by Harold Ivan Smith, DMin, FT
It used to be that to know about, understand or appreciate grief in other countries, you had to go and see for yourself. I learned that when I went to Hanoi to lecture at Bach Mai Hospital. Every day funerals take place in its inner courtyard. Funeral music, played on Asian stringed instruments, penetrates the hospital grounds. While there, I thought it would be a great photo to get my picture with the director of mortuary services and a casket. He demurred.
“Oh, don’t be shy. I want your picture with me.” He demurred more intensely. Finally, it occurred to me that reluctance was a cultural signal. He was not having a bad hair day. Photos with caskets are not done in Hanoi!
I put two and two together and concluded: superstition!
However, the reality was that I was being culturally insensitive. I began that day with a serious faux pas.
Unfortunately, some early observers of grief in non-American environments were less than objective. Some branded a nation or a tribe’s traditions as “pagan,” “heathen” or, more politely, “bizarre.”
Now, grief traditions that seem “beyond the American norm” are just around the corner, perhaps, even in your neighborhood. In fact, the religious and ethnic diversity in the workplace have challenged some who have attended a colleague’s visitation or funeral.
Significant change occurred after the passage in 1965 of the Immigration and Nationality Act which made possible for “the world” to immigrate to us.” The act removed the quotas which favored immigration from Northern Europe and facilitated the reunification of families. One direct result was a dramatic rise in immigrants from Asia and Africa. Since 1965, millions of legal immigrants have resettled not just in urban areas but also in small towns and rural communities. Initially, immigrants—the first generation–clung to cultural traditions insisting, “This is the way we bury and mourn our dead.” In essence, “This is the way we honor our dead.” “This is the way we do grief!”
Given Mexican immigration, this is reflected in the celebration of Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead which welcomes back the souls of their deceased relatives for a brief reunion that includes food, drink and celebration. Festivities on November 1 and November 2, overlap with the Catholic and liturgical Christian protestant celebrations of “All Saint’s Day” and “All Soul’s Day.” Similarly, in south Florida, given the large Cuban-American population, funerals may blend Catholicism and the Cuban religion Santería.
As a grief specialist I have encountered remnants of many “foreign” traditions in a variety of places: funeral homes, in the hospital where I served on the teaching faculty, and in my classroom at the university.
How can we respond graciously to funeral traditions that are not part of our way of “doing” ritual and grief?
LISTEN. We honor the religious and cultural understandings of this particular griever or grievers. For example, I may have dealt with Muslims in grief before but I have not dealt with this particular Muslim griever. What does this griever believe?
SET ASIDE EXPECTATIONS. In the US funerals begin at a stated time, perhaps 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. or 2 p.m., although increasingly at night. By working with one Asian-American family I learned that, that although the service began at the announced time, individuals arrived throughout the funeral service.
This family’s tradition required that individuals approach the casket, light incense, and bow three times. From where I sat at the front of the chapel, I monitored the family’s reactions as, in my perception, latecomers “disrupted” the service. Finally, I slipped to the family and asked, “Is it okay that the late arrivers continue to approach the casket? Or should I tell the directors to stop late arrivals at the door.”
“Oh no,” the widow said. “But tell them to lay off the incense! I can hardly breathe in here.” (As I slipped back to my seat I wondered just how I would tell late arrivals to “lay off the incense.”)
DO NOT ASSUME. In working with one Asian-American family I made a huge error in meeting with the family to plan the service. I assumed they were secular Buddhists wanting a traditional American service. Later, as I left the funeral home, I noticed they were huddled in the parking lot talking. I nodded, got in my car and drove home. However, I could not shake the feeling that something was wrong.
The funeral director called the next morning and said, “We’d better have another planning meeting. The family is not happy.” I drove to the funeral home. Before I walked into the conference room the director “explained” the family’s distress.
I took a deep breath then walked into the conference room where the family was waiting. I took the initiative.
“I need to apologize. I assumed, inaccurately, that you were Buddhist and wanted a secular celebration of the life. I should have asked you what you wanted. I realize that I have offended you. (They were United Methodists.) I am more than willing to let the director find someone who will meet you without assumptions. I will step out of the room and let you talk among yourselves. Again, I apologize for being so insensitive.”
“No, do not leave,” the oldest son respond. “You did not offend us. You just did not know what we were thinking.” I sat down and listened closely to what they believed would honor their loved one, a distinguished businessman in the community.
The morning of the funeral I arrived at the funeral home, as my habit, early. This time the funeral director was distressed. “Go in there and do something!” She explained that a man had arrived and had “taken over.” “I cannot work him!”
“Who is he? Is he family?”
“Just go in there and do something.” Ah, there was that expectation. I walked into the chapel expecting it to be arranged as it had been for every funeral I had conducted there. Immediately, I found myself in a “learning opportunity.” The family had hired a Feng sui specialist and he was now “in charge” of making the service meet their cultural expectations.
The head of this family had immigrated to the United States fifty years earlier, and his family in chasing and achieving the American dream was “American” to the core. But, given the family’s prominence in the community, death had changed family priorities. They wanted modified Asian traditions.
The service was beautiful and meaningful. The family was pleased. And I learned a lot from them.
We arrived at the cemetery in zero degrees. At the grave, as I conducted the committal, I was cold. In fact, I assumed everyone was cold and no one would linger at the gravesite. The limousine would take us back to the funeral home. Traditional pattern.
“Ah, we would like to honor our ancestor’s graves,” the oldest son informed me. (He did not ask.) I responded with a puzzled, “Okay….”
The son explained that after his father had become established, he brought his aging parents “over” from China. They were buried in this same cemetery. The family wanted to take flowers from the father’s grave and respectfully place them on the grandparents’ graves. This spontaneous request seemed do-able.
After I asked, “Where are they buried?” the conversation got interesting because the cemetery looked a little “different” from their memories and from where the father’s grave was.
I instructed the driver to drive slowly along the twisting roadway until family members might spot the grave. Fortunately, that happened soon. The driver stopped and the family and I got out. We placed the flowers at their grandparent’s grave. In zero weather. This was important to the family. I had never had that request before or since.
Why was that important? Small things, or incidents, in a funeral, memorial service or a “celebration of life” can go wrong and derail the funeral experience AND the grief experience, particularly if the family blames someone for the error. Dr. J. William Worden insists, “Anything that distracts from the grief complicates the grief.” Leaving a name out of a family member can be a huge distraction as I have learned or trying to appease feuding members of first and second families.
DO NOT JUDGE. Generally, I follow this principle: “If the family wants it and we can do it, we will do it.” I assume there is a narrative that would explain a particular family request. Recently, I conducted service for an elderly individual who practiced a Southern American religious tradition; the children, however, practiced Catholicism. So we worked to accommodate.
ACCOMMODATE. Due to the growth of economic opportunities in the South, many immigrant families packed their customs and traditions in their luggage and crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. I received an “Ah, we have a problem, Houston” phone call from a funeral home. Traditionally, in that part of the South, there was at least one night of “visitation” or “calling hours” before the day of the funeral—if not two nights.
“And,” I responded, “the problem would be…?”
“This family—Vietnamese—wants seven nights of visitation. Seven nights!”
Again I responded, “And the problem is…”
“We’ve never had seven nights of visitation. Two at the most.”
“Is this is the first Vietnamese-American family that you have served? Do you want to serve more Vietnamese-American families?” There was a pause.
“Then do seven nights of visitation. This is their tradition. And if you offer hospitality to this family and to their tradition your funeral home will be honored.” The funeral home later became annoyed because on several nights no one came. I explained, “Yes, but you provided an opportunity for individuals to walk through your front door to pay their respects. You followed the family’s lead.”
Admittedly, the funeral home could have chosen a “This is the way we always do things.”
READ. Fortunately, helpful information on cultural funeral nuances can be found with a few clicks on line. One excellent resource is How to Be How to Be A Perfect Stranger (6th Edition): The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook by Stuart M. Matlins and Arthur J. Magida (6th edition) available at Amazon.com.
Unfortunately, sometimes, family members say in my grief groups, “I wish we had….” And tiny regrets can be like tiny pebbles inside one’s shoes.
Through “learning experiences” I have developed respect for families wanting to do “right” for their deceased loved ones. You, too, can make a difference with grievers who come bearing different traditions and understandings.
2023 January 2