Cul tural Fare wells
This chapter deals with our thoughts and feelings about death as they are influenced by the culture we live in. The concept of culture refers to the thoughts, speech, behaviors, and products of a social group. It includes beliefs and assumptions held by the group. It includes social behavior such as rituals, structures of family relationships, and norms for interaction. It includes the technology, art, music, science, and religion of the group. It has to do with the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the movies we watch, and the stories we tell each other. Culture is everything around us. The basic routines of life are different from culture to culture just as the basic routines of death are. It is as certain as the sun rises and the sun sets that death is universal. What is not universal is how each of us responds to it. Death summons responses which are formed by our attitudes, values, and beliefs. They are uniquely ours, because each of us originates from a culture. Whether it be the predominate culture or a smaller subculture, our foresight and our world view are shaded by the culture we are in. The culture you come from may respond to death differently than your next door neighbor or the coworker you share an office with. By examining different cultures we learn to understand our own culture and the world we live in. Nothing affects our understanding, our fears, or our beliefs about dying and death more than the culture we are from and the religion we practice. From mummies to cremation to drive-up wakes, funeral rituals reflect religious traditions going back thousands of years as well as up-to-the minute fads. Most people in the United States identify themselves as Protestants; therefore, most funerals follow a similar form. Family and friends gather at the funeral home to console one another and pay their final respects. A minister conducts the funeral service at the church or mortuary. The service usually includes prayers, hymns, a eulogy, and readings from the Bible. In most cases, the body is buried after a short grave-side ceremony or cremated or donated for medical research. What Americans call the standard funeral turns out to be the funeral of choice for only a minority of the rest of the human race. Other people, including other Christians, bury their dead with more elaborate and exotic rites. How your loved ones dispose of your body will be determined by the religious faith you practiced during your life because funeral customs reflect the theological beliefs of a particular faith community. The great variety of funeral customs around the world would be difficult to catalog. The Egyptians mummified the bodies of royalty and erected pyramids as colossal monuments. Viking kings were set adrift on blazing boats. The Soviets mummified the body of Lenin, and his tomb and corpse have become major icons in the U.S.S.R. In some African cultures, death is not complete until a funeral of “great standing” has occurred. This may even happen years later after a family has saved enough money to carry out the funeral in the way they want. In some American Indian tribes, the name of the deceased is never mentioned because to do so would anger the spirits. In a funeral home in California, a drive-up window is provided for mourners so that they can view the remains and sign the book without leaving their cars. In Japan, where land is scarce, one industrious cemetery owner offers a time-share plan whereby corpses are interred after brief burial to make room for the next occupant. Funeral directors
carry out some very unusual requests for the survivors of loved ones. One dressed a corpse in pajamas and positioned it under the blankets in a bedroom for viewing. Let us now examine, in more detail, funeral customs from other cultures to see how different religions pay their final respects. The funeral rite in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is the fastest growing church in the United States, closely resembles the Protestant funeral in some ways. One significant difference is in the attire of the deceased. Devout Mormons receive the garments of the holy priesthood during their endowment ceremonies when they are teens. These sacred undergarments are to be worn day and night throughout a Mormon’s life. When a Mormon dies, his or her body is then attired in these garments in the casket. At one time Mormon sacred garments resembled long johns, but they now have short sleeves and are cut off at the knees. The garments are embroidered with symbols on the right and left breasts, the navel, and the right knee, which remind the wearer of the oaths taken in the secret temple rites. Mormons who reached their endowments are also clothed in their temple garb at death. For the men, this includes white pants, white shirt, tie, belt, socks, slippers, and an apron. Just before the casket is closed for the last time, a fellow Mormon puts a white temple cap on the corpse. If the deceased is a woman, a high priest puts a temple veil over her face. Mormons believe the veil will remain there until her husband calls her from the grave to resurrection. Mormons forbid cremation. The Parsi people of India neither bury nor cremate their dead. Most Parsis, who live in or near Bombay, follow the ancient religion of Zorastrianism. Outside Bombay, Parsis erected seven Towers of Silence in which they perform their burial rites. When someone dies, six bearers dressed in white bring the corpse to one of the towers. The Towers of Silence have no roofs. Soon after, waiting vultures pick the body clean. A few days later the bearers return and cast the remaining bones into a pit. These people believe their method of disposal avoids contaminating the soil, the water, and the air. Their Hindu neighbors, on the other hand, choose cremation as their usual burial practice. Hindus believe that as long as the physical body exists, the essence of the person will remain nearby. Cremation allows the soul of the person to continue its journey into another incarnation. The world’s Buddhists, who live primarily in China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Cambodia, usually choose cremation for disposing a body. A religious teacher may pray or recite mantras at the bedside of the dying person. These acts are believed to exert a wholesome effect on the next rebirth. Buddhists believe that the soul of a person remains in an intermediate state for no more than 49 days between death and rebirth. Some of the most detailed funeral rites come from Orthodox Judaism. As death approaches, family and friends must attend the dying person at all times. When death finally arrives, a son or the nearest relative closes the eyes and mouth of the deceased and binds the lower jaw before rigor mortis sets in. Relatives then place the body on the floor and cover it with a sheet. They place a lit candle near the head. Judaism in its traditional form prohibits embalming except where required by law. After a ritual washing, the body is covered with a white shroud and placed in a wood coffin. At the funeral, mourners symbolize their grief by tearing a portion of an outer garment or wearing a torn black ribbon. The Orthodox discourage flowers at the funeral. Christianity, the world’s largest religion, carries over Judaism’s respect for the body and firmly acknowledges resurrection, judgment, and eternal reward or punishment. Those attending a Catholic wake may still say the rosary, but often there is a scripture service instead. The priest’s vestments are likely to be white or violet rather than black. Prayers tend to emphasize the hope of resurrection rather than the terrors of the final judgment. As death approaches, the dying person or the family may request the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. This used to be called Last Rites or Extreme Unction but is no longer restricted to those in imminent danger of death. It is often administered to the sick and the elderly as a method of healing as well as a preparation for death. The Catholic church raises no objections to embalming, flowers, or an open casket at a wake. At one time, cremation was out of the question but today Catholics may choose the option of cremation over burial. During the committal service at the grave site, the priest blesses the grave and leads the mourners in the Our Father and other
prayers for the repose of the soul of the departed and the comfort of the survivors. Catholics are usually buried in Catholic cemeteries or in separate sections of other cemeteries. The activities in this chapter are designed to sharpen the reader’s sensitivity to these cultural messages. I urge a respectful attitude toward cultural diversity. We can too easily dismiss or make fun of beliefs and traditions that are different from our own. However, with an attitude of openness and respect, our own sense of appreciation can be expanded and enriched when we learn about the cultural background of others. These activities invite careful questioning and re-examination of one’s cultural heritage. The imprint of one’s own cultural experience can be a rich resource for others as they struggle to put their own thoughts and feelings into perspective. I invite an open display of thoughts and feelings in these learning activities. Death can be a frightening topic to the individual where this subject is often hidden and denied. Let us begin with my favorite, El Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. It is a blend of pre-Columbian and Catholic practices and was brought from Mexico to the United States. In recent years interest in this celebration has increased in San Antonio, Texas as an expression of remembrance of family members and others who have died. The Mexican culture not only celebrates family members who are dead but even pokes fun at some of the silliness of dying and death rituals and practices. The Day of the Dead is a unique holiday that is celebrated annually on November 1 and 2 in Mexico, Guatemala, Spain, Peru, and other Latin American countries. It is also celebrated in U.S. cities that have a large Hispanic American population, including San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, and New York. November 1, All Saints’ Day, is a day to honor the souls of children (i.e., “little angels”) who die before they ever have a chance to sin and therefore are believed to go directly to heaven. November 2, All Souls’ Day, is the day to honor the souls of deceased adults. During these two days, people gather to celebrate with feasts, parades, music, and laughter. On the morning of November 1, the family goes to the local cemetery where their loved ones are buried. Outside the cemeteries, vendors sell food, drinks, candles, sugar skulls, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and a variety of brightly painted toys in the shape of skulls and skeletons. The family scrubs down the tombstones and decorates them with marigolds, called the flower of the dead. Then the family spreads marigold petals from the cemetery to their front doors so the dead might find their way back home. At night, families return to the cemeteries with food and drink and candles to eat and socialize in a festive mood. Festivities continue into All Souls’ Day, when people partake of parades in which a coffin, with someone pretending to be dead, is carried through the streets while people dressed as skeletons wave and laugh. Death is poked fun of and everyone accepts the humor. Special foods are prepared by the family, including chicken smothered in chocolate sauce, tamales, enchiladas, and pan de muerto. Food is also placed on the altar, along with other things the deceased may have particularly liked. Finally, the family joins together, for it is believed the dead return to become part of the family again, sharing in the meal. Death is different in Mexico. Not biologically different, and not emotionally less stressful. People do not celebrate death joyfully, nor with less pain or suffering, but with more acceptance and more understanding. Death is present everywhere in Mexico. It is in the literature, on murals, in cutout paper figures, and on the streets. Death is seen as a companion, or sometimes as a lover. Death is always present and a part of life. Sometimes death is viewed as a woman, and sometimes it is a man. There is no gender preference. Death is death. And it must always be a part of the Mexican reality.