The chaos of death disturbs the peace of the living. This unsettling fact of life has proven to be a rich source of inspiration for human efforts to find order in disorder, meaning in suffering, eternity in finitude. Religion, culture, social structures, the vitality of these rudimentary elements of communal life depends upon ritually putting the dead body in its place, managing the relations between the living and the dead and providing explanations for the existence of death. – Gary Laderman – 2003 A melting pot is an accurate description of Americas cultural diversity.
Everywhere across the country many people from different countries and cultures have migrated to the United States. Some form subcultures or communities while others are dispersed and isolated. Over time, many of the ceremonies and traditions, such as funerals, associated with a particular culture have been influenced by or mingled with Euro-American customs, causing people to loose touch with the context of their own traditions. For example, some conform to American burial customs and adopt secular attitudes about bereavement, which tend to underestimate the power of grief and the impact of loss.
This is particularly true with younger generations born in the United States. Also, K uniquely American is the mass use of embalming, as it is the base of the American economic funeral industry. (Mitford V 1998, Introduction) However, many prideful people keep the traditions and customs of their indigenous cultures alive, retaining their distinct ethnic or religious traditions. This paper will compare the similarities and differences in funeral practices between two large populations and sub-cultures of the United States; African Americans and American Jews, and also how American influences have affected their traditional funeral customs.
In the past, when a person died no one asked, When should we schedule the funeral? or How much would you like to spend on a casket? Members of the community simply appeared and began preparing the body for burial and the mourners would provide comfort to the bereaved. Death itself has become something of a stranger because it used to be that death was an everyday occurrence of life, for example people did not live as long, higher infant mortality rates, etc. People usually died at home, surrounded by loved ones. Funerals, like weddings, were not invitational events, but community-wide gatherings.
But today, it is possible to reach the age of forty without ever attending a funeral or visiting a house of mourning. In addition, death and dying are removed from the flow of daily life as most people die in hospitals and nursing homes. Thus death comes as terrifying shock, leaving the bereaved unprepared and adrift. (Diamant – 1998, Page 4) The funeral service then, in any culture, is a social function in which the deceased is the guest of honor and the center of attention. A funeral service is a ceremony held in the presence of the body, with either an open or closed casket.
There is also a ritual called a memorial service. This is a service held after the body has been removed. It can be either a substitute for a funeral service or in addition to it. It performs much the same function as a funeral service but tends to have a more positive atmosphere, because it is focused on the virtues of the person who has died instead of on the dead body. (Morgan – 2001, Page 81) The funeral service, memorial service, or both may be followed by a committal service. A commitment, or committal service is a brief, optional service held at the graveside or in the chapel of a crematory.
It is usually in addition to a funeral or memorial service and is the occasion at which the immediate family and possibly a few close friends bid good-bye to the body. (Morgan – 2001, Page 81) With death we experience loss and with the loss, grief, which is the process by which loss is healed. Therefore no matter what the cultural beliefs or traditions, the funeral or some type of death ceremony is an important function, bringing together the grieving survivors and strengthening the bonds among them. The funeral also inspires a resurgence of the cultural ideals and values that are meaningful.
Humankind, from the earliest times, has practiced death ceremonies and procedures in great variety. Such procedures are important to the healing process, recognizing that death ceremonies and related customs are important in meeting the social and emotional needs of survivors. (Morgan – 2001, page 77) Therefore, whatever the cultural customs, funerals fulfill the following basic needs in dealing with the death of a loved one: ,X Reestablishing relationships: After a death in the family we are not quite the same people we were before.
We must therefore rediscover ourselves in a new set of relationships. This relates directly to the process of mourning. (Morgan – 2001, Page 78) For example, lets say a child dies suddenly, coming as a great shock to the family and community of friends and neighbors. A simple service is held just for the family. A few days later, the family members run into friends or neighbors who feel the need to convey sympathy, which then comes at the expense of unhappiness to themselves and of rubbing fresh salt in the wounds of the family.
Had the funeral service been open to all, the individual condolences could have been replaced by a single meeting, the relationships reestablished, and life resumed in a more normal way. ,X Identification: The ceremony can cultivate a sense of identity with the deceased. The survivors can be helped to recognize the that they have shared the persons life and that they are now, in their own lives, the custodians of the values that he or she lived by. In a sense, their lives can be a memorial. (Morgan – 2001, Page 78) X Affirmation of values: It is almost a universal experience that at time of death survivors are prone to think seriously of the meaning of life and to mediate on its values. Therefore, the ceremony should be used for the enrichment and refinement of life. (Morgan – 2001, Page 78) ,X Relief of Guilt V At a time of death, the surviving members of the family are commonly torn between their feelings of love and grief and the shock and revulsion they tend to feel in the presence of the dead body. It is normal, in this situation for them to recall their shortcomings with respect to the deceased and to reproach themselves.
This is a major factor in many costly and ostentatious funerals. One of the functions of death ceremonies is to gently and quietly remove this sense of guilt through the process of reaffirmation of the values of the deceased. Perhaps the strongest force in lifting the sense of guilt is the reacceptance that the survivors experience from their friends. (Morgan – 2001, page 79) ,X Rehabilitation: When an old person dies after a their health has declined, it is helpful to the survivors to have the memory of this person redirected to the better years of his or her life. (Morgan – 2001, Page 79) X Religious Observance: The occasion of death is an important time to deepen spiritual life, draw on the strength of religious experience and tradition, and unify a congregation. Services planned with the familys religious beliefs can help greatly in this process. (Morgan 2001, Page 79) ,X Emotional Support: A death in the family can leave the survivors feeling as though they have lost a part of themselves and it is common to experience intense loneliness and insecurity. The gathering of family and friends can be a great source of encouragement and strength. (Morgan – 2001, Page 79)
In the African American community death is very much an important aspect of culture. For an African Americans death is viewed not as a time of sadness, but a time to rejoice, for the deceased no longer has to endure the trials and tribulations of the earthly world. This does not mean that the deceased are not mourned or missed, but rather their lives are celebrated. Many African American funeral traditions and customs can be traced back to African roots of the Bakongo and the LaDogaa tribes, which have been passed down from generation to generation in the form of expressions, sayings, superstitions, religious beliefs, and music. North by South Web Site – 2003) Many of these stories and superstitions are still believed today in the United States, particularly in the South. For example, the belief between the distinction between the body and spirit, and the existence of a separate world of the dead, transferred easily to Christian beliefs of Americans. Other distinctly African American funeral customs are rooted in their history as slaves and from the severe economic and social limitations placed upon blacks for many, many years afterwards.
The conditions of slavery rendered the funeral an especially significant occasion for African Americans, who savored it as one of the few opportunities given to slaves to gather and socialize. (Center for Historic Preservation Web Site – 2003) Funerals emphasized the spiritual rather than the physical aspects of death and presented it as a natural transition from one life to the next. Therefore services usually took on a hopeful, almost celebratory tone as family and friends rejoiced in the fact that a loved one was going home to be with the Lord.
Thus, in the African American community when someone died, a series of events took place. First, all family members (not just immediate family members) and friends were immediately notified because the celebration of the deceased life was a community event. The whole community practically shut down as friends and relatives arrived to console the family of the deceased. (Center for Historic Preservation Web Site V 2003) Economics were a secondary concern to the type or scale of grandness of the funeral itself, because the entire community was required to contribute to the expenses, food and necessities of the family.
An old belief was that the dead could not be buried on a rainy day, as the sun was a positive sign that the heavens are open and welcoming in order to receive the deceased. Rain was a sign that the devil had come for the deceased soul, so burial would be held off until a sunny day. (The Mariners’ Museum Web Site – 2002) There was also a belief that the dead should be buried with their faces turning west.
This comes from an old African tradition of facing the same way as the sun is facing when it rises, but it combined with a Christian tradition as well – the slaves read in the Bible that the angel Gabriel would come from the east, and so they wanted to be facing in the same direction as Gabriel did when he came at the end of time. (The Mariners’ Museum Web Site V 2002) Slaves often buried their dead with food, in order to sustain the slave on his trip to the next world. This practice came straight from Africa, as did another unique custom, that of placing broken earthenware on the new grave.
The pieces of earthenware were used to symbolize the broken body of the dead slave. (The Mariners’ Museum Web Site – 2002) Another tradition slaves often insisted on was that the funerals were held at night. This practice came from West Africa, but it also served a practical purpose on the plantation: at night, slaves from neighboring plantations could sneak away to join in the funeral celebration. (The Mariners’ Museum Web Site – 2002) Traditionally there was a five to seven days of a mourning period before the actual funeral.
This is known as a wake and At this time, close friends of the family pay respects to the family and view the body. This is a time when everyone gathers and eats food cooked by the family members, and shares in memories of the deceased. (North by South Web Site – 2003) The wake was held in a funeral home, house of worship, or the familys home. Coins were placed on the eyes of the dead to keep them closed. However, coins were also sometimes placed in the hands as the deceased persons contribution to the community of ancestors, or perhaps, as a token for admittance to the spirit world.
For the same purpose, coins are also always placed at the gravesite. (The Center for Historic Preservation Web Site – 2003) Occasionally, they also allowed blacks to receive accolades for accomplishments not safely recognized publicly during life. In the first half of the nineteenth century, for example, the clandestine work of African Americans who served as conductors on the Underground Railroad or provided schooling for blacks was often made public upon their deaths and commemorated in a descriptive epitaph. (The Center for Historic Preservation Web Site – 2003)
Burial associations, which gained popularity among African-Americans during the late nineteenth century, served as a kind of insurance that helped offset the cost of funerals. For a weekly premium of 25 cents, burial associations agreed to provide a casket, burial garments, and funeral services, K thus fulfilling the twofold need of most African Americans to practice frugality while ensuring their loved one could be put away nicely. ” (The Center for Historic Preservation Web Site – 2003) Fraternal organizations for men and women also played a significant role for African Americans in both life and death.
Blacks belonged to affiliate chapters of traditionally white organizations such as the Masons and the Elks, as well as to local African-American fraternities such as the Circle of Liberia. It was not unusual for such organizations to conduct special burial services for their members, a practice that continues today. (The Center for Historic Preservation Web Site – 2003) Customs related to death and burial often reflected the resourcefulness and resilience of the black community, as well as the challenges it faced.
African-American funeral homes and mortuary businesses, for example, which appeared for the first time in the early decades of the twentieth century, were products of the black self-help movement that emerged during segregation. Along with the church and the school, the funeral home became a center of the black community. The funeral home was one of the first black-owned businesses whose entrepreneurial owners were willing to perform a service that whites were unwilling to offer to blacks. Funeral home directors, generally well educated and well respected, were considered leaders in the community.
The local population depended on them to provide a myriad of services, from death benefits to investment advice, as well as to contribute generously to community functions and needs. (The Center for Historic Preservation Web Site – 2003) Since the turn of the century, increasing educational and economic opportunities have gradually transformed African American burial rites. As growing numbers of African Americans reached middle-class status, their mourning and funeral traditions began to reflect more closely the artistic traditions and symbolism of white funeral customs.
Predictably, more elaborate monuments and tombstones indicated the increasing affluence of some members of the African-American community. Anglo-American symbols and motifs, such as the cherub, the dove, or the gates of heaven, began to appear in black cemeteries. Some cemeteries even developed a spatial hierarchy, with the community’s most influential members buried in the cemetery’s most prominent or desirable location. (The Center for Historic Preservation Web Site – 2003)
With the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, African-American funerary practices became more mainstream, changes in specific funeral rituals that tend to be more secular versus religious. For example, activities of funeral services took on a shorter, less spontaneous format, and funeral homes began to offer printed programs. Contemporary funerary practices also tend to place less emphasis than before on the spiritual aspects of death and many of the funeral services are held in the funeral home rather than the church.
The music is more contemporary, for example songs like Frank Sinatras My Way or other more current songs have replaced the traditional playing of Amazing Grace. (The Center for Historic Preservation Web Site – 2003) The wake has also changed. For example instead of a five to seven daylong wake, it is now only two or three days. The wake itself may also include a video presentation of the life of the deceased with her or his favorite music playing in the background. The religious items historically placed in the casket have been replaced with the favorite items of the deceased, such as compact discs.
Alterations in the outward rituals, however, have not decreased the importance and the sacredness of the burial in African-American life. The funeral home continues to play a central role in the community, providing such important services as insurance, counseling, and investment planning. The activities surrounding death and dying continue to possess cultural significance for African Americans and to serve as a galvanizing force in the black community. (The Center for Historic Preservation Web Site – 2003) To be sure, there is no one set of practices that apply broadly to the entire African-American community.
There is great diversity based on region, class, religion, and personal preferences. This is also true of American Jews for Judaism, just like African American traditions, has many laws and customs regarding funerals and mourning practices. Like African American funeral traditions, Judaism’s response to death comes from a long history (about 3000 years old) and similarly from the onset of death, to the funeral and burial, Jews reflect on life rather than mourn death itself as well. Two basic principles govern the Jewish approach to death and mourning.
The first is called Kavod Ha-Met (meaning to honor the dead). It is extremely important to treat the body with respect and care from the time of death until the burial is completed. The second is the view that death is a Natural Process: Death is considered a natural part of the life cycle and the body is returned to the earth whence it came. Hence everything associated with the body for burial is that which will decompose with the body, facilitating its return from ashes to ashes, dust to dust. (Scheinerman – 2003) Traditional Jewish funeral customs include the following steps: ,X Mitzvot of Bikur Cholim, the act of kindness or visiting the sick ,X Kavod Ha-Met, honoring the dead ,X Shomer, religious watchman praying over the deceased ,X Chevra Kadisha, Holy Society who prepares the body for burial ,X Taharah, purification ,X Takhirkhin, burial shrouds ,X Service and Prayers ,X Eretz Yisroel, earth from Israel ,X Shiva and Yahrzeit, remembrance (Techner – 1998)
Much like with African American traditions, generations ago, when the Jewish customs and traditions surrounding death and grieving were formulated, hospitals, extended-care homes, hospices and other similar institutions did not exist where death was commonplace. Rather, people died in their homes, frequently the same homes in which they were born. It was standard practice to transport the deceased directly from the home to the cemetery. (Techner – 1998) There were no funeral homes to contact or government agencies to notify.
When death did occur, most often the family was there for support, as much as for each other as for the deceased. This is very similar to the African American funeral traditions and like them, this is also why Jewish funerals were and still are conducted as soon as possible following death; there is no reason to wait. Thus when death occurs, the focus is to honor the deceased. (Techner – 1998) Judaism equates a dead body with that of a damaged Torah scroll, no longer fit for its intended use, but still deserving reverence for the holy purpose it once served.
This is why, from death to burial, the body is never left unattended and the soul is prayed for by a religious watchman … This ancient custom has provided invaluable comfort to survivors. (Techner – 1998) Another Jewish custom or law that is different from African American funeral traditions is the definition of a mourner. For African Americans, a mourner is anyone saddened by the loss of the deceased and who has come to pay their respects. For Jews the definition of a mourner is: father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife. Other relatives are not considered “mourners” unless they are the next of kin. Louchheim – 1997) Also, the tearing of a black ribbon or garment prior to the funeral is traditional. It allows the mourner the opportunity to express anguish and anger. This tear is an outward sign of grief and mourning and signifies that the mourner is confronting death head-on. The prevailing custom is to tear the ribbon on the mourner’s right side, but on the left side (closest to the heart) for someone mourning a father or mother. (Louchheim – 1997) Also in ancient days, the family immediately contacted members of a Holy Society called Chevra Kadisha when a death occurred.
The Holy Society’s role was to prepare the body for burial according to traditional Jewish practices. (Techner – 1998) These individuals were truly performing an act of kindness called Mitzvot, because their actions were performed out of the kindness of their heart, with no concern or regard for reciprocation. In addition to the physical cleansing and preparation of the body for burial, the Chevra Kadisha also recited required prayers asking God for forgiveness for any sins that may have been committed by the person who died.
Prayers are also asked for God to receive the soul of the deceased, guard the person and grant them eternal peace. (Techner – 1998) It is the start of these prayers, called the Kaddish, which starts the official funeral services. A parent, if they are alive, recite the Kaddish for eleven months and by other family members for thirty days following the death. Today, rather than the Holy Society, Kaddish is usually said by the son. If there are no sons, family members can designate someone else to it for the deceased. It is considered a privilege for the deceased soul to have someone say Kaddish for them. Soudakoff – 2003). After the initial prayer is said for the deceased, which is required for purification called Taharah, a 2000-year-old tradition of being wrapped in burial shrouds, called Takhirkhin are implemented, preceding the placement of the deceased in the casket. (Techner – 1998) This tradition originated in the first century when a Rabbi named Gamaliel asked that he be buried in a very simple garment, stating that he came into this world like everyone else and he should return to God in the same manner. Rabbi Gamaliel’s act of unselfishness brought true democracy to Jewish tradition and death.
Wealthy or not, all are created equal before God; what determines their reward is not what they could afford to wear on the outside, but the person they were on the inside. (Techner – 1998) Unlike traditional African American funeral traditions, Jews did not typically have a wake. It is tradition for the burial to take place as soon as possible, even on the same day of the death. It was considered disrespectful to keep the body from being buried as soon as possible. His soul has returned to God, but his body is left to linger in the land of the living. That would be considered a matter of great shame. Soudakoff – 2003). However today, it is common to have a one-day viewing of the deceased because unlike long ago, when families lived close together in small communities, burial could be completed by sundown of the day of death (the Jewish day begins at sundown and ends the following sundown, hence burial was completed on the day of death). Today, there are often relatives living far away and the burial may be delayed for one day or even two days to accommodate these relatives. Also against traditional Jewish law, is cremation because the K Torah makes it clear that man must return to the dust. Trepp V 1980, Page 329) However todays reformed Jews do not necessarily uphold this tradition. Also traditional and still applied today is the fact that only K wood coffins are used in Jewish funerals because the Judaism belief is that the body does not have to be preserved, because as the body decays, the soul ascends to Heaven. (Soudakoff – 2003) Today, if the family is associated with a well-organized congregation, they will for the family, make the standard arrangements with the funeral home to pick a simple pine coffin. (Greenberg V 1983, Page 289) This spares the family from the task of having to do it themselves.
Traditionally, as a further symbol of Jews’ oneness with God and Israel, the Chevra Kadisha used to place ground soil from Israel, called Eretz Yisroel, into the casket. It does not mean the person will be buried in Israel, rather that their body will always be in contact with the Holy Land. (Techner – 1998) Also traditionally Jews were always to be buried in the ground. Today however, it is not uncommon to see Jewish cemeteries that have mausoleums and not all deceased have soil from Israel available to them to put in the casket. However in most cases, a Rabbi can provide this.
The funeral service may take place in the synagogue or at the graveside. In many communities, a simple graveside funeral is the custom. There is no Jewish requirement for a synagogue funeral service. Any Jewish person can be buried in a Jewish cemetery. In certain cases, however, if one marries out of the faith or committed suicide, the person would be buried in a separate part of the cemetery. (Scheinerman – 2003) At the burial itself, pallbearers carry the casket to the grave, K a custom dating back to biblical times when Jacob’s children carried him to the grave.
Seven stops are made while Psalm 91 is recited. The stops represent the seven stages of life. (Louchheim – 1997) It is traditional for the mourners to symbolically complete the burial by shoveling dirt into the grave, to symbolize the last commandment they are able to perform on behalf of the deceased. The back of a shovel is used for this purpose, signifying that this act of using the shovel is different from every other occasion of using a shovel. (Scheinerman – 2003) This tradition is still upheld today, even in non-Orthodox families.
It is customary to place a bowl of water with a cup at the entrance of the home for those returning from the cemetery. This is a tradition from the early post-Talmudic period. It is done “to dispel the spirits of uncleanness” which cling to one’s person, these being “the demons that follow them home. ” It can be seen metaphorically as a ritual cleansing from a place of death to a place of life. The mystical custom is to pour water over each hand three times. (Louchheim – 1997) For the next seven days following the burial, the immediate family will observe a mourning period called Shiva.
The Shiva candle is lit immediately upon returning from the cemetery, starting the Shiva period. During this week, any family member and friends can come to comfort the mourners, regardless of their religious beliefs. It is customary to bring food and at the first meal after the funeral, mourners eat a hard-boiled egg and something round to indicate that life is like a circle and the mourners have no words to describe their loss. (Soudakoff – 2003) Traditionally, for thirty days after the death, mourners do not attend weddings, bar/bat-mitzvahs or other events that have music.
The children of the deceased do not attend for one year. They also do not shave or cut their hair. Due to American influences, these traditions are not always implemented today; it depends on how orthodox the family is. Unorthodox Jewish American families typically do not wear the traditional all black clothing for a whole year and many do get haircuts and shave. My own father did not dress in mourning clothes after his fathers funeral and he did get a haircut and shave within that same year.
However, still traditional is that on the one-year anniversary of the death, the mourners will attend a service in a Synagogue and recite the Kaddish and then go to the cemetery itself to perform what is called an unveiling. The unveiling is when the grave marker is uncovered and the mourning period comes to an end. In the Torah, we read that Jacob set up a marker for Rachel (Genesis 35:20). Hence Jewish graves are marked with the name of the deceased. Rabban Gamaliel’s instructions for burial emphasized equality and simplicity and thus large, ornate stone markers were discouraged.
In fact, stone markers were not normative until the Middle Ages; Rabbi Solomon Adret (13th century, Spain) prescribed the use of a matzeivah (burial marker). (Scheinerman – 2003) These days, it is traditional to mark a grave with a stone monument or metal plate on the ground, as it more customary in American cemeteries, even if they are Jewish. This is generally done some time during the first year, prior to the Yahrzeit, which is the first year anniversary of the death, but traditions differ widely. Some communities feel it is important to unveil the marker prior to the Yahrzeit; others do not do so until the Yahrzeit has passed.
In my own family, we do it on the exact one-year anniversary, with a graveside ceremony. The ceremony for unveiling itself is brief and usually involves close family members and friends, who gather at the grave to remember the deceased and honor his or her memory. When people visit the grave, the often leave a small stone on the marker as a sign that they have visited. This has been explained as a reflection of the eternality of the soul: Just as the stone lasts forever, so too does the soul live forever. Scheinerman – 2003) Therefore the Jewish way of death K contains within its strictures an abiding sensitivity to the living V the survivor, the bereaved, the mourner, the grief-stricken. (Greenberg V 1983, Page 287) Thus, two distinct yet similar cultures in America share similarities in their history, which have affected their funeral customs. For example, both African American and Jewish funerals customs have roots that trace back to their homelands and their history as slaves. However differences, such as religion and ethnicity, have led to some distinctions between these cultures as well.
For example, African Americans used to have up to a seven-day wake, while traditionally Jews had no wake at all. Since most are usually bereft to one degree or another while attending a funeral, it might be hard to see past the grief and celebrate the deceaseds life, but a traditional African American or Jewish funeral is truly a celebration, an acknowledgment of gifts that were given to those mourning, as a result of the life they are memorializing. The funeral is rich in history and filled with religious or cultural significance that should make people proud of their heritage.