Cultural differences in funerals

Death is one of the most universal experiences, but it is one that each culture and, perhaps more importantly, denomination approaches distinctly.
Devona Walker, Staff Writer Published: June 29, 2008
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Death is one of the most universal experiences, but it is one that each culture and, perhaps more importantly, denomination approaches distinctly. For Irish-Catholics there is the wake. For some American Indian tribes, full participation in the grieving process could be a ritual hair cutting or a procession to a hilltop. In some cultures people often choose to grieve in private.

Some tribes might celebrate a loved one's passing with an annual celebration. For others, even the very mention of the dead person's name is believed to bring bad luck.

“American Indians are very different,” said Blue Clark, who holds a PhD in history and is a member of the Muscogee Tribe. “Death, of course, is a universal experience and it's remembered in a variety of ways.”

Communities find varying ways to come together and provide assistance for the grieving family.

“They provide food, assistance. They might finish putting up a barn. Then they would hold some sort of service, be it in an American Indian Church or a ceremonial realm,” Clark said. “But American Indian tribes tend to remain isolated. They want to grieve personally and privately. There is less of a public funeral process. They want to be closer to home before and after the funeral.”

Many American Indian religions are monotheistic. But they often believe in lesser Gods or spirits. The American Indian interpretation of the afterlife tends to be more literal and earth-based than in Christianity.

“Some American Indians will paint the deceased using tribal or clan colors so the spirit would be recognized in the afterlife by other tribal members,” Clark said.

“It's part of the natural process and existence. We come into this world by the way of the creator. And our existence is directly responsible to that creator. We have to answer for our activities to that creator. Some would say there are different souls occupying one body, some of those souls might occupy the place where the person died. If not properly prepared for going into the afterlife, they might stay around and do mischief.”

Deacon Joe Forgue of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Oklahoma City spent 12 years as chaplain at the federal prison in El Reno. He counseled dozens navigating the dying process — often in isolation. For him, culture — with the exception of some American Indian tribes — is less of a differentiating factor than denomination.

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