The Value of Learning About a Variety of Funeral Traditions
Bereavement is deeply impacted by the cultural traditions and faith community surrounding grieving people. While obvious on the surface, many people act as if something different were true, perhaps referring to the stages of grief or implying that there is one best way to approach a loved one's death.
Learning from other cultures is helpful in at least two ways. Greater awareness leads to better care for hurting people. Approaching the funeral of a friend from a society or faith community different than your own can be an anxiety-producing task, but even a sense of what to expect reduces that anxiety, helping provide better care for the grieving friend.
Learning about the customs of other people also helps improve our own. We can adapt traditions learned from others and adopt them in our own family or community rituals. Frequently, the way another group explains death seems more sensible than our own—not because we were wrong as much as because we can now see the same issue from a new vantage point.
On this website are stories about the ways families from different ethnic, cultural, and religious heritages approach death and memorialize their loved ones. While the families are fictional, their customs are not, as their cultural characteristics and religious beliefs are woven into the stories. Of course, not everyone practices every custom, but these stories provide a starting point for good questions about ceremonies and meanings.
Cultural customs always are transmitted to us first by our family, but family members do not always share the same views of customs and beliefs. Moreover, terms that describe great swaths of people such as Asian American, First People, or Hispanic contribute very little to our knowledge of the person described; intuitively, we know that a Hmong man and a man from Japan likely do not share language, faith, or customs, even though both are clearly "Asian." Remember that cultural labels provide a starting point in understanding, but they never provide the "final word."
Stereotypes are dangerous, so it is best to approach a different social group as learner. Lists of common mourning characteristics or customs tend to increase stereotypes. However, asking questions, applying what has already been learned, and working to understand the meanings behind a practice or belief is invaluable in providing better care-as a friend, a professional, or a coworker.
If you are attending a funeral ceremony for a person of a cultural or religious tradition about which you know little, ask a funeral director. Call in advance and inquire about appropriate attire, the sending of flowers, and other customs about which you may be uncertain. Find a member of Selected Independent Funeral Homes near you.
Family members as well as cultural and faith community leaders will be happy to answer your questions or point you to resources that are helpful. With each family story, you'll find a list of suggested resources in print and on the web. These will provide depth to the story so you can learn more about the cultural and religious group profiled. Many book titles in this section are highlighted so you can click through to Amazon.com to learn more. Journal articles are generally available from the databases at your public library. If you are a library member, you may even be able to obtain a password to access them right from your home or office computer.
The following books may be helpful as you learn about the death customs of other cultural groups and faith communities.
- Ethnic Variations in Dying, Death and Grief: Diversity in Universality, edited by Donald P. Irish, Kathleen F. Lundquist, Vivian J. Nelsen
- The Perfect Stranger's Guide to Funerals and Grieving Practices: A Guide to Etiquette in Other People's Religious Ceremonies, by Stuart M. Matlins
- How Different Religions View Death & Afterlife, by Christopher Jay Johnson (author), Marsha G. McGee (editor)