One life? Many lives?
Death may be seen as the end of all existence, or as a step into a different existence.
Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism look upon death as the impetus to a new incarnation on this world. The goal of life is therefore to refrain from being self-centered and to strive towards spiritual enlightenment that can lead to the release of the soul and an end to rebirth.
Christianity, the Jewish faith and Islam teach that a person is dead until resurrection on the Day of Judgement, with the chance of living eternal life in Heaven.
The different world religions represent "great traditions" built upon texts interpreted by ritual specialists. But within each of these religions are also found folk beliefs - what we can call "little traditions". These are normally passed down orally from generation to generation, and can often include customs that aren't completely accepted by the "great tradition", but which still have great importance for the people who believe in them.
It is common that Muslims read from the Koran beside the grave of someone who has recently passed away. According to folk belief, this reading can influence how the angels of God question the deceased: To of Gods angels come to the gravesite immediately after earth is cast over the grave. The angels will test what the dead person knows about God and the Prophet Mohammed. According to folk belief, the angels won't ask any questions as long as the Koran is read, because they prefer hearing the Koran. If the Koran is read without stop until Friday prayers, the angels will return to heaven without accomplishing their errand, and the soul of the deceased is guaranteed entrance to heaven.
One of the most colorful aspects of Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhism is the burning of Joss paper - printed resemblances of valuables that are offered to the deceased. Paper models of clothing, watches, cars, money, food, telephones, etc. are burnt in order to secure wealth for the dead person in the next world. This custom is actually a continuation of a pre-Buddhist belief in gods, spirits and undying creatures which has little in common with the main lines in Buddhism.
Prayer and rituals are there to make sure that the dead soul finds the correct path in the hereafter. If something goes wrong, a ghost can be the result. Norwegian folk tradition is full of advice against ghosts - the spirits of dead souls that walk again. In the 1950's, someone from Romskog said that "If someone died, everyone had to shake his hand and say 'farewell', otherwise the dead would walk again". Other ways of hindering ghosts were to remove the corpse from the house feet first, or to take the coffin out through a special opening in the wall reserved for the dead, instead of through a door. In this way, the dead wouldn't be able to find their way back again.
Hindus and Sikhs cremate their dead partly in order to hinder ghosts. Many believe that without cremation, the spirit of the dead person has problems releasing itself from the body. There is then a danger that the spirit sways forever around close to the body.
There is a tale about two people who meet in a cemetery:
A Norwegian woman comes to the cemetery in order to lay flowers on her mother's grave. While she stands by the grave, she notices a foreign-looking man place a bowl of rice on the grave beside her.
"Excuse me" she says, "When do you think that the dead person is going to eat that rice?"
The man replies "Well, maybe about the same time that your mother smells the flowers that are laid on her grave".