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Grief and Mourning – a Cross Cultural Perspective

Rituals around dying, death, mourning and funerals vary considerably across, and within, cultures; there can be quite specific and particular expectations of how these rituals should be adhered to, but an individual or family’s personal preference and beliefs are equally impactful on how the grieving process happens.

For some young people they may relate to the mourning processes of their family and cultural/faith community whilst others will feel as if they are both responding to that, and to the wider community/culture, which may follow different rituals.

In some cases it is impossible to separate culture from religion.

There are some shared cross-cultural perspectives

  • Grief as an universal response to loss
  • The importance of ritual
  • Shared traditions of feeding people as part of the mourning ritual: signifying the continuity of life and of communal solidarity.
  • The importance colour plays as part of the process, ‘to symbolise both the grief and trauma related to death as well as the notion of ‘eternal life’ and ‘vitality’. ‘

Other cross-cultural aspects relate to the belief that the bereaved will maintain a bond with the deceased over time, marking the death each year; talking to and about the person; making meaning from the death of a loved one; wrapping community support around the person who has been bereaved.

Each society has its own values and institutions and so this impacts on how mourners display or don't display their grief and sorrow following the death of someone. Death can be something to fear and sit uncomfortably with people in some cultures; in Western Europe, amongst some white communities, it is not expected that people will get upset or cry, there is rather a low key reaction. In others, such as the Irish catholic community, there are more overt expressions of grief.

In communities with a mixture of European and non-European heritage, such as British Caribbean, there can be a much more celebratory aspect to the death and funeral of someone, such as the Nine Nights event which involves a week-long wake when family and friends come together (usually in the home) to share condolences and memories whilst singing songs and sharing food or have more of a party. The Nine Nights has its roots in African traditions and slavery - It's said to take place on the ninth night because African slaves believed it took nine nights for the spirit, or duppy, to arrive back home in Africa and find peace. Mourners can’t eat the feast until midnight, when the duppy has passed through.

This echos how many African communities approach mourning: through a celebration of the deceased person’s life. The celebration is attended by hundreds of people. They also consider a ‘good death’ to be one where where “friends and family rally around a person, befitting of their religious faith. It is one where there is no family tension and all can say goodbye”.

It appears that there are varying levels of comfort about death within communities and cultures and this then understandably impacts on the way that grieving is viewed and how publicly mourning takes place.

Grieving, mourning and funeral rites by religion/belief

This provides a general overview of the different faiths – there will be variations in each of these religions according to the school/sect/branch followed.

Community: Muslim

A good death means ‘you are surrounded by family members, by those who love you, those who are reciting for you, encouraging you to recite, let those be your final words.’

Core belief

  • View death as a transition, not an end - person moves on to an after-life
  • Extravagant expressions of grief are against the will of Allah

Post death

  • The body is washed and covered with a sheet by family members.
  • The hands are placed as if in prayer

Burial/cremation

  • Burial within 48 hours
  • Prayers at the funeral

Post funeral

  • All funeral attendees go to the house of the deceased; meal, socialising to support bereaved.

Mourning period

  • Varies
  • 3 days to 40 days

Community: Christians

“Brings the community together to accompany the dead on their spiritual journey”, primarily through physical togetherness.

Core belief

  • CE & Protestants – life after death
  • Roman Catholics: a person may be judged to go to Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory
  • Mourners pray for them to go to heaven

Post death

  • Body taken to funeral parlour
  • Vigil at home/funeral parlour
  • Casket may be open

Burial/cremation

  • Both service, prayers, songs, readings
  • Funeral mass or service
  • Followed by graveside service

Mourning period

  • 7 days

Community: Jewish

“A ‘good death’ is one where the dying person is accompanied by people who are able to say psalms and prayers”

Core belief

  • One should embrace life while accepting the inevitability of death

Post death

  • Ritual washing and dressing in shroud.
  • Watchers present until ceremony

Burial/cremation

  • Within 24 hours of death
  • Often held at graveside
  • Prayers

Post funeral

  • Visits to bereaved within the first 7 day period (Shiva)

Mourning period

  • 7 days up to a year

Community: Hindu

"…at minimum would have a cremation, religious songs at the deathbed, sacred water from the river Ganges to be given before death, and sacred chanting at the deathbed.”

Core belief

  • The soul may pass to another through reincarnation, depending on one’s karma
  • The soul sheds its body and ‘puts on’ another body (not necessarily human) in a cycle of re-birth until it reaches God

Post death

  • Vigil at home

Burial/cremation

  • Cremation asap - Called a ‘wake’
  • Wear white
  • Hymns, mantras offerings to ancestors and gods

Post funeral

  • Ceremony 10 or so days later at home in order to liberate the soul for its ascent into heaven
  • After the 13th day, public mourning ends in a large feast

Mourning period

  • 10-30 days
  • After this, only private personal grief remains

Community: Sikh

“is one in which relatives are able to conduct prayers and cremate the body soon after death."

Core belief

  • The soul uses the body in its journey back to God from where it came

Post death

  • Body taken to place of worship
  • Hymns are sung and prayers recited

Burial/cremation

  • Cremation
  • Hymns
  • Speeches
  • Prayer

Mourning period

  • A few weeks

Community: Buddhist

Core belief

  • View death as a transition, not an end
  • Buddhists believe that they live a succession of lives
  • Last rites
  • Acceptable to show grief

Post death

  • An altar is set up to display the deceased’s portrait, along with offerings of candles, incense, flowers, and fruit
  • An image of the Buddha is placed beside or in front of the altar

Burial/cremation

  • Both; wear white; walk with sticks to symbolize that grief has left them the need for support; chant or sing appropriate prayers; ring gongs or bells

Mourning period

  • 90 days

Community: Humanist/Atheist

The importance of local traditions and personal memories in shaping what counts as a good death (for example, being buried in a cherished place, or next to a loved one)

Core belief

  • They accept death as the natural and inevitable end to life
  • They do not believe in life after death, but rather that people ‘live on’ in other people’s memories of them

Burial/cremation

  • Burial or cremation
  • The funeral ceremony is intended to celebrate the life that was lived and properly honour that person’s life
  • Songs, music, poetry

Mourning period

  • None specified

References

Link to useful worksheets: https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-worksheets/grief/none

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