Each culture has its own traditions,
rituals and ways of expressing grief and mourning.
Understanding Cultural Issues in Death
Information for Schools and Crisis Response Teams
Schools and crisis response workers in many parts of the country will be helping children cope with the concept
of death as a result of the war and concern about terrorism. Some children are suffering a personal loss. Others
will have a heightened fear of death either because they are worried about further attacks or they have family members
in the military, active reserves, or public safety roles. Some children may simply be more aware of death
and trying to sort through their feelings and thoughts.
Most important in working with children in these circumstances is to understand and respect the views and wishes
of their family, as well as to involve family members in the process. It is also important for school personnel and
others to understand various cultural and religious perspectives on death so that interventions are appropriate to the
cultural context of the children and families being served. Keep in mind that many of the people dealing with
death are also dealing with trauma, and that culture impacts trauma reactions as well. Although not comprehensive,
the following information provides describes some of the funeral/mourning practices present within our region.
Impact of Culture on Trauma
Cultural perspectives can shape people's reaction to a traumatic experience.
- Influences what type of threat is perceived as traumatic
- Influences how individuals and communities interpret the meaning of a traumatic event and how they express
their reactions to the event
- Forms a context through
which traumatized individuals or communities view and judge their own response
- May help define healthy pathways to new lives after trauma
Observances and Practices of Various Cultures
1. Practices of the Native American Culture:
Native American observances also vary considerably in their traditions, religions and rituals, but there
is a strong commonality among many tribes that centers on the natural world - the earth, the animals, the trees, and the
natural spirit. Even among those who have been converted to Christianity, there is an emphasis on the reunion
with nature that occurs with death.
Medicine Man or spiritual leader usually moderates the funeral or death service. It may or may not follow
a particular order since each individual is unique. In some tribes or clans, burial is not traditional.
- Some tribes call on their ancestors to come to join the deceased
and, in effect, help in his or her transition.
Native American cultures are not concerned about preserving the body and so embalming is not common. However,
dismemberment and mutilation outside the natural deterioration of the body is taboo.
- There is a belief that the spirit of the person never dies; therefore, sometimes
sentimental things and gifts are buried with the deceased as a symbolic gesture that the person still lives. The
spirit of the person may be associated with a particular facet of nature - animal, bird, plant, water, and so
forth. Symbols of such spirits may be a part of the ritual in the death ceremony.
- It is important to ensure that the burial of the person takes place in their
native homeland, so that they may join their ancestors, and so that they may also inhabit the land to which their loved
ones will also return.
- In some tribal cultures
pipes are smoked at the gravesites.
- In some tribal
cultures, there is significance to burying people with symbolic reference to a circle.
- In some, there is significance in non-burial, but allowing the deceased to pass
on to the other world in a natural way.
Practices of the Asian-American Culture: Asian-Americans may follow Buddhist, Confucian, or Taoist
practices regarding death, with some elements of Christian traditions.
Common practices include:
- A family gathering at the funeral home to make arrangements, with the family
elders assuming ultimate responsibility for the ceremony.
- There is great respect for the body. Warm clothes may be used for burial and watertight caskets are
used to keep the elements out.
- Stoic attitudes
are common, and depression may result from the internalization of grief.
- An open casket allows for respect to elders. Often poems in calligraphy are left for the deceased.
Among Chinese Americans, a cooked chicken may be placed by the casket as a last meal for the deceased and
spirits. The chicken will be buried with the body.
- Music is often used. A band may wait outside the funeral home and accompany the procession to the cemetery.
- The funeral route, burial location, and the choice of the monument
are important. Incense may be burned at the grave. Among some populations, sacrifices may be made
at the funeral.
- A gathering of family and friends
for a meal after the funeral shows respect for the spirit of the deceased, and gives thanks to those who came to pay
- A picture or plaque is usually
kept in the home and displayed with items that create a shrine
3. Practices of the African-American Culture: Black/African-Americans
have traditions concerning death that draw from many cultures, ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Some common patterns include:
- High involvement of a funeral director in preparations
for mourning and burial.
- A gathering of friends
and family at the home of the deceased to offer support and share in the common grief.
- A wake during which music, songs and hymns are played or sung. Some African-
Americans hold a service known as a "Home-Going" service. It usually reflects the personality of the
deceased and celebrates the conviction of going home to Jesus and being reunited with past friends and relatives.
- A shared meal among grieving loved ones after the wake and funeral.
- A funeral service followed by a burial. Cremation is less accepted
in the Black community.
- A deep religious faith and
integration of church observances.
- Memorial services
and commemorative gifts.
- Many in African-American
communities mourn by dressing in white as a sign of resurrection and celebrate with music and hope. However,
Native Africans often wear red or black.
often express grief at death with the physical manifestation of great emotion.
- African-Americans may believe in the concept of the "living dead".
This concept refers to people who have died but whose spirits live in the memories and thoughts of those still living.
These people are the ones who will help others who die move to the next world
4. Practices of the Haitian-American Culture: Although
there is diversity in religious practices among the Haitian/Haitian-American population, they tend to share the following
common patterns in the aftermath of death:
- Close family members and relatives make arrangements for the funeral and church
- A gathering of family members and close
friends at the home of the deceased to pray and to offer support.
- A wake is held at the home of the deceased every night from the time of the death to the time of
the burial. At the wake, they chat, eat, drink, and share jokes.
- A viewing is followed by the funeral service and burial.
- Close family members mourn by dressing in black or white. The wearing of bright colors such as
red is not considered an expression of mourning. It is preferable to wear dark colors such as blue, purple,
and brown to attend a funeral.
- Many Haitians express
grief with the physical manifestation of great emotion.
- After the burial, family members and friends usually gather at the home of the deceased for a reception, where
flaky pastries, black coffee, tea, and other foods are served.
5. Practices of the Hispanic-American Culture: Hispanic/Hispanic-American
populations also have diverse cultural backgrounds including individuals from the islands of Cuba, Puerto
Rico, and the Dominican Republic, and those who come from Spain, Mexico, and Central and South America. Most
Hispanic populations practice the Roman Catholic faith, but not all.
Common patterns in the aftermath of death are:
- High involvement of the priest in the funeral
- Family and friends are encouraged to be part
of the commemoration
- The rosary is said by
surviving loved ones, often at the home of the deceased. Among some Hispanic groups the rosary is said each night
for nine nights after the death. Some families say the rosary every month for a year after the death and then repeat
it on each anniversary.
- Funeral services often include
a Mass. Loved ones are encouraged to express grief and many are involved in the procession to the grave.
- Many Hispanic survivors commemorate the loss of their loved ones
with promises or commitments. These promises are taken very seriously and those who fail to honor them are considered
- Money gifts to help cover the expense of
the funeral and burial are not unusual.
Practices of the European-American Culture: European-Americans follow various cultural, ethnic,
and religious traditions regarding post-death ceremonial and bereavement practices.
General tendencies include:
- Friends and family gather at the home of the deceased or family
member to support and share in the common grief. This practice usually occurs following the announcement of the
- High dependence upon a funeral director and/or
person of the clergy in preparations for mourning and burial.
- A visitation and/or viewing at a funeral home is typically followed by a religious and/or graveside/crypt side
- Funeral services tend to rather subdued.
- Traditionally, dark clothing tends to be worn during ceremonial
services; although this trend has shifted in recent years to a more color-based wardrobe focused on creating an atmosphere
of celebration and hope.
- Interment is followed
by a gathering at the home of the deceased, or a family member where food and refreshment are provided.
Religious Observances of Death
The role of religion is important for most victims/survivors because their answers
to religious questions form their view of life, death and meaning. Many people do not know their position on religion
until disaster strikes, and then their religious faith and beliefs are formed. Some religions give individuals
more power over life than others. Some religions give collections of individuals power over life. Some religions give
spirits more power over life than the living. Some give free will. Some give fatalism. All have defined ways of dealing
with death. Some religious differences include:
- All customs are designed to treat the body with respect; therefore, autopsies and
embalming are generally prohibited. Viewing the corpse is also considered disrespectful.
- The emotional needs of the survivors are very important.
- There is variance among Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jewish practices.
- No funeral is allowed on Saturday (the Sabbath) or on major religious
- Music and flowers are not
- Eulogies are given by rabbis, family
and friends. When the deceased person is held in high regard, there are usually several eulogies.
- Family members and others accompany the casket to the grave and are
encouraged to place a shovel of earth on the casket, as a sign of the finality of death.
- The period of mourning lasts for one year. The mourner's "Kaddish"
or declaration of faith is said at the gravesite: "Blessed, praised, glorified and exalted; extolled, honored,
magnified and lauded be the name of the Holy One. May abundant peace from the heavens descend upon us, and may
life be renewed for us and all Israel, and let us say Amen."
- "Sitting shiva" refers to the seven-day mourning period immediately following burial.
The family cooks no food and a candle or lamp is kept burning in the memory of the deceased. The Kaddish is said
every day during this time.
- Some people observe
a period of three days following the burial during which visitors are not received and the time is devoted to lamentation.
- After the first seven days, survivors are encouraged to rejoin society
but still maintain mourning by reciting the Kaddish twice daily for thirty days.
- Many mourners may wear a black pin with a torn ribbon, or a torn garment during the
funeral and for the next week as a symbol of grief.
- Newborn babies may be named after the deceased. (This is important to remember since many cultures
believe it improper to name people after the dead and, in fact, adults may change their names to avoid being named after
someone who was died.)
- The first anniversary
is marked by the unveiling of a tombstone at a special ceremony.
2. Roman Catholic observances
- Since the Second Vatican Council, the terms "last rites" and "extreme
unction" are no longer used by the Catholic Church.
- The Sacraments of the Sick are prayers that are said as the person is dying, and involve confession and communion.
If a person dies before the sacraments are given, the priest will anoint the deceased conditionally within three hours
of the time of death.
- There is often a wake
and, if so, the priest will conduct the service or say the rosary.
- There are distinct phases to "The Mass of Christian Burial."
- Prayers at the funeral home
- Welcoming the body to the church
- Covering the casket with a white cloth
the casket with holy water
- The Eucharist is
- Prayers are said after the Mass
- Casket is escorted to back of church
- At the cemetery, the grave is blessed.
- Consecration is a reaffirmation that the person will rise again. Prayers address
not only the dead but the survivors - their faith in eternal life is encouraged.
- The one-month anniversary of the death is often celebrated by a Mass, as are those
of other anniversaries.
are a wide range of Protestant observances, including:
- Often there is a family gathering at the family home or funeral home.
- Caskets, open or closed, are part of passage. Memorial items may be placed in
- Cremation is an accepted option for
- Black dress is a part of mourning.
- Funeral services include music and testimonials. Music may
include traditional hymns and/or songs of praise celebrating the Christian experience and the hope of everlasting life.
- Gravesite visits may be made.
- Memorial services are common, and sometimes replace funerals and other immediate observances
- Flowers and donations are preferred ways
to express condolences.
- Church members and
friends will usually assist in providing the food needs of the family. The period of time will very according
to the needs of the family.
- There is no formal
structure to observe the death, month after month or year after year.
4. Islamic Traditions
Traditions differ in every country and the Turkish interpretation of Islam is in
some ways different than those in other Arabic countries. These comments are basically relevant for Turkish culture:
- Death is considered an act of God is not questioned.
Faithful followers believe that all the events in the life-course of an individual, including the time and type of
death, are pre-written by God.
- People in grief
are encouraged to show their feelings openly. They are encouraged to cry loudly as it is believed that crying cleans
the soul. Any expression of rebellion against God's decision to take a person away from her/his dear ones is
considered a sin.
- Friends visit the house of
the deceased and talk with the family members, encouraging them to describe how the death occurred, what they were doing
at the time of death, etc.
- For seven days,
the family members are never left alone. Friends and neighbors bring food, as no cooking is supposed to be done
in a funeral home during those seven days.
no television, radio or any musical devices would be allowed for 40 days but this practice has waned in recent years.
- There is a religious prayer at the 40th and another at
the 52nd day after the death.
are very sensitive to where their beloved ones are buried. They definitely want them buried in a cemetery for Muslims.
They also want the funeral prayers to be led by a Muslim, not by a rabbi or a Christian priest.
- A special ceremony and prayers accompany the funeral. The body is buried without
the coffin and wrapped in white clothes, as it is believed that the body should touch the earth.
- The body must be washed/bathed with certain rituals before the funeral
ceremony begins. This usually takes place at either a special section of the mosque or in the morgue of the hospital.
It is very upsetting when a body is buried without being washed.
- When meeting with someone who has lost a relative, conversations start by saying: "May you
be alive and May God's blessings be on him/her - the deceased."
March 2003. Adapted from material posted on the NASP website following the September
2001 terrorist attacks.
In light of the recent
tragedy in Haiti, I thought I would begin with Haitian/Americans.
Practices of the Haitian-American
Although there is diversity in religious
practices among the Haitian/Haitian-American population, they tend to share the following common patterns in the aftermath
Close family members and relatives make arrangements for the funeral and church services.
of family members and close friends at the home of the deceased to pray and to offer support.
A wake is held at the home
of the deceased every night from the time of the death to the time of the burial. At the wake, they chat, eat, drink, and
A viewing is followed by the funeral service and burial. Close family members mourn by dressing in black
or white. The wearing of bright colors such as red is not considered an expression of mourning. It is preferable to
wear dark colors such as blue, purple, and brown to attend a funeral.
Many Haitians express grief with the physical manifestation
of great emotion. After the burial, family members and friends usually gather at the home of the deceased for a reception,
where flaky pastries, black coffee, tea, and other foods are served.