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spiritual and religious perspectives of end of life practives

Spiritual and Religious Views of End of Life Practices

Spiritual belief systems and religions have developed a very strong framework for making sense of the inexplicable.  Many faiths have specific rituals and traditions surrounding death and dying.

These can apply to:

  • how and when death may be discussed
  • preparation for death, through readings, prayers, chanting
  • lighting candles and incense
  • music
  • the use of pain relief
  • family visits and gathering by the bedside
  • washing and laying out the body, including who may do it and how it is done
  • funerals, burial and cremation
  • mourning practices.

The dying person may have prophetic visions – such as an angel – which convince them their conditions will improve. These visions, which are deeply rooted in the patient’s belief system, can affect their end of life medical decisions.  For the dying, making peace with one’s God, or the spiritual leader of their chosen religion will bring a sense of calm and acceptance.  This may speed or slow the dying process – many in the end of life field are undecided, but ultimately compassion and care is key to aiding the dying through their transition.

Here is a short overview of some religions’ belief systems concerning death and the dying:


The Four Noble Truths contain the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. It was these four principles that the Buddha came to understand during his meditation under the bodhi tree.

  1. The truth of suffering (Dukkha)
  2. The truth of the origin of suffering (Samudāya)
  3. The truth of the cessation of suffering (Nirodha)
  4. The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering (Magga)


The Buddha is often compared to a physician. In the first two Noble Truths he diagnosed the problem (suffering) and identified its cause. The third Noble Truth is the realization that there is a cure.

The fourth Noble Truth, in which the Buddha set out the Eightfold Path, is the prescription, the way to achieve a release from suffering.  Buddhism teaches to accept death while still recognizing that life is precious,


There are many branches of Christianity, and each may have their own specific traditions surrounding the dying, death, and burial – therefore this is the most basic and general explanation. Christian understanding of the value of human life derives from the belief that we are made in the image of God and that God loves, honors and respects us. Christian practices – the practice of love, prayer, lament, compassion can contribute to the process of dying well, working on the premise that one dies the way one lives. When a person is dying, a priest or minister will come to their bedside to pray with them and to help them prepare for death. In the Roman Catholic church, a priest will anoint the person with holy oil as a preparation for death, called Last Rites.


Prophet Mohammed hints at difficulty and pain as a way to expiate sins. Hence, some patients may be reluctant to take pain relief. Most followers of Islam practice special rituals for preparing the dying and the deceased. The Talqeen prayer is performed for those who are dying to ensure they are spiritually ready for the journey into death. After those who are present have the opportunity to share their own prayers, the person leading the Talqeen then encourages the dying person to recall the Shahada phrase before taking their last breath.


Judaism views medicine as a partnership with God, who has hidden within nature the ability to do many things: “Unveiling and unleashing the potential of medicine is actually a declaration of faith in God.  If the administration of the pain relief would have such severe effect, like to almost certainly kill the person, that would clearly be forbidden. For example, euthanasia is certainly not allowed in Jewish terms,” says Rabbi Yehuda Pink, convener of the West Midlands Jewish Medical Ethics Forum.  “There is no obligation to prolong the dying process, quite the opposite,” he says. “We need to ensure that people don’t suffer pain, so palliative care serves a very important role in Jewish beliefs.”


Everything that happens is the will of God. Healing through prayer and through medicine are both possible. Many people will willingly accept the will of God rather than go through difficult treatments. Organ transplantation, both donating and receiving, is allowed. Sikh philosophy and teachings place great emphasis on the importance of giving and putting others before oneself. Sikh teachings also stress the importance of noble deeds, selfless giving and sacrifice. Saving a human life is one of the greatest things one can do according to the Sikh religion. Sikhs believe in life after death, and a continuous cycle of rebirth. But the physical body is not needed in this cycle. The soul of a person is eternal, but the body is simply flesh and perishable.

The more you know in advance, the better you can support the patient and their family at critical times.  Please contact Patti Urban to discuss the ways in which your spiritual or religious beliefs can be incorporated into the end of life process for you or a loved one.

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