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Different Cultural Beliefs on Death and Dying Practices

Gabrielle Applebury
people at a funeral

Culture brings people together from varying backgrounds who all share a similar belief system. Thoughts on death and what may or may not come next have varied greatly from culture to culture, with each group expressing unique opinions. Remember that every individual's belief will vary and can be on a spectrum even if they identify with a certain practice.

Death and Dying Practices Around the World

Death and dying practices vary throughout the world and are impacted by many factors which may include culture, religion, personal beliefs, and community traditions.

North America

In North America, many individuals incorporate specific religious beliefs, as well as contemporary end-of-life options. Some individuals choose more eco-friendly burials such as bio-urns, while others prefer cremation or traditional burials in a casket. Those in North America may hold wakes before the funeral service, have traditional funerals or celebrations of life, as well as post-funeral receptions to honor the deceased individual. The grieving process can vary depending on what each culture considers an acceptable loss versus not.

  • Native American death rituals center on helping the spirit of the deceased individual leave their body, while using the seasons and nature to guide the overall burial process.
  • Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Mexican funeral traditions typically include Catholic overtones and aim to honor and celebrate their deceased loved one.
  • In Canada, some individuals honor their loved ones with a viewing, funeral service and burial.
  • Those in the military, as well as police officers, and firefighters also have their own cultural practices when it comes to honoring deceased personnel which may vary based on community and department.
  • In the United States, holding a wake, funeral or memorial, and a post funeral get together is common. Some individual's funerals are led by religious leaders, while others may hold a celebration of life event to honor their loved one. The discussion around death tends to be taboo.

South America

In many South American countries, Catholicism influences some death and dying rituals with an emphasis on celebrating the deceased individual's life. Funeral traditions may include a wake followed by a traditional Catholic mass. Funerals may be colorful and feel more like a celebration than a solemn event. Some cultures believe that their deceased loved ones can come back from the dead to join in the Day of the Dead celebration. Grief is often viewed as acceptable and respectful of the deceased loved one.

  • In Columbia, if a child passes away, they are thought to become angels that go to heaven. The mourning period is often short as loved ones seek comfort in knowing that their child is in heaven.
  • In Argentina, deceased loved ones are buried right away with funerals often costing more than a wedding. Holy mass is held on the anniversary of their passing for friends and family to attend.
  • In Peru, there is often a viewing, a graveside service, or cremation service. In some instances, guests will chew cocoa leaves which is thought to allow them to be with their deceased loved one. Some believe that their loved one is in a deep sleep after they pass away, while others believe they are in another world.
Kids and candles by a grave

Europe

In Europe funerals range from incorporating religious practices to none at all. About 75 percent of Europeans identify as Christian, and it's not uncommon for some Christian practices to be incorporated in the funeral or memorial. Small communities often have their own death ritual traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation that can make the funeral or memorial unique. Black is the traditional color of mourning in many European countries.

  • In Germany, the culture around death tends to be matter of fact, and that dying is expected and inevitable. German people believe in giving everyone a respectful burial or cremation, and there are laws in the place that ensure that this happens. The law also requires that cremated remains are buried.
  • In Italy, funerals are a community event with strong support from loved ones and neighbors. Because many Italians practice Catholicism, religious overtones can be observed at funerals. Caskets are typically stacked in mausoleums instead of in the ground.
  • In Albania, secular funerals are the norm and are typically held in the home or a communal gathering site. Traditional folk music is often played during the funeral. Cremation is not practiced and individuals are buried in a casket.
  • In Ireland, death rituals can go on for days before an individual is buried. Prior to be taken to the funeral home, friends, neighbors, and family gather to share stories, sing, and pray.

Asia

In many Asian cultures, those in mourning wear white to represent the passing of an individual, while in other cultures black or dark-colored clothing is worn to a funeral or memorial. Many Asian cultures are collectivist, meaning that family and community are important aspects of their core belief system and impact the rituals surrounding death and dying. Many Asian cultures believe in the afterlife.

  • Japanese death rituals often combine both Buddhist and Shinto traditions. Common practices include washing the deceased individual's body, preparing their favorite foods as offerings, cleansing the burial ground, holding a wake, and cleansing the burial or cremation site.
  • Chinese death rituals focus on honoring their elders and funeral rites will depend on the age of the deceased individual, as well as their social standing. It is believed that if burial is done incorrectly, bad luck will fall upon the family.
  • In India, death rituals are often influenced by Hinduism and focus on helping the deceased individual become reincarnated and eventually reach Nirvana.
  • In Indonesia, many people believe in the afterlife, and funerals range from simple to elaborate, with some cultures holding more than one funeral for a deceased loved one. Burial tends to be more popular than cremation.
  • In Pakistan, Islam is the most popular religion and heavily influences funeral traditions. Burial often happens very quickly after the passing and wakes or visitation are not the norm. After washing the body, shrouds are often wrapped around the deceased individual's body, although some families now opt to select their own outfit for the deceased prior to burial.
Thousands of monks attend funeral

Australia and New Zealand

In Australia, traditional funeral services, green funerals, and more unique, customized services are popular choices when a loved one passes away. Funerals and memorials in Australia tend to be similar to those in the United States, as well as Canada. Funerals usually take place within a week of the individual passing away and services may be held indoors or outdoors. About 66 percent of Australians now prefer to be cremated than buried. Typically mourners wear black to funeral services or memorials.

  • In the Oro Province in Papua, New Guinea, a spouse may mourn the loss of their partner for many months without being seen or connecting with anyone in the community. After the mourning period ends, there is a large feast and gathering where the widowed partner gets rid of their mourning clothing.
  • In New Zealand, deceased individuals are buried or cremated. Ashes may be kept or scattered depending on the family's needs. Similar to Australia, there is an emphasis on creating a unique and individualized ceremony or service.

Africa

In Africa, the death and dying rituals center on becoming ancestors and the way one passes away, as well as the funeral rituals can help that transition. It not common to discuss one's end-of-life wishes, because they typically do not view death as the end. They believe that life goes on in another realm. There tends to be a taboo around discussing one's own death and dying plans, and typically family members make end-of-life choices for their loved ones. It is culturally believed that a drawn out death is considered the most natural. African death rituals include:

  • Prior to burial, the home is prepared by covering the mirrors, removing the deceased individual's bed, and holding a vigil.
  • Removing the body feet first from the home and taking a confusing path towards the burial site so the deceased can remain an ancestor and not wander back home.
  • A proper burial that if not done correctly can lead to the deceased individual haunting the family, as well as others in the community.
  • If the individual is not buried properly or did not live an honorable life, they can wreak havoc as a ghost to the family, as well as the community.
  • Depending on the certain community or tribe, burials may happen right away or be delayed.

Antarctica

While no people live in Antarctica year round, there are research stations that house up to 5,000 people. If someone passes away in Antarctica:

  • Their body may be left buried if a crash or accident is deemed too dangerous to excavate due to inclement weather conditions.
  • Their body may be sent back to their home if the family wishes to conduct an end-of-life service, funeral, or memorial in their homeland.
  • Memorials may be organized in the research stations if desired.

Unique Death and Dying Practices

Note that while some may regard certain practices and beliefs around death and dying to be unique, in the culture of origin, these practices may be considered the norm. Regardless of the practice, many death and dying rituals focus on honoring the deceased individual and coming to terms with the experienced loss. Some death and dying practices that you may not have heard of include:

  • Drive through funerals: These funerals most often occur in Japan and the United States.
  • Sky burials: A sky burial means that the deceased individual's body is prepared and offered to vultures who are believed to help transition the soul to heaven and eventually into reincarnation. A sky burial is popular in Buddhist cultures and focuses on the idea of feeding the living.
  • In West Papua, New Guinea, the Dani people used to amputate a finger when a loved one who passed away to illustrate the connection between emotional and physical pain.
  • A New Orleans jazz funeral is a unique tradition that incorporates a wake, traditional funeral, and burial, but is then followed by a joyous, celebratory jazz parade that symbolizes that the deceased individual is in a better place.
  • Green funerals are natural burials free from any chemical involvement. Bodies are typically placed in biodegradable caskets or bio urns.

Do Some Cultures Celebrate Death?

While some cultures focus on mourning the loss of a loved one, others focus on celebrating the life of the individual who passed away. Some of these cultures believe that the earthly life is not the only one to be experienced and rejoice in knowing that their loved one has moved on. Some cultures that celebrate death include:

  • The Irish wake is a mix between emotional highs and lows. Loved ones, neighbors, and community members watch over the body prior to the funeral and exchange stories, cry, sing, pray, and enjoy each other's company.
  • South Africa after tears party is a time where people get together, share memories and celebrate the life of their deceased loved one after the funeral.
  • In Mexico, parts of South America, and in areas in the Caribbean people celebrate Dia de los Muertos as a way to reconnect and honor their deceased loved ones.
  • The Hungry ghost festival in China occurs in July or August and is a time to celebrate ancestors, but it is also a time to be wary of ghosts that may wreak havoc. Rituals and customs such as preparing food to feed the ghosts and honoring your deceased loved ones are ways to stay protected.
altar on Day of the Dead activities

What Happens After Death in Different Religious?

Religious beliefs can heavily influence what is thought to happen after death.

Christian Beliefs on Death and Dying

Christianity is the most practiced religion in the United States, Brazil, the Philippines, Mexico, Nigeria, and Russia. Christian beliefs focus on the gift of life and the notion that death isn't something that should be feared as one will be able to connect on a different level with god after passing away. They also believe in heaven and hell and may focus on forgiveness during the dying process. Once a person has passed away:

  • Organ donation is acceptable if the person chooses to do so, and cremation and burials are accepted practices.
  • Priests typically lead funeral services and there is no set amount of time it takes before a funeral needs to occur.
  • Grieving is a process that is done with god's support, and often the deceased individual's church will come together to help their family during this difficult time.

Islamic Thoughts on Death

Muslim individuals tend to have a strong belief in life after death with a preset amount of time, set forth by Allah, that someone is supposed to be living. While the passing away of a loved one is painful, many Muslim individuals find comfort through prayer, as well as the notion that they will see their loved ones once again in Paradise. During the dying process, it is customary for community members and loved ones to visit and provide comfort to the family. After a loved one passes away:

  • Funerals take place in mosques and are typically kept brief.
  • The burial typically occurs the day after the individual passes away.
  • Grief is acceptable in the form of being tearful and upset, while emotional outbursts may be seen as someone who has departed from their faith in Allah.

Islam is the second most popular religion behind Christianity, with the majority of Muslim individuals living in Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.

Hindu Beliefs

Hinduism has a large population of practicing individuals in Southern Asia, Europe, Africa, North America, and Britain. Hinduism believes that the soul carries on after someone has passed away. The soul not only continues on, but is reborn according to karmic deeds, with the ultimate goal of Moksha. Moksha means that the cycle of death and rebirth ends and one is able to join god. Death is viewed as natural and that the amount of pain someone experiences in their life and during the dying process is related to their karma. When a loved one dies:

  • They are cremated on the same day.
  • Loved ones return after 12 hours to gather the remains and place them in a river or ocean on the 13h day or before the end of the year.
  • Mourning is acceptable in any form, but they do believe that the deceased can feel their energy.
  • Loved ones and friends may bring food over and pay their respects.
Indian women during a ceremonial

Death and Buddhism

Buddhism is heavily practiced in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet. Buddhism sees death as a natural part of human existence, as well as the suffering and pain that may accompany it. Buddhism focuses on the here and now, which can impact how individuals internalize the dying process. Buddhists believe in reincarnation and aim to reach Nirvana. Cremation and burial are both acceptable, although the majority of Buddhist individuals choose cremation.

Jewish Death and Dying Customs

Individuals who identify as Jewish tend to have fairly structured customs when it comes to moving through the grieving process, as well as burial practices. After someone has passed away, funerals are held very quickly after, ideally one day after the person has died and services are led by a Rabbi. Jewish individuals typically do not support cremation and opt for burials in most circumstances. Funerals are viewed as a celebration of the individual's life and death is conceptualized as a natural aspect of being human. After the funeral:

  • It is a tradition to have a get together after where food and drink is typically served.
  • Shiva, the seven days following mourning, then begins and is a time to remember the beautiful memories with the person who passed on. Loved ones and friends will often drop by to pay their respects and offer food to the family.
  • Jewish people have varying beliefs when it comes to the afterlife, and questions and exploration is highly encouraged.

Countries with the highest Jewish population include the United States, Israel, France, and Canada.

Headstone in Jewish Cemetery

Atheist Beliefs About Passing Away

Those who identify as Atheist do not believe in a higher power and look to science for explanations of everyday occurrences. Based on personal rationale, individuals may or may not believe that something occurs after death, therefore death and dying practices will vary. About five percent believe in heaven and three percent believe in hell. Countries that have over a 20 percent identification as Atheist include China, Japan, Czech Republic, France, Australia, and Iceland.

Providing Culturally Competent Care

If you work in healthcare, it's important to understand your role in providing culturally competent care to your patients. Those in mental health may also work with families in the midst of grieving a recent loss and should also take an active approach in understanding their clients' cultural beliefs about death and dying practices. To start:

  • Understand if you are working with or treating an individual or family with a cultural background based on individualism or collectivism.
  • Read up about basic death rituals and practices for your client or patient's specific community.
  • Keep in mind that what you view as typical or normalized in your cultural experience may be completely different from the families you are working with.
  • Know that the family, depending on their cultural beliefs, may or may not express outward signs of grieving, or may express very vocal and intense signs of grieving.
  • If you aren't sure about something or don't understand, ask with integrity and use a calm, nonjudgmental tone when doing so.
  • Know that some patients may or may not be comfortable writing their own advanced health care directives based on their cultural beliefs and may prefer their family take an active part in this process.

What Are the Five Types of Death?

If you are working with a family, it's important to understand the type of death their loved one experienced, as this can help inform your treatment. The five types of death include:

  • Suicide: refers to taking one's own life
  • Homicide: refers to being killed by another individual
  • Unknown: refers to death by unknown means
  • Accident: refers to passing away due to a natural disaster, crash, or any other unintentional means
  • Natural: refers to passing away due to old age or medical condition

How Does Culture Influence Death?

Exploring differing cultural perspectives on death and dying can give you a better understanding of a variety of practices around a circumstance that all individuals will eventually go through. Keep in mind that although a culture may support certain notions, individuals who consider themselves a part of that culture, may have varied beliefs and pick and choose what resonates with them, while others may follow that belief entirely. Typically cultural beliefs around death and dying, regardless of what they are specifically, provide people with some comfort, understanding, and support.

Different Cultural Beliefs on Death and Dying Practices