Cultures and Traditions at End of Life

by Rev. Matthew von Behrens, Chaplain at UVM/PMC 

  If you look in the phone book at last names in Addison County, you probably aren’t surprised to see many familiar French and English-sounding surnames. In fact, Addison County is one of the most Caucasian areas of the country – 92.4%!

 So it may surprise you that in my work as a chaplain, I routinely encounter people of all different races, cultures, and religions. While certainly not as prevalent as in other parts of the country, we are more diverse than it appears at face value. That particularly shows up in how families follow individual customs and rituals when it comes to the issue of death and dying.

Experiencing differences in how various cultures view the end of life can help us understand our own traditions better, as well as develop a greater appreciation and respect for others. Here are three traditions I have encountered in my work as a chaplain at the UVMHN’s Porter Hospital and Helen Porter Rehabilitation and Nursing and practices within them:

 In many of the traditions of the Hispanic / Latino culture, our largest minority group in the county, even very young children are included at the bedsides of the dying, as well as wakes and funerals. There is a general acceptance of death as a natural part of life and less of an attempt to “protect” children from this reality.

 “All Soul’s Day” or “La Dia de los Muertos,” November 2nd, is a very important holiday in the Mexican culture, from which come the majority of our Hispanic / Latino neighbors. The lives of the deceased are often commemorated and celebrated by building small altars at the gravesides of the deceased, containing offerings of food and beverages for the dead. There is a general mood of celebration in a day filled with parties, sweets and cookies and breads (often shaped like skeletons or skulls), and fondly recounting stories of the lives of those who have died.

 In Judaism, practices are different and emphasize giving plenty of room for grief and mourning. For instance, at the funeral service itself, flowers are rarely used and there is no viewing of the body. It is traditional for close family members to rend or make a small tear in their clothing as a sign of grief. At the graveside, most mourners are expected to put three shovels of soil into the graves. In Israel, caskets are rarely used (the body of the deceased is wrapped in a long, winding cloth) and in other parts of the world where caskets are used, they are expected to be unadorned, with no embellishment or even metal of any kind, including nails. For the body itself there are important rituals of washing and preparation, and generally there is the expectation that the body should be buried as soon as possible, even within 24 hours if practical. Burial is traditionally preferred over cremation.

 After the burial, a period of seven days of mourning (sitting shiva) is observed. Both before and after burial, the family is given plenty of latitude for mourning. For example, friends are encouraged to visit the house during those seven days, and although those in mourning always appreciate this, mourners are under no obligation to greet or even speak to them – the assumption being that they may be too grief-stricken to observe the usual pleasantries and niceties. In general, compared to a more stoic Yankee, New-England approach, there is a much greater allowance for visible signs of grief and mourning, and for a longer period of grief.

 Islamic practices also include rituals in regards to the washing and wrapping of the body in cloth and having a quick burial – so traditionally, bodies are not embalmed, coffins are generally not used, and burial is preferred over cremation.

 Islamic religious teachings discourage socially performative mourning such as loud wailing that existed in pre-Islamic Arabia, although some of these practices survive culturally today. Islamic teachings instead place great importance on community support for those who are mourning. Islamic leaders and community members use traditions of remembering life after death to imbibe spiritual renewal, hope, and support for those experiencing deep grief.

 This barely touches upon the wide diversity of the practices of different races, cultures, and religions when it comes to death and dying – let alone, allowing for the wide variety of practices within even one tradition itself. But it serves to give introduction to the idea that there are many ways to mark the transition from life to death and all can be considered a “normal” way to both mourn and celebrate the life of the deceased. Look for more such information in upcoming columns!