Grieving the loss of a loved one is a process. Many spiritual traditions around the world continue to remember a loved one after the funeral. In several cultures and religions, the mourning process lasts 40 days after death. Understanding the perspective on mourning the passing of a loved one beyond the funeral can provide comfort and strength for the bereaved.
The Significance of 40 Days
Not every culture practices a continued memorial forty days after a death. Some pagan traditions believe that the soul continues to wander the earth for forty days after the initial death. The number forty is found in many religious traditions without a specific explanation. It is often seen as a large number, often indicating a time of waiting, trial or expectation.
The Jewish religion sees incredible importance in the number 40. It is a number that points to completion and fullness. Here are several examples of the use of 40.
- Forty is often used denoting time periods, 40 days or 40 years.
- Rain fell for "forty days and forty nights" during the flood (Genesis 7:4)
- Noah waited 40 days after the tops of the mountains were visible before sending out a raven (Genesis 8:5-7)
- Spies were sent by Moses to explore the Promised Land for "forty days" (Numbers 13:2)
- The Hebrew people lived outside of the Promised Land for "forty years" which was considered a generation (Number 32:13)
- Moses spent three different periods of "forty days and forty night" on Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 9:11; 9:25; and 10:10)
The number 40 is used in the Christian Bible (including Old Testament stories of Judaism) 146 times. Like Judaism, the number seems to point to a completed time of trial and testing. Here are a few examples of its usage.
- Before the temptation, Jesus fasted "forty days and forty nights" in the desert (Matthew 4:2; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2)
- There were 40 days between the resurrection of Jesus and the ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:3)
- In modern Christian traditions, the time of Lent is a period of 40 days before Easter
The Muslims share the importance of the number 40 with the Jewish traditions. In addition, these significant events take place.
- Muhammad was 40 years old when he received his first revelation
- Masih ad-Dajjal roams the Earth in 40 days
How to Count 40 Days After Death
Many people wonder when speaking of 40 days after death, should the day of death be counted? The 40th day of death is not the same as 40 days after death. Generally, "after death" means to begin counting the next day. In some traditions, the time of death is also important. If the time of death occurs in the second half of the day (after noon), the counting begins immediately and the remembrance of the church is held on the 39th day after death. For an accurate counting, consultation with specific religious leaders may be necessary.
40 Days After Death Traditions
Some religions and cultures have well-defined mourning periods and specific events which mark various moments after death. Other religions have fewer traditions allowing a more personal expression of grief. Here are some perspectives on religious traditions connected to 40 days after death.
Jewish tradition defines specific stages within the process of mourning and bereavement. The period between the moment of death and the burial is called the aninut. The first week after the funeral is known as shiva (literally the word means "seven"). The needs of the mourner are met by their community during this time. While there is no specific tradition based on 40 days, the next stage of mourning is known as sheloshim (which means "thirty"). This 30-day period is also counted from the day of the funeral, so it includes the time of shiva. Following sheloshim, the formal mourning period ends for all except the parents. Their mourning period lasts 11 months.
In Islam, it is traditional to have a 40 day mourning period following a death. The period can be longer or shorter, depending upon the personal relationship one had with the deceased. While Muslims believe that the soul had judgment or trials immediately after death, families spend time in mourning for up to 40 days. They have several accepted practices during this time.
- Reading from the Qur'an
- Reflective prayers
- Personal meditation, prayer and expressions of grief
Traditions in the Christian faith vary by denomination and by locality. Sometimes practices marking periods of mourning can even differ from family to family. Here are some general principles that guide 40 days after death traditions within several denominations.
Roman Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic Church has no Ecumenical dogma regarding 40 days practices. The theological opinions of many Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches is that for two days after death the soul is present on the Earth until the funeral. On the third through eighth days, the soul is shown what Paradise is like. Then on days nine through 39, the soul is shown what Hell is like. On the 40th day, the soul is brought before the throne of God for the announcement of its designated place until the Last Judgment at the end of time.
Eastern Orthodox Church
The mourning period can be different for each family, but usually lasts 40 days. There are specific events on the third, ninth and 40th days after death. Many will also hold memorials at the six-month anniversary, as well as the one year and three year dates. The 40-day service is offered with Holy Bread and Wheat, given by the family in honor of the deceased. It is the Eastern Orthodox belief that the soul of the deceased remains on Earth for 40 days.
The traditions of the Russian Orthodox believers have strict practices at the first, third, ninth, and 40th days after a death. Memorial prayers for the departed loved one must be offered on each of those days. Another significant tradition embraces holding a memorial on each annual anniversary of the death. The Russian-Orthodox beliefs speak that the soul completes many obstacles known as aerial toll houses. As a punishment for earthly sins, the soul must wrestle with evil spirits that are attempting to drag the soul to hell. At the end of 40 days, the soul finds its eternal resting place.
Greek Orthodox Church
Like other Orthodox denominations, the mourning process is strict for 40 days. The family will avoid social gatherings for at least this amount of time. The family will wear dark or black during this time. Close male relatives do not shave for 40 days. A memorial service is held on the Sunday closest to the 40th day. The Greek Orthodox position would hold the soul lingers on Earth until the 40th day.
Most Protestant denominations, including the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists, Methodists and Episcopalians do not observe a specific mourning period or a memorial event 40 days after death. Families and individuals are permitted to grieve in ways that best meet their own personal needs.
While Hindus hold a mourning period and specific memorial events, there is no significance attached to 40 days after death. The cremation of an individual marks the beginning of the mourning period, which typically lasts 13 days. One year after death, the family marks the occasion with a memorial event called the "sraddha."
Value of Traditions
Religious traditions provide a way to comfort the grieving while paying respect and honor to the deceased. Doctrines form to crystalize explanations of what happens to an individual when they die. Understanding the 40 days after death rituals of different religions assists the understanding and support offered to the bereaved.