Grief is a highly personal experience shaped by individual and communal effects such as family history, cultural background, social relationships, personal strengths and weaknesses, and religious or spiritual practices. But when it comes to grief, what is deemed perfectly normal and healthy for one individual, may be offensive or confusing to another. In some cultures, stoicism is the modus operandi, in others, grandiose displays of sorrow are expected. Some religious traditions promote rituals focused solely on God and the afterlife; others focus exclusively on the life of the deceased.
The great thing about multi-cultural societies is the diversity of ideas and practices, the challenging thing about multi-cultural societies is the diversity of ideas and practices. Within any society, a sub-population, may appear to be homogeneous, but within that group exists a vast array of ideas and practices. For example, the Hispanic community consists of a wide range of divergent cultural practices expressing Mexican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican traditions. Each culture holds distinctive ideas about death and grieving. Moreover, customs vary from country to country. It is also important to note that a decline in church attendance has affected all cultures, changing the way after-life and funeral care is sought and practiced.
Within the funeral care industry, questions about how to support someone from a different culture have grown so widespread that it is useful to address this topic. The scope of the subject is well beyond a couple of 600-word blog posts. Nonetheless, over the next few posts, I will explore culturally based concepts of death, funerals, and bereavement. Today’s blog considers the African American and Hispanic American cultures. Future blogs will feature European American and Asian American cultures.
The African American Culture
Traditions within the African American culture come from many lands and reflect a variety of religious and ethnic practices. Newly immigrated families bring rich and varied after-life traditions and may seek sole support from their specific community, such as a Liberian Church or Ghanian faith or social community. Many of these communities support the bereaved by supplying rituals, ceremonies and traditions that would be practiced in their homeland.
African Americans are typically connected to Christian denominations, where funeral and after-life care reflects African American values and traditions, especially in the southern United States. During a ceremony just about every mourner wants to stand and give a special tribute about the deceased or sing a solo. This is one of the main functions of the funeral program. Generally African Americans believe that the “living dead”, those who have passed physically, remain alive in the hearts and minds of the living and are present.
Religious traditions are important to the surviving members of the deceased’s community. “African Americans tend towards the practice of holding a wake, which may last as many as one to two days. The wake, held in either the church of the deceased, or the funeral home, is often open casket, and includes visitation with the entire extended family, including children, as well as friends.” (https://funeralcourse.com/ wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Grief-Course-African.pdf)
Whether through visits to the home of the decedent or survivors, attendance at formal services offered at the family home or a funeral home, the emphasis is on the deceased being reunited with Jesus. The service sometimes called a “Home-Going”, is replete with emotion and is commonly followed by burial and a meal. Cremation is less common in the Black community and mourners are encouraged to dress in white to commemorate the resurrection and the hope of eternal life. Some native Africans will dress in black or red. For More Information: https://www.talkdeath.com/7-elements-of-african-american-mourning-practices-burial-traditions/
The Hispanic Latinx Culture
Like African Americans, Hispanic Latinx American populations have diverse cultural backgrounds including people from the islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, as well as Spain, Mexico, and Central and South America. In many of these countries death is a part of life and is openly talked about. Women are more likely to express their sorrow outwardly, for men in “macho” cultures it is unacceptable to show grief openly. Most Hispanic populations practice the Roman Catholic faith, but not all. The sacraments of the church and the rosary are important rituals when someone is approaching death. The ritual of the rosary includes candles, prayers, flowers and sharing memories. Survivors pray the rosary for nine nights after the death of their loved one and again on the annual anniversary. The presence of the church in funeral planning is important. Survivors sometimes make promises or commitments to the decedent. These are considered bound by vow and when not kept the person has committed a sin.
Family and friends are encouraged to participate in the funeral celebrations, including traveling in procession to the gravesite following a Mass. Often family and friends give a financial gift to help pay the costs of a funeral. Mexican funeral customs blend Indigenous and Catholic traditions. Día de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is one example, which combines remembrance for dead loved ones with family and community bonding. This tradition is celebrated throughout Latin America and the world. Humorous portrayals of skeletons and death remind the living to make the most of their precious time together. Families build altars, cook and share traditional food to remember loved ones who have died.
Candi K. Cann, Ph.D. teaches death and dying at Baylor University and authored a study, Contemporary Death Practices in the Catholic Latina/o Community. Cann brought her students to a funeral home that serves the Latina/o community, and found most of them were fascinated by the cultural practices, but some students were appalled at practices such as eating at a wake where the tenor was more a party than the solemn wakes they had experienced. Citing that the Hispanic community is the largest minority group in the United States, (approximately 17% of the population) Cann believes that funeral directors need to expand their services. With the Hispanic population due to double by 2050, we would do well to prepare to support those who mourn by learning their cultural practices.
For additional information on Hispanic traditions visit: https://inelda.org/the-hispanic-way-of-death-and-dying/
Learning about other cultures enriches our experience of the world. In addition to being equipped to help someone mourn a loss in ways that are comfortable and meaningful for them, such knowledge may help you to adopt healthy habits, rituals, or practices that augment your own grief journey. Some of the ideas in today’s blog, far from my Irish heritage, I would readily adopt, such as the celebration of the Day of the Dead and an annual recitation of the rosary with flowers, candles, and the sharing of memories. Indeed, one of the greatest things about multi-cultural societies is the diversity of ideas and practices. Embracing other traditions around death, grief, and bereavement better prepares us to comfort each other.