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Culturally Creative Expressions of Grief

A Japanese funeral procession.

While it's common to mourn the death of a loved one, many cultures have unique and creative ways to express grief. From somber memorial services to joyous celebrations and parties, learn about beliefs, traditions, and practices from several areas around the world.

Common Ways of Expressing Grief

For the most part, people are encouraged to show their grief when a loved one dies; besides sorrow, many people may feel anger or guilt. It is also not uncommon to feel:

  • Withdrawn
  • Depressed
  • Insomniac
  • Anti-social
  • Tired or exhausted
  • A loss of appetite
  • Apathy
  • Lost
  • Disoriented
  • Unmotivated and unable to complete day-to-day tasks including household chores or working

In extreme instances, some mourners may actually be:

  • Suicidal
  • Paranoid
  • Too exhausted to get out of bed
  • Desperate
  • Physically ill
  • Mentally and emotionally unstable

These expressions of grief are not uncommon in the Western world, where it is acceptable to show emotion when someone dies. However, each culture has its own way of coping with grief. While some may be sad, others view the death as a celebration of that person's life. Festive songs and music is played, while mourners (who aren't actually mourning) take pride in knowing the deceased has "moved on" to another and possibly a better life.

Examples of Culturally Creative Expressions of Grief

Cultural sensitivity is just as important during a mourning ceremony or funeral then it is at any other time. Just as everyone grieves differently, their beliefs and behaviors surrounding death are also not the same. If you are attending a funeral for someone of another culture, there are a few questions you may want to get answered before you go:

  • Are flowers, music and offerings expected or allowed?
  • What type of condolences are appropriate?
  • What behaviors and emotions are considered normal grief responses?
  • Who is allowed to attend the funeral or ceremony?
  • What is the appropriate attire?
  • Is a showing or wake of the deceased person part of the ceremony?
  • What will take place at the burial?

You can get your answers to these questions by either calling someone familiar with that culture or doing your homework on the Internet. Some interesting and culturally creative expressions of grief include ceremonies outside of North America.

Jamaica (West Indies)

Funerals in Jamaica are grand and supreme social events; they even replace Sunday worship services if necessary. Mourners dress in their best clothes to pay their respects to the grieving family. Wakes are not normally held like they are in the United States, but a showing of the person is presented one hour before burial services, either in a church or at the cemetery. Mourners should not leave burial services before the last hymn is sung or the last shovel of dirt is tossed. Also, in order to keep the dead person's spirit away, each child member of the family is "passed" over the coffin as his or her name is recited.

Many Jamaicans believe that when someone dies, the soul goes to God, the body goes into the ground, and the spirit, also known as the "duppy," stays in the physical vicinity. For nine days after the burial, "set-ups" or religious services are observed by family and friends, and on the final night, the duppy is bid farewell. Mourners play games, serve refreshments, prayers and stories are told, and hymns, accompanied by drums, are sung. The celebration continues until daylight.

North Africa

Africans believe that death completes an elaborate life cycle. It is a rite of passage that allows the person's spirit to travel on to its next life or world. However, this passage only happens if the person has a proper funeral; if not, the deceased can come back and bring trouble for living family members. For example, when the person dies, it is customary to remove the body through a hole in the wall (feet pointing direction to cemetery), not the door, as the hole can be quickly closed back up again. The body is removed feet first and a zigzag path is taken to the cemetery or burial place so the "spirit" can find its way back to its residence. If a child dies, it is an especially grievous and evil time in African culture. Many people give their living children special names to ward off similar deaths.When a person dies, an animal is also killed as part of the ritual (and sometimes buried with the deceased), and all of his or her belongings are buried as well. African funerals are a time of solidarity; in some communities this means dancing and celebrations for everyone except the immediate family.

South Africa

After a person dies in the house, all the windows are covered in ash, and mirrors and other reflective objects are covered. All pictures are turned around, and the bed is removed from the deceased room. Grieving women are to sit on the floor on mattresses. In some areas of South Africa, children and unmarried adults are not allowed to attend funeral services, which take place in the early morning hours. If they do attend, they are not allowed to partake in the ceremony. Also, there is a strict mourning period of up to one week. During this time, the bereaved family members stay home, and have no social or sexual contact. They wear black clothing or cover their faces with black cloths, and some even shave their bodies, including all facial hair. Everything belonging to the deceased is considered "unclean" and should be washed and put away for the mourning period which traditionally can last up to one year.

Final Thought

While it may not always be noticeable, everyone grieves the loss of a loved one. Some cultures may be more open about it and others only allow grieving to happen in silence and solitude. But everyone grieves. The important thing to remember is that grief can be overwhelming. If it does get out of hand or control, there is professional help available.

Culturally Creative Expressions of Grief