Death is one of the most basic and primal cultural similarities that exist between different societies. As an inevitable constant, cultures have nonetheless developed different ways perceiving death and have varied ways of understanding and processing the end of life. This is part one of a sample research paper on the cultural perception of death around the world.
Death understood by different cultures around the world
Cultures around the world perceive death differently. For many of these cultures, the customs and beliefs surrounding death are dictated by religion. Through an analysis of the perception of death on a global scale, differences and similarities between cultures and religions can be found. By completing a literature review on the research that has been conducted an in-depth analysis can be constructed regarding the perception of death. The research that exists on the customs surrounding death in various cultures highlights the diversity that exists in our world regarding what death means to not just an individual and their family but to society as a whole. The research is limited in providing a full analysis which demonstrates that a more diverse study needs to be conducted to analyze multiple countries and their views surrounding death.
Life and death are a shared experience which every culture has to views differently. This is where the commonality of death ends as every culture has a different view on what death means. This is due to the religious views of the culture or the geopolitical customs surrounding death. The funeral customs of a culture, beliefs on what happens to the soul of an individual and the bereavement process all vary in different parts of the world. Through the analysis of the literature that exists surrounding death in various cultures, a comprehensive review can be completed on the topic of death. Western cultures such as the United States and Britain, Asian cultures, Latin cultures, and African cultures will all be included in the analysis to create a comprehensive review of the perception of death around the various cultures of the world.
How does the world perceive death?
The perception of death in Western cultures is varied to the vast amount of cultures and religions that exist in the United States alone, not to mention the representation of death in poetry and literature. These various cultures each has their own viewpoint on death. A commonality that can be found on the perception of death in Western cultures is that the thoughts or discussion around death is frowned upon. In his analysis of the meaning of death, Byock (2002) found that Western cultures denied death.
“Even when confronted with unsettling news of the death of someone they have known, contemporary Westerners typically avoid questions that search for some meaning in death” (Byock, 2002, p. 280).
Western cultures view death emotionally
Regardless of religious views, most individuals in Western countries have difficulty discussing death due to a perception death is “evil”. Young couples have difficulty creating wills together as this prompts a discussion of death. Children of aged parents have a difficult time discussing funeral arrangements despite the fact that they may be facing the challenge soon. Individuals in these countries also give themselves a very brief mourning period out of which they expect to have the feelings surrounding the death to be resolved. This denial of death leaves individuals unprepared for when they have to eventually face death.
This leads to a traumatic experience of death and difficulty resolving their feelings surrounding death. As occurs in other cultures, Westerners experience death collectively through a funeral in which mourners gather to celebrate the life of the individual and grieve together. Once the funeral is over an individual is left on their own to grieve and to quickly get past their grief. Depending on their religious views, most Westerners ascribe to the view that the individuals soul lives on long after their death and that the soul looks out for them long after their death. This allows them to come to terms with the death and to deal with the trauma.
Asian cultures look to the afterlife
Asian cultures have a different perception of life and death which could be attributed to their religious beliefs about what happens to an individual when they die. Most Asian cultures believe in some form of reincarnation in that the individual lives on in another life form after death. According to Morgan (2009), death is another aspect of life for Asians. They also believe that life does not end after death as it is just a beginning for a new life. These beliefs are seen in the rituals that are completed by Asians after a loved one dies. Most Asians need to have an open casket for their viewings and will choose to cremate the body as the body is not seen as important since the soul is living on in another life. Although death is a grievous time for Asians as well, the belief in a life after death leads to a more reassuring view of the death experience rather than a fear or denial of death.
Asian death rituals heavily involve the family grieving and mourning the death together. Members of the family will gather together in the home of the deceased to mourn together for several days at a time. As the family unity is heavily emphasized in Asian culture the grief process is undertaken together. Asians also will continue to mourn and celebrate the life of their family members by honoring their ancestors. Through rituals that are carried on long after a family member’s death, Asians believe in the importance of living a good life and fulfilling filial obligations in order to honor their ancestors. Due to the belief in life after death, Asians continues to honor their family members long after their death. Although death is still feared there is more of a reassurance regarding what will happen after death for Asians. As the rituals are similar among the cultures it can be an easier process for the families to grieve as well rather than facing decisions regarding the funeral service.
Each culture has different views on death
Many people are uncomfortable talking about death. This is because our culture affects how we perceive death. Whether one believes death is inherently good or evil, it is a fact of life no one can escape. These perceptions are a part of our family traditions, religious beliefs, and societal norms.
Catholic beliefs influence Latino death perceptions
Latino countries perception of death comes strongly from a religious standpoint. Latinos perception of death is something which needs to be celebrated and embraced according to Brooten.
“Latino death rituals are described as heavily influenced by Catholic beliefs where spirituality is very important and there is a continuing relationship between the living and the dead through prayer and visits to the grave” (Lobar, 2006, p. 44).
Due to this belief, many Latinos do not fear death as other cultures may. For Latinos, the grief process is heavily gendered as women grieve emotionally and loudly while males hide their grief. Women are also more involved in the grieving process as they make the arrangements for the funeral and social gatherings after the funeral. The grieving process and funeral has a religious base in Catholicism. Latinos would ideally want a priest to be present at the time of death. The religious rituals begin right at the deathbed as communion or other religious rites of passage are completed. Funerals and the grieving process are social events as the whole community grieves and celebrates the individual’s life together. Latinos will typically bury their dead due to the Catholic belief of resurrection they hold. Latinos ascribe to the belief that one day the dead will return to walk among us and will meet family members again.
This belief is celebrated in Latino cultures on the Day of the Dead which is a holiday which is celebrated every year. During this event, Latinos meet at the burial grounds of their relatives to celebrate with their loved ones. Similarly to Asian cultures, Latinos support the family unit and grieve together as a family. The family is the most important facet of an individual’s life and Latinos believe that an individual’s family is the only thing they can take with them into the afterlife. This belief governs the grieving process for Latinos, unlike Westerners, who will grieve for years at a time which is acceptable to do so. They do not have a timeline for when grief should end. Latinos will continue to turn to their dead relative for support and guidance years after their death due to the belief that they are still there for them.
Africans perceive death from historical and political standpoint
While other cultures have their death perception based on religious viewpoints, the African perception of death has developed from political and historical events. As mentioned in a previous blog post, Africans have had to face harsh deaths due to apartheid, wars, genocide, and AIDS, which other cultures have not had to endure. Due to this, their grieving practices have had to evolve. As Kotze (2012) described:
Africans have had to endure government officials keeping bodies which families were not able to afford to bury. This practice led to a loss of control over the bodies of their family members.
Africans perception of death is not solely tied to political forces. Similar to other cultures Africans believe that death is a process and a continuation of life. Africans believe that once a person dies they go on to be with other family members in the afterlife. Although Africans are happy for their family members who will go into the afterlife, they face death with extreme grieving and mourning.
The deep grief that they feel when someone dies could be tied into the belief in good or evil surrounding death. Kotze (2012) describes how many in the African culture believe that death is caused by sorcery or witchcraft. This mystical belief governs the way in which funerals are held as they attempt to purify not just the body during a funeral but the home and those involved in the funeral process. Similarly to the Latin cultures, African women are heavily involved in the grieving and funeral process while the men do not express their feelings. African beliefs around death are varied and diverse due to the various countries with their different cultural beliefs. While no distinct perception of death can accurately describe the whole continent, similarities do exist between the cultures when it comes to the funeral process.
Literature review of death perceptions across the globe
A literature review on the perception of death around the world was completed to determine the rituals we participate in surrounding death. Beliefs about death, funerals, and the afterlife can provide insight into a culture. The analysis of the similarities and differences between countries in the ways in which death is dealt with is an important discussion that needs to occur. While the research is vast for each specific culture, an analysis of multiple countries does not exist. This limitation in the research needs to be addressed as a comprehensive view of the perception of death is lacking. A full analysis could provide insight into the ways in which we are connected with others and the other areas which separate us from other cultures and nations.
Byock, I. (2002). The meaning and value of death. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 5(2), 279-288.
Kotzé, E., Els, L., Rajuili-Masilo, N. (2012). “Women… Mourn and Men Carry On”: African Women Storying Mourning Practices: A South African Example.Death Studies, 36(8), 742-766.
Lobar, S. L., Youngblut, J. M., Brooten, D. (2006). Cross-cultural beliefs, ceremonies, and rituals surrounding death of a loved one. Pediatric nursing,32(1), 44-50.
Morgan, J. D. (2009). Death and Bereavement Around the World: Reflective Essays (Vol. 5). Baywood Pub Co.
Walter, T. (2012). Why different countries manage death differently: a comparative analysis of modern urban societies. The British journal of sociology, 63(1), 123-145