharas are often run by Buddhist monks or nuns, known as 'venerables'. Many Buddhists homes also contain a shrine, where the family meditates.   

Beliefs about death: Buddhists believe that their life force is passed on when they die in the form of a new person. Buddhists accept death as part of the natural cycle of the universe.   

Practices following death

Time factors: In the Mahayana tradition, the body is usually left untouched for at least eight hours after death. In both traditions, a Buddhist monk should be called immediately to perform prayers over the body.   

Touching the body: There is no restriction as to who may touch the body, but it should always be handled in a respectful way.   

Personal possessions: Some Buddhists wear a necklace with a Buddhist picture or icon on it and chanting beads on their wrists. These should not be removed unless necessary.   

Funeral:
Buddhists may be either buried or cremated. Funeral ceremonies and traditions for Buddhists can vary depending on their country of origin.   

Procedures following a death on the road

Post-mortems: The need for a post-mortem should be explained with tact and sensitivity as although there is no religious objection, some Buddhists may consider it disrespectful.   

Organ and tissue donation:
There is no religious objection to organ and tissue donation, although some Buddhists may consider it disrespectful. If in doubt, ask.   

Speaking to Buddhists

Names: Buddhists tend to follow the naming system of the country they live in.  

Eye contact: Some Buddhists, particularly those from Asian cultures, may interpret direct eye contact as confrontational. In some Buddhist countries of origin the police are feared, hence Buddhists may appear hesitant and reserved in their dealings with them.  

Visiting a Buddhist home

Entering a Buddhist home: It is polite to offer to remove your footwear before entering the house of a Buddhist family.   

Entering a room containing a shrine: Most Buddhist homes contain a room with a small shrine where the family can meditate and reflect. The shrine usually consists of a small table with a statue of Buddha, flowers, candles and incense. You should not enter this room, or touch anything on the shrine, without an invitation to do so. You should offer to remove footwear and headgear before entering a room containing a shrine.      

Tags: police Family Liaison Officer