Emma Carr, Zhentao Chen, Cat Ton
December 14, 2018
[0:00]Let’s start with a few questions. What comes to your mind when you think of funerals? Perhaps people wearing all black in a funeral home, gathering in front of a wooden casket, with one part opened for viewing the body? What’s on the other side? Heaven, hell, the unknown, or nothing at all? And what happens after a funeral? How does someone grieve?
[0:30]Perspectives on death vary greatly across the world. The dying process, and perception of the afterlife, is different in other cultures. Everywhere, and across different eras, there is an astounding variety of traditions, beliefs, and practices in death.
We interviewed a few Grinnell students from different cultural backgrounds who have all had some experience in this matter to hear about the traditions, meanings and impacts of their own cultures’ death practices.
[1:00]This is Premortem, the show where we get intimate with death, before it arrives.
From the interviews, we found that many cultural beliefs about afterlife are influenced by religion. For example, Yuki, who is using a pseudonym, is from Japan, and says that Shintoism has influenced her cultural beliefs.
[1:30]In Shintoism, we usually have a million Gods, including our ancestors who are our patron gods and protect us though they are invisible for us. So from the thought of Shintoism, the funerals are not so saddening because it protects us.
[2:00]Zhentao, who is from China, also cited influences from Buddhism and Taoism on his cultural beliefs. These religions have contributed to his culture’s beliefs about reincarnation, as well as a parallel world.
Our dead loved ones, they are having their happy life in another world, which we call “Jileshijie”, which means the happiest world ever. [2:40]We tend to believe that they’re still alive there. They have everything that we have here: they have houses, they have cars, they have money, they have social status, everything. And basically, yes, we believe that they’re still alive, but just we can’t see them anymore, we cannot talk to them anymore, and they’re just not here in our world, but they’re still somewhere.
[3:10]There is a great deal of variation not only in how people view death, but also in ways that people provide care–or don’t–for their loved ones approaching death.
In the United States, death is very institutionalized–over sixty percent of people die in hospitals, and nearly twenty percent die in other institutions such as nursing homes or assisted livings (American Psychological Association 2018). [3:40]End-of-life care is very medicalized, with death often being seen as something to avoid or fight off, regardless of quality of life. Even conversation about death or dying is frequently avoided (Hetzler and Dugdale 2018). However, this is not the case in many other cultures.
[4:00]Some of the hospitals would let the loved ones, their family, to take them back to home and to serve them, to clean them up and prepare for death, for a brand new life
[4:30]Attitudes to the end-of-life moment is different too. In Mexican culture, the time of dying is a time to confess one’s sins to a priest and bury the hatchet.
If you know somebody is dying, and you have some type of grievance for them or some type of feud that you had with him in the past, it’s like it’s your responsibility to go and say:“I forgive. You can die in peace.” [5:00]But that’s the idea. That’s a weight on the shoulder that people who are still alive feel.
That’s Keven, whose family is from Northern Mexico. For him, religion not only influences cultural beliefs but also funerary practices. He told us about one practice called novenario, where relatives and close friends pray every day for the dead for 9 consecutive days after burial.
[5:38]A lot of it is just rooted in Catholicism. Many of our loved ones are, we believe, are stuck in purgatory. In purgatory is almost like a constant state of almost like suffering. What’s the word I would use, guilt.
[6:09]So it all stems from the Bible from like Peter renouncing Jesus more than three times. In so those 9 days of prayer is just wishing their loved one who just departed a easy transition from life to death. And after the 9 days are up, everybody who came to the funeral meets for the 9th day does a prayer and there’s a meal. And the meal is thanking all those who paid respects to the dead.
[6:43]Funerary prayer ceremonies in China are no less elaborate.
The funerals in China, especially in my culture, is kind of a mixed up thing. They have monks in the funeral, and they also have a different kind of Monk called “Daoshi”, which is in Taoism. [7:13]So they kind of mix up those two kinds of monks together, do a thing called “Chaodu” which means they will read out loud some, sort of, like Bibles in Buddhism and Taoism. They kind of think that this serves to help the loved one to have a happy life, I guess, in another world.
[7:40]I think it’s a ceremony for the god to know that their dying loved ones are good people, they are kind and they’ve never done a bad thing in their life. That’s what the kind of praying thing works. [8:00]It takes like several days to completely finish a funeral and during the 15 days the praying stuff for the monks never stopped, the music never stopped. They kind of believed this whole thing serves to prepare the ceremony for their dead loved ones entering a brand new life in another world.
[8:30]There would be several time periods. The first would be seven days, people tend to believe that their dead loved ones will come back at the first seven days. They will come back as a soul or a ghost. They tend to believe that that ghost would talk to them in their dreams. And then the 15th day. [9:00]On that day people also tend to believe their dead loved ones will come back that day, and it’s another chance for them to meet them again. Yeah that’s the two time periods after the death.
Sometimes, funerary practices are influenced by geographical conditions. In Japan, due to the lack of land-space for burial, cremation remains the most popular practice, with the rate of cremation in funerary rituals nearing 100 percent. (Doughty, 2017, 175). [9:36]Through time, a unique tradition was formed for family members to take care of their loved ones one last time. It is called kotsuage, where family members use chopsticks to gather the deceased person’s cremated bone fragments into their urn (Doughty, 2017, 169-171), starting from the bones in the feet to the bones in the head to help them walk upright in the afterlife (Doughty, 2014, 30). Then they place the urn in their house for some time.
[10:08]The family usually only spend 49 days with the ash of the dead people and then just kind of say goodbye and say thank you to them. And after 49 days, we put their grave into the nearest Temple. [10:38]After we put the dead people’s ash into the temple, we usually make a little kind of house in our house. And we usually pray to dead people and ancestors to wish our happy life. [11:08]We usually give meals for them at the little house because we believe that the soul and body is different and that dying is about the bodies death. So if people die, we don’t think that the soul is dead we believe that the soul is living is staying with us in our family, our house, so it’s staying with us, so we give them meals for the soul.
[11:44]We actually also do that in Vietnam. Just the part where you give fruits for the people who died, I’m not sure if the belief is the same, but in every holiday or the anniversary of the person’s death then we would also offer them fruits. [12:10]There’s also a practice where we burn paper money, and paper houses, paper phones, paper things, for the dead people to use in the afterlife. Spiritually it provides people with the sense of comfort to know that their loved ones are living well on the other side.
[12:40]Like the “little house” Yuki mentioned, the Vietnamese altar provides a way for people to communicate with and care for their loved ones and grieve, even after a long time after death. Phillip, who is from Vietnam, shared his family’s tradition with the altar after his aunt’s death and the impact it had on him.
And every year on the lunar calendar, we will have like a reunion of the whole family, normally the whole family. [13:10]We will eat to remember her. We would gather to cook, to talk. And just you know hang out like that in a very very simple but meaningful way. And on those occasions, when I light up the incense or when I you know attended those kind of big family gatherings, I would be hit very hard by memories of her when she was alive and what she did to help me because my family was very close to her. [13:45]It plays an important role in not only helping me remember the person, but also relieving the pain that was associated with her passed away.
For Mexico, the altar is also a place for the dead to be remembered, to return and enjoy what they loved in life.
Unadat, which is an altar. And it’s just pictures of your loved ones and oftentimes you’ll put what that individual loved in life next to their picture. [14:15]And that’s just for the Day of the Dead. It’s believed that they come back in spirit. Or in some places, they even believe that they come back as like a person, but like you don’t know them. There’s just a lot of superstition, but the idea is that they come back. And if you leave them what they loved, for example, if i died, my family would Chicken wings because I love chicken wings in my life. And that’s pretty much that. [14:45]And that’s just remembering them, and remembering them in life instead of death.
While each culture approaches death with a different perspective, and has different beliefs and traditions surrounding the afterlife, they all seek to treat the dead with respect and remembrance. [15:15]After all, death is universal, so although different cultures approach it differently, they all address it in some way. This shows that we should embrace the reality of death and talk about it more, because caring for our dying or deceased loved ones and coming to terms with death is an integral part to being alive.
[15:45]This podcast was co-written by Cat Ton, Emma Carr and Zhentao Chen.The script was narrated by Cat Ton. Audio was edited by Emma Carr. Thanks to our research sources, which we will post links to on our website.
To return to Premortem, click here.
2018. “End-of-Life Care Fact Sheet.” American Psychological Association. Retrieved December
2018. “The Final Year: Visualizing End Of Life.” Arcadia. Retrieved December 14, 2018 (https://www.arcadia.io/final-year-visualizing-end-life/).
Doughty, Caitlin. 2017. From Here To Eternity. 1st ed. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
Doughty, Caitlin. 2014. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Hetzler, Peter T. and Lydia S. Dugdale. 2018. “How Do Medicalization and Rescue Fantasy
Prevent Healthy Dying?” AMA Journal of Ethics 20(8)E766-773. Doi:10.1001/amajethics. 2018.766.
Keven Hernandez. 2018. In person interview with Zhentao Chen, Grinnell College, Nov 27.
MacPherson, Andrew, and Ravi B. Parikh. 2017. Washington Post. Retrieved December 14, 2018 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/most-people-want-to-die-at-home-but-many-land-in-hospitals-getting-unwanted-care/2017/12/08/534dd652-ba74-11e7-a908-a3470754bbb9_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.82ffd35831ae).
Phillip Le. 2018. In person interview with Cat Ton, Grinnell College, Nov 28.
Yuki. 2018. In person interview with Cat Ton, Grinnell College, Nov 26.
Zhentao Chen. 2018. In person interview with Emma Carr, Grinnell College, Nov 29.
https://www.jamendo.com/track/1434776/flowing-air “Flowing Air” 2017 Mattia Vlad Morleo, Jamendo Music.
https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/music “Kiss the Sky” Aakash Gandhi. Youtube Free Music Audio Library.
Ren, Tongxiang. “Birds Saluting the Phoenix” (A song widely used in Chinese funerals. It sounds merry, but it actually tells a story of the death of a phoenix. The music imitates the birds gathering around the phoenix so that it sounds merry.) 2002. http://music.163.com/song/25917898/?userid=94365833. NetEase Music