Pastoral Care in Grief and Loss class – United Theological Seminary, MN
Weekly Reflection Paper
David Tillman
November 7, 2013

Ethnic Variations in Dying, Death, and Grief – Diversity in Universality


Edited by Donald P. Irish, Kathleen F. Lundquist, and Vivian Jenkins Nelson
(Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis, 1990). p 51-162.

Key issues:

    1. Mourning and funeral customs of African Americans
      1. “Death in the black community is perceived as a celebration of life, a testament to the fact that a life has been lived, that the earthly journey is completed. Those who serve as witnesses in the in the presence of death, extended family, friends, and the church members, to affirm the essence of the person’s existence, are ready to testify to the fact that the deceased is fought the battle, borne the burden, and finished the course; it ready to understand and say well done.” White “The Psychology of Blacks” – 1984 (54)
      2. “Gorer’s contention that morning develops in three stages also has a universal quality:… ‘An initial period of shock, a stage of violent grief and disorganization, and usually longer period of reorganization’” (Gorer, 1967, p. 152). (59)
      3. “A description of a standard black funeral is not possible because of divergences by religious denomination, geographical region, educational background, and the economic levels of the families and communities involved. In sum, ‘historical’ black funerals in America have numerous vestigial elements based on a tradition from West Africa.” (63-64)
    2. Mexican American perspectives related to death
        1. Four factors affecting experience with death
          1. “First are rural populations who come in contact with death daily and understand nature’s way of ‘clearing’ in order to replenish the earth with new opportunities.” (68)
          2. “The second category of people who seem to accept death with more equanimity consists of the very young who are innocent and do not yet know what life is all about.” (70)
          3.  “The third category includes a very poor. For people consistently come into contact with death caused their poverty puts them in continual jeopardy.” (70)
          4. “The fourth category is one that may be more familiar to people in the first world: those who are religious. Whether a very religious person believes in one of the world’s great religions or another, less while lean on faith, some studies suggest that he or she may be fair to accept death with more equanimity.” (70)
        2. “Any student of Mexican history knows that the Aztecs practiced ritual human sacrifice.” (71)
        3. Day of the Dead, death concept in Mexican literature, death and the macho, death and poverty. (73-76)
        4. “Death, then, is present everywhere in Mexico. It is in the literature, on murals, in cutout figures, and on the street. It is a historical reality one is aware of when visiting the pyramids or the museums. It is an everyday occurrence in poor and rural areas. Death is seen as a companion, or sometimes as a lover.” (76)
    1. Hmong death customs: traditional and acculturated
      1. “Hmong believe that a spiritual world coexists with the physical world. The spiritual world is inhabited by a wide variety of spirits, many of which can influence human life.” (82)
      2. “Hmong strongly believe that proper burial and worship of ancestors directly influence the health, safety, and prosperity of the family.” (83)
      3. “Hmong believe that each person has several souls… In the perception of many Hmong people, life in human form is very desirable. It is thought that if one lives in an ethical and moral way, rebirth as a human will come sooner.” (83)
      4. “There are three key officials at any traditional Hmong funeral… The Guide to the Spirit World, the Reed Pipe Player, and a Descendent Counselor. The Guide to the Spirit World is a person who must come immediately after death and through ritual and the recitation of various texts, guide the deceased spirit from the world of humans to the world of spirits. The Reed Pipe Player plays a Hmong reed instrument called the qeej, and this is considered necessary for the spirit to find its way and have a safe journey to the world of spirits. The Descendant Counselor, toward the end of the funeral, sings various songs and tests the family that encourages them to accept the death, give guidance to the family in resuming their lives, and instructs each of them on how to live a better and more healthy life.” (85)
      5. “A Hmong funeral may last from three to 10 days or more. By custom, the body of the deceased must lie in the family home for at least three days before burial.” (88)
      6. “During the waiting period prior to burial, some animals may be sacrificed to feed the guests and family members.” (90)
      7. “All Hmong burials are conducted in the afternoon. It is culturally inappropriate to bury someone in the morning because it is believed that the souls of the dead leave the body at sunset… and an auspicious time usually falls sometime in the afternoon.” (91)
      8. “It is believed that the second soul of the body must remain with the body for at least 13 days before being sent to join the first soul in the world of ancestors. This is considered an orientation time for the deceased soul, during which some assistance from the family is still needed.” (93)
      9. “Immediately after a death, all work in the family ceases until the burial.” (94)
      10. “Most Hmong in the United States now die in hospitals. Many are subjected to autopsy is required by law. This is considered one of the most horrible things that can happen to be Hmong person, as it is believed that the person will be born mutilated in the next life.” (96)
    2. Native Americans: adapting, yet retaining
      1. “There are approximately 350 distinct tribes United States, and 596 different bands among the ‘First Nations’ of Canada. The focus of identity is on the tribe, rather than on simply having Native American ancestry.… Values and beliefs vary from nation to nation.” (103)
      2. “The afterlife begins at some point after death, when the soul journeys south until comes to the Ghost Road, also known as the Milky Way. The Ghost Road leads to Wanagi Makoce, the Spirit Land. This is a place for all dead go, whether human or animal. Spirituality, then, focuses on how to live here and now, not on a reward in the afterlife.” (104)
      3. “For the Lakota, the soul exists before birth. It accompanies a person in life and leaves some kind of presence behind in this world when it goes on to the afterlife.” (104)
      4. “Mourning is considered natural, and the unrestrained expression of grief is regarded as a good thing for both sexes. Women will typically wail loudly; men will often sing emotional, mournful songs.” (105)
      5. “When someone dies, there’s always a substantial gathering of family and friends. It is important for hospital staff understand the importance of family and Lakota system, because they will need to adjust rules to accommodate the presence of many people at the time of death.” (106)
      6. “The body will lie in state for three days, during which all members of the community remain with the mourners.” (108)
      7. “The body of the dead person is viewed… When the mourners first encounter the body, there is a crescendo of grief and calling to that person. There are no taboos about touching the body; it is often kissed and embraced.” (109)
    3. To honor the dead and comfort the mourners: traditions in Judaism
      1. In the Jewish tradition, “there are two overriding values at the heart of its orientation to death and mourning. One is to kavod hamlet, the requirement to ‘honor the dead.’ The second is nichum avelim, the obligation to comfort the mourners.” (115)
      2. Kavod hamet, or honoring the dead, requires that the body of the deceased person be treated with respect and dignity, that the body is considered vulnerable and alone. Judaism demands that those who remain alive are shielded, continually watch for the body until it reaches its resting place within the grave.” (116)
      3. “In the Orthodox tradition, there is a right of ‘confession,’ which enables the person near to ask for forgiveness for his or her errors of judgment and action, as well as to express hope for the welfare of those who will survive and ask a blessing upon them. Within the Conservative and Reform communities, some choose to use the traditional language of this ‘confessional,’ while others have replaced it with other forms of a ‘gathering and farewell’ rite.” (117)
      4. “As soon as death has occurred, the ritual of death begins with the removal of the body to a place where it may be prepared properly. Traditionally, the readying of the body for burial was done by chevra kadisha, or holy society. This last meal service was usually performed by laypeople.” (117)
      5. “The Jewish funeral service begins with the cutting of the garment or a black ribbon. His first rite symbolizes the individual being ‘cut away’ from loved ones… At the funeral, Psalms of comfort are recited, especially the 90th the 23rd.… Following the eulogy, and the chanting of a slow dirge,… the family makes his way to the cemetery for the internment… Many families choose to participate personally in the act of placing some earth upon the lowered coffin.… As a final act of the service, the family rises and recites the ‘homecoming prayer’ called kaddish, which affirms a life of accepting death.… Following the service, the family returns to the home for a special ‘meal of consolidation.’” (119)
    4. Death and Dying in Buddhism
      1. “Attaining a clear, calm state of mind, undisturbed by worldly events, full of compassion, is a central focus of most Buddhist practice. Skilled actions, deeds that do not cause further suffering for the practitioner and other living beings, will naturally result from this state. An agitated or unclear mind will produce karma results that condition rebirth and bring unsatisfactory future life experiences.” (127)
      2. “The state of mind of the dying person at the moment of death is thought to influence the rebirth us. Thus, the better the state of mind, though the chances of a favorable rebirth.” (130)
      3. “A Vietnamese funeral… Strongly believe that a person is to die at home and surrounded by his family… Before the body is placed in the coffin, it is wrapped with strips of cloth and a white silk shroud… The family may gather before the special altar which has been erected for the dead person and make offerings of food for the dead person’s soul.… The ceremony of distribution of the morning garb is carried out by monks or the eldest son of the deceased who leads the rite.… The eldest son, the monk, or funeral attendants throw a symbolic handful of dirt into the grave and then pass on their respects to the rest of the family… Later, a special altar that has been previously set up for the dead member is lighted with candles continuously and incense sticks burned for 100 days… Regular ceremonies are held for the dead person after that time, especially on the death anniversary… Families normally have dinners in the 49th and 100th day after the death and also on the first anniversary… When the body is exhumed three years later and the bones are cleaned and rearranged in proper order and reburied in a small earthenware coffin, only relatives and close friends are in attendance. (Crawford, 1996, PP. 124-130)” (131)
      4. “Some practices observed in America… Everything is done to ensure a calm and peaceful environment for the dying person. Caregivers are concerned about the comfort in the mind of the one being cared for.… The funeral is planned by family members… Embalming is not necessary and is apparently not traditional, since there is no belief in resurrection of the body. Services may be held at a funeral home.” (133)
    5. Islamic customs regarding death
      1. “The most important in Islam is a belief in only one God, or Allah. [They] have to abide by the following guiding principles: believe in one God, or Allah; believe in the prophet Mohammed and the Holy Koran; believe that there is a day of judgment in life after death; to make a commitment to fast; haj, to go at least once, if at all possible, on a pilgrimage to Mecca; zakat, to perform the duty to give generously to the poor; jihad, to fight for the sake of Allah; and pray five times a day.” (138)
      2. “According to Imam Ali, the principal object of the Islamic faith is to show the best straight path by which people’s faculty may be brought to perfection and souls of individuals may experience their full self-realization (Ali, 1962, p. 1).” (139)
      3. “In Islam, human beings are created to survive, not to vanish. Death is a return to God…Human beings are created from two things: world and afterworld. Human beings experience two worlds while they still live in this world. When they die, however, the separation of the two worlds will occur, and then the person lives only in the afterworld.” (139)
      4. “Muslims believe that when the body is buried two angels come to the grave.… The day of judgment occurs when there are no human beings left in this world.” (140-141)
      5. “As soon as the relatives see that the person is dead, they must take the following immediate actions: turn the body to face towards Mecca; have someone sitting near the body read the Koran; close the body’s mouth and eyes, and cover the eyes and face; straighten both legs and stretch both hands by the side; announce the death immediately to all friends and relatives; and hasten to bathe the body and cover it with white cotton.” (141)
      6. “Funeral ceremonies… Generally, four people place the four corners of the bier on their shoulders.… While carrying the body that carriers repeat ‘Allah Akbar’ (God is Great) and pray for blessing. It is customary to show the face of the deceased is some close relative before burial. At the time of burial, all of family members and friends gather with a religious person. They pray and ask God for forgiveness. No discussion goes on, just crying and praying, because it is believed that people should weep and release their sorrow.… Following the funeral ceremony, all the friends and relatives go to the house of the deceased family.… On the third day after the burial, a ceremony lasting several hours is held in the mosque, when friends and relatives gather to pray.” (142)
    6. Memorial services among Quakers and Unitarians
      1. “Quakers seek first-hand experience of Christ’s teachings and the immediacy of leadings from God, and they endeavor to apply them to the whole of life.” (151)
      2. “Unitarians – Universalism is based on the conviction that each of us evolves religious beliefs from our own personal life experiences.… We joined together a religious community to support one another in our personal quest, to bear witness in the world for commitment to every individual’s unique potential growth, the seek communion with the infinite.” (152)
      3. “Both tend to stress ‘salvation by character’ and social responsibility, with little concern for a fear of hell or hope of heaven, although some individuals may believe in personal immortality.” (153)
      4. “Regarding issues of life and death and healthcare, those decisions by principle and practice are left with individuals and families most involved, with support and advice provided by the religious communities.” (153)

Questions for class discussion: As a care provider, how does one best approach and conduct a spiritual care visit with a person and their families from a religious tradition different from yours?

How has the reading affected your understanding of grief and loss? I see more clearly the wide diversity of practices by religious communities around grieving the loss of dying and death. I now see, especially in a hospital setting, how the term providing “Spiritual Care” would be welcomed by more people of non-Christian religious traditions, than using the term “Chaplain or Pastoral Care.”

How will you apply what you have learned in your ministry setting? I will be much more aware and sensitive to how these, and other, ethnic communities look at death, dying, and funeral rites and practices. This will be beneficial information to know working in a hospital, nursing home, or hospice care organization. In my CPE rounds at the hospital, I did visit people from many different spiritual traditions and understandings. I remember the Hmong patient and family I talked with were very welcoming, yet it was clear that for “spiritual care” they wanted to receive that from a shaman or elder from their tradition.

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