USC Digital Folklore Archives / Old age
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Respect for your Elders

S is a 21-year-old Filipino woman. She is currently majoring in Business Administration at the University of Southern California. She grew up in the Philippines and therefore identifies as Filipino, however, she also identifies as Chinese. S speaks English, Mandarin, Tagalog and Hokkien, the last being two of many languages specific to the Philippines.

S: Do rituals count as folklore?

Me: Yeah.

S: Ok, so like, one of the things is like when you meet an elderly person, you like place their hand on your forehead.

Me: Like your hand. on your forehead?

S: No, like I would take your hand and place it on my forehead, like the elderly person’s hand. Like, it’s called, um, Mano. M-a-n-o. Yeah, so it’s just like a sign of respect, you do that with everyone, like even people you don’t meet (know), like if their really elderly. And like you always add like the word po, p-o, at the end of every sentence.

Me: P-o?

S: Yeah, ’cause it’s just like a sign of respect for, like, regardless of gender, you just, you like add it. so you say like, oh, like in the Philippines you’d say like “Oh, come, let’s eat,” and then you would add po at the end. It’s just something like that. It has a lot to do with respect and just like valuing those kinds of uh, values.

Me: Valuing their age I guess. And like their wisdom maybe?

S: Yeah. Exactly.

S explains the ritual, or practice, in the Philippines when meeting an elderly person. You take their hand and place it on your forehead. You do this out of respect, to honor their years and their wisdom. Respect is a common theme in both the Chinese and Filipino traditions and rituals that S has talked about, as well as many other Asian cultures.

Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Cherokee Death Rituals

The informant is my grandmother, a Cherokee woman born in 1932. She worked as a nurse for her entire career, though has been retired for some time.

In this piece, my grandmother talks to me about Cherokee death rituals, and what our family does when someone passes away.

M: There’s this ritual we Cherokees do when someone passes away. We did it when your grandpa passed away, and we did it for everyone since then.

Me: Okay, what is it?

M: We usually only do it with the boys in the family. When one of the men in the family die, we go and prepare the hole where they will be buried, but many times they won’t be buried for a day or two. So, all the older boys in the family, like your cousin Eric and Pat, go out and camp next to the grave to protect it from bad spirits.

Me: Oh, really?

M: Yes. Pat and Eric and Randy and them went out during that winter storm a few years back to protect your grandpa’s grave.

Me: So do they do this at every grave?

M: Mostly just those who are buried at the family cemetery.

Me: Who else is buried there?

M: My dad, his brother. My brothers. Your grandpa is the only Barber buried there.

Me: What does the rest of the family do while they’re out there camping.

M: Usually the night before the funeral everybody comes to someone’s house, like my sister’s for your grandpa’s funeral, and we sing songs.

Me: Any kind of specific songs?

M: Some old Indian songs. Songs from a long time ago.

Me: That’s really nice. It’s a sad thing, but it’s nice.

M: Yeah. I think your grandpa would have really loved his.

This ritual features a lot of different actions taken place by various members of the family. I think the reason the men are the ones who sit by the grave site comes from old traditions where men were the protectors. This was there responsibility, and in a way their honor, to protect the open grave so that their relative could have a peaceful rest, undisturbed by evil spirits. It kind of gives me “it was the least I could do” vibe. I also think singing songs is a way for the family to remember their loved one and what they liked. Songs are very important in people’s lives, and can reveal certain things about them: what’s said in the lyrics, what kind of song it is. It makes use feel connected in a way to hear the songs a deceased relative loved, because we know they would be listening to the song too if they could.

Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Chinese Funerals (Taiwan)

This is a Chinese thing. After someone passes away, like Grandpa, Grandma, Mom, Dad, whoever, it’s like a very long two-week, three-week ordeal where there’s a ton of praying, there’s a funeral where you go to a funeral home and then you pray for hours. You have to do like a special thing where you like put your hands together and bow and nod your head, it’s very, just….culture. Culture.


Do you say things? Is it silent prayer?


Yeah you have to say like, I don’t know, my mom told me I forgot. Sorry. But okay so for the death thing, they’ll…I cant remember exactly but they take the body to like a temple where it gets burned…


Is this after the praying?


Yeah, there’s praying for like a week, not like a straight week, but like – get up, go pray, get up, go pray, get up, go pray. So yeah you pray for a week while everything’s being prepared, like all the ceremonies are being prepared. So then you go to the temple, and while the body’s actually burning in the furnace you keep praying, a ton of people are there, even the grandchildren. You keep praying while it’s burning, and then afterwards my mom told me that they took out the tray, or whatever he was on… There were still some bones left, because bones don’t burn unless they’re cracked, unless the heat from the fire cracks them open or something. So apparently my grandpa’s femur bone and like tibia or something was still left there, so the grandkids have to go and pick those up…and then I forgot what she said they did with them! Um, I’m pretty sure they burned them or somehow like, crushed them. So they eventually burn all of them. And then they put him in this little box, his ashes. And actually there might be some other traditional things in there, sorry I don’t know. So, I mean this is for my family, I’m sure if you’re richer I’m sure you get like a special temple somewhere like really nice, but he was actually a veteran, so he was buried in the veteran cemetery. And it’s way different than our cemeteries, it’s like green grass, it’s taken care of by caretakers every single day, it’s beautiful, it’s up in the hills kind of, it’s really nice. So the whole family was there, my cousin, uncle, aunt, grandma, and other family members, and one of my cousins put the box on his back, they strap it on so they actually carry it up the mountain, all the way up to where his gravesite is. And then you bury the box in the ground. Also I don’t think you wanna like, take pictures of this because it’s kinda like, you’re capturing the soul, and you don’t wanna do that cause then the soul wont be able to go up to heaven. Or like the Chinese heaven. So I mean they didn’t take pictures of the box directly, but they took pictures of like the hills and stuff. And then they just pray some more, like say their goodbyes at the grave.



This is a funeral ritual which involves a very lengthy and specific process for proper mourning, treatment and burial of the body and ashes, and symbolic acts. There is a specific time period of mourning, and even poses and physical actions in mourning; there are specific roles that different family member play in the ritual according to their ages; there are superstitions and beliefs regarding how the deceased’s spirit or soul gets to heaven, and how to do everything correctly so as not to interfere with that transition. The whole process seems to be both in support of the dead family member’s transition to the after life, as well as the family members remembering, honoring, and making sacred that person and their life.

Life cycle
Old age

Tyler’s Grandpa- Dutch Immigrant- Family

“this story starts with my grandfather… he comes from a really wealthy family.. really high up in the dutch east indies trading company.. theres a boat in the dutch indies trading company that was like named after my grandfather.. owned shiton of art .. its now in the reiks museum .. but the war happened .. world war 2.. and it was a very shocking experience for my grandfather. it terrorized his family his mom died and his dad married someone else..everything about the Netherlands just traumatized my grandfather.. he doesn’t even like the Netherlands. he doesn’t even like dutch he considers himself american even though he was dutch all growing up. So He kinda came from a very posh back ground but he wanted to run away from it. So in order to do that… his dad was going to pay for medical school anything he wanted to do… he wanted to go to farming school. cause he wanted to become a farmer so he could  go to the states or canada whichever one would take him. And at the time the states was accepting way to many immigrants at some point they cut them off right when my grandfather was applying to come to the states so he ended up going to Canada. So my grandfather is going to go work on a farm in Canada. and um.. he gets there.. and hes got.. he dresses for the… he takes like a year of agriculture school which is not really like a learning agriculture university its just literally like how to be a farmer.. you know like probably no one from his socio-economic status has ever been like I want to learn how to be a farmer.. but thats what he wanted to do so he does that goes for one year and then gets sent to Canada.. He arrives to Canada and.. he dressing for the part. so he’s wearing like a flannel shirt and overalls which he assumes is dressing for the part he has no idea. you cant research that on the internet or whatever…. He gets to Canada he gets a bus or whatever to the station.. takes the train.. and then he is just waiting at the train it’s just him. his accordion. and his duffel bag full of just clothes…. He comes and gets picked up by mr . muir.. no mr. hillicker.. Perse Hiliker. Perse Hilliker comes and picks him up.. drives him back to the farm doesn’t say a word to him he’s just like “alright get in your the worker lets go”. They go back to the farm and then that’s where he meets my grandma for the first time. Love at first sight all this stuff.. And then um.. He works for him for a little while like two weeks, and then Persie says they are going to go hunting and they invite Ralph my grandfather. and so… my grandfather is very exited that he is invited.. he’s brand new working on this farm, and he has a thing for my grandmother and now the Dad is inviting him to go hunting. But my grandma comes from a family where there is like 9 kids, like 6 dudes and three girls or something.. but theres 6 dudes going on this hunting trip and all of them have clearly hunted before… My Grandpa grew up in like downtown Amsterdam in like a nice.. his dad was a doctor and all this shit.. you know he’s never been hunting .. he’s like been rowing .. but he’s never been outdoors out doors.. So he thinks he should really practice.. At this point working like 10 hours a day on a farm. he decides hes going to wake up really early like 430 or 5 am and practice shooting for a little while before work… he doesn’t want to embarrass himself when he goes on this trip. So he wakes up really early.. I don’t even know how they probably had alarm clocks back then. So he wakes up really early  he goes to the gun rack and pulls out one of the Guns and he goes out and brings in the tripod thing that they set up or whatever. And he goes out to a lake and theres a bunch of ducks and he’s going to shoot one of these ducks. …like my grandpa is like… he comes across as a war hardened guy but he’s a really soft guy when he comes down to it.. He’ll like cry in a movie and then when you confront him about it he’ll be like “i have no idea what your talking about” and um.. So he starts feeling bad, he’s about to shoot this duck but its more important to him that he makes a good impression on his dad because he’s trying to get this girl. So he lines up the gun and he’s going to hit the duck and he pulls the trigger and he hits the duck but not a headshot.. its hard to get a headshot its got a little… and the duck is flapping around going crazy all the other ducks fly away.. and this duck is clearly suffering. And so my grandfather grabs the gun and runs for the duck..not like to get his catch.. but like he doesn’t know what to do theres like a suffering animal.. he’s never been through this before.. so he grabs the gun holds it by the barrel and tries to hit the duck in the head..right when he does, the gun hits the ground, it fires and he shoots a bullet that goes in the bottom of his ass and out the top of his ass cheek. ………interruption………It started out with my grandpa wanting to make a good impression now he’s clearly not going to make a good impression he shot himself in the ass.. so he goes back to the truck .. grabs clothes rags everything and stuffs them in his pants to stop the bleeding… he gets back to Persies house.. goes in his room wraps it up as best as he can with whatever he has and never told anyone including my grandmother for like 25 years.


Collector: Who told you this story?

Informant: My grandfather under pressure?

Collector: Who knows the story?

Informant: The story can be told to you from anyone in my family

Collector: Do you think you will tell this story to your kids?

Informant: Yea for sure


I guess in analysis what i take from this story is how culture specific a story can get. We may all belong to certain cultures but within that culture there is subgroups and and so on, the family and the family stories represent a really small culture subgroup in my opinion and this story is proof. this story is shared by all of tyler’s cousins aunts and uncles and one day his kids and hopefully so on. I now share in this story and feel as if i know my friend a bit better.


Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Sitting Shiva

The informant is a 20-year old Jewish student attending USC. She was born in Venezuela but has lived in Miami since she was eight years old. She is majoring in Engineering. The information she shared with me is about Jewish funeral custom.


Informant: “Everyone goes to the funeral home or the synagogue, or wherever the funeral is taking place. There is a service; the Rabbi says some prayers in Hebrew and in English and some kind words about the deceased. Then usually some family members will speak about the person who has passed.”


Interviewer: “What kind of stuff do they say?”


Informant: “Well it varies. Sometimes they will talk about the person’s accomplishments, sometimes they will tell funny stories about the person, or their fondest memories with them. I was at a funeral about a month ago where one of the deceased’s grandchildren read a portion of a school project she had written about her grandma when she was a kid. She had interviewed her grandma for the project. It was really cool.”


Interviewer: “That sounds really cool. What happens next?”


Informant: “Well, everyone goes outside where the burial takes place. I don’t know if it is Jewish tradition everywhere, but at least at the weddings I’ve been to, there are shovels around the burial site, and everyone who wants to can shovel some earth onto the grave. It’s really beautiful. Then there is a shiva.


Interviewer: “What’s the shiva?”


Informant: “The shiva is when everyone—the family and friends of the deceased’s family—goes to someone close to the person who has passed’s house. There is lots of food and drink (usually non-alcoholic though) and people eat and talk. It’s a big gathering as a sort of celebration of the person’s life and as a way to comfort the family.”



Often rituals surrounding death double as celebrations of life and a reason for social gathering. Death is a rite of passage and like other rite of passage rituals, it is a rite of transition, mainly for the family and friends of the deceased. The shivas I’ve been to aren’t typically sad events. The funeral itself is generally a somber, teary-eyed event, but shivas I’ve attended often involve a lot of conversing and even a good-deal of joke-telling.

Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Day of the Dead in Mexico

Day of the Dead


The informant is a 19-year old student attending USC. She was born in Avellino, and has lived in central Mexico, London, and Italy in her life. She speaks Italian, Spanish, and English and is majoring in architecture. The following is what she shared with me about Day of the Dead from when she lived in Mexico for 6 years.


Informant: “In Mexico there was the Day of the Dead.”

Interviewer: “How do they celebrate it?”

Informant: “They made like alters with food, and they have it out for the dead. There are a certain amount of days it goes on.

Interviewer: “Did you have any friends who celebrated it?”

Informant: “Yes, but we did it at school too. We did the sugar skulls.”

Interviewer: “What’s a sugar skull?”

Informant: “It’s a skull made out of sugar. [Laughs]. You just bought them at the supermarket. You could decorate them yourself.

Interviewer: “What is Day of the Dead about?”

Informant: “To celebrate the Dead! The people that have passed on come back to life at night.”

Interviewer: “is it scary? Like are the dead perceived as bad?”

Informant: “No, it’s good. They are good spirits.”



Day of the Dead is a pretty well known and considerably popularized holiday. It was interesting to hear how indifferently the informant was about Day of the Dead and the customs around it. Perhaps having lived in a culture where the dead aren’t perceived as “bad” or as haunting makes the whole notion of dead coming back to life something casual.

Talking to the informant about how Day of the Dead was celebrated in Mexico reminds me a lot of talking to Israeli soldiers when I was in Israel this summer about bar and bat mitzvahs in Israel. One might think that Jewish rituals would be more extreme or that people would be more devout in a Jewish state, but in fact, it seemed the opposite. All of us American-Jews were surprised to find out that for the Israeli soldiers we talked to, bar and bat mitzvahs (Jewish coming of age ritual) were just parties for the bar or bat mitzvah and his or her friends as opposed to the religiously-heightened ritual they are typically performed in the United States.

Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Waking in Ireland

Debbie, a family friend from a suburb of Chicago, told me about her mother-in-law’s wake in Ireland.  Debbie’s husband was born and grew up in Ireland.  Though he immigrated to the United States, the majority of his family remains in Galway, Ireland.  Debbie’s mother-in-law passed away in March 2014.  She told me about the Irish waking process this past February after my grandma’s wake.  Learning about Irish Catholic wakes was particularly interesting because I was able to compare it to an American Catholic wake and funeral–a process that was fresh in my mind.

Well they did take her then to a building, the other way.  But they had like 200 people, they did a mass in the house, and they did a wake.  And then we took her the next day to be waked in a regular funeral parlor.  

I mean when they brought her home, I was like, Oh my God! I mean you hear about this.  

They brought her home and she spent the night.  They made sure that there was always somebody with her.  And they brought her home around three o’clock in the afternoon.  We had mass that night and we took her out the following day at 3:00.  And brought her down to where she was going to be waked.  

All the sons carried her on their shoulders.  You know, they have the smaller caskets.  And, yeah, it was really…One girl in the family kept trying to turn the heat up and I’m like, “Please don’t turn the heat up in this room. Not for for 24 hours.”  Yeah but it was really interesting.  You know what, it was nice.  The grandkids and great grandkids were able to talk, were able to touch.  And the talk that we had around the casket was really interesting.  It’s the way it used to be.  I was taken aback, but it was a very nice experience especially for the family.  

Debbie’s initial shock at her husband’s family’s practices reveals how different these Irish Catholic practices are than American Catholic practices.  As Debbie expressed, the Irish waking practices are “interesting” and “nice” to Catholics in America who do not have the same waking practice.  Debbie’s story reveals that it is important for the family to talk about the family member who has passed away.  Their practices also reveal that it can be therapeutic to touch the person that died.  Sharing stories in the presence of the casket may be even more therapeutic than sharing stories after the wake as is common among American Catholics.  I believe that the fact that her mother-in-law was never left alone suggests that Irish Catholics believe you are not alone in death.  As Debbie said, it seems like a nice experience.

Old age

Held Hostage

My grandpa has been telling this story for years–the story of how he and my Grandma, Grace, were held hostage in 1966.  My grandpa told this rendition of the story at gathering at my house after my grandma’s funeral.  Close family and friends listened and contributed to the story.  Not only is this story somewhat of a legend in my family, the telling of this story also demonstrates some of the traditions surrounding wakes and funerals.

He claims this is the “condensed” version.

I was working in insurance.  And we’d all kind of meet up for lunch at a bowling alley. I was on my way to meet some of my friends.  I turned the corner and all the sudden a squad car cuts me off.  “Get out!” They had a gun.  

I thought they were policemen but they were Federal Bank Robbers.  They took my car and got me in the car too.  There were four of them. They had escaped from Cook Country Jail.  There were two young punks in the back seat and two other guys.  So they are driving around my car and don’t know what to do.  Two of the guys found another driver, jumped him, and dropped out.  So these two guys are with me and don’t know what to do.  And we somehow ended up at my house.  They were using it as a hideaway.  

Grace [his wife] was in the kitchen, feeding the kids lunch.  So I told her what happened to me. And I told her to not alarm the kids.  Just tell them these two guys are friends of mine.  

So they came in the house.  And the kids went back to school.  They were just killing time all day long.  The guys had a gun and Grace asked him to put the gun on top of the fridge.

They didn’t like like Grandma’s cooking.  They stayed all day and didn’t eat.  

When the kids got home from school, they couldn’t watch TV. “Which was really weird because when we got home from school we would always watch Dark Shadows,” my mom interrupted. They couldn’t watch because the escapists were all over the news.  

They were gonna take me with them so I tried to use my salesmen skills.  I was thinking there might be a shoot out and they’ll be killed.  So I said, Why don’t you just tie us up? So I sent all the kids over to my neighbor’s house.  And I asked to borrow her car. I told her mine broke down and I had some business to sort out. So she said, Oh sure.  They didn’t want to drive my car.  

So the plan was thy were going to tie Grace and I up.  They used curtains. “They were going to take the living room curtains but Grandma had just sewn new ones.  So you told them to use the basement ones” my sister supplied.

They tied us up real good.  On the bed.  I told one guy, This is the closest I’ve been to my wife in a month.  They wanted to gag us.  And I said, I’m gonna choke.  So I said, We’re on the corner–no one is going to hear us yell.  So they didn’t gag us.  

They wanted to take some new clothes so I talked them out of taking one of my new suits.  “What about the money?” my aunt asked.  At that time Prudential did a lot of collection in sales.  So I had about $500.00 in cash 20 bucks of my own.  One of the guys asked how much of the cash was min. And I said, Oh about $20.  So he put $20 on the table and took the rest.  

And then they took off.  

It took me about an hour to chew the rope.  Immediately I called the Lyons Police.

Then all hell broke loose.  There were policemen and reporters everywhere.   

So one guy had a girlfriend in New York. So they figured they were going to fly out of O’Hare.  But they ditched the car at O’Hare and then stole a cab.  For some reason they decided to double back and drive towards Indiana. And they were very nervous.  All of the sudden a county squad car passed them and noticed they were nervous looking.  So he pulled these guys over and got them.  

And one of the strange things about it–the cop who had pulled them over–about two or three weeks before that I had tried to sell him some insurance.  

About three days later I got a telephone call from New York.  It was one of the thief’s girlfriends.  She apologized for all the trouble that he had caused us.   

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 5.11.58 PM

Caption reads: Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Copp and their six children Tuesday in their home at 7944 W. 46th St., Lyons, where they were held as hostages for eight hours Monday by two fugitives from County Jail. “You read about things like this in the paper or see them in the movies, but it doesn’t seem real” said Mrs. Copp.  The children, from left: Cindy, 1; Karen, 8; John (on floor), 5; Jay, 7; Kathy, 6; and Carol, 3.

This story has been told so many times that it seems like a legend.  It is a a way to remember an actual crazy story of being held hostage but also practices of my mother and her siblings in their youths: going home for lunch, watching Dark Shadows every day, playing at the neighbors, etc.


Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Old age

Hindu Death Customs

*Note: The informant is Indian-American and identifies with the Hindu religion. She is generally in touch with her Indian heritage, but she was born in the U.S.

INFORMANT: “Most of these don’t actually apply to me or my family, but I know some other families who take a couple of them more seriously. Basically, Hinduism comes with a lot of weird customs for, like, death and stuff. I mean, I guess any religion does. But, like, for instance, some Hindus believe that a dead body should be free from all bonds, so they take off any stitched clothes, jewelry, or even hospital wrappings. They bathe the body like that, and then they would wrap it in a new cloth and they would get cremated. There’s also this thing called Sutak where you’re supposed to follow all these specific rules for 12 days after someone dies. Like, you can’t eat candy or food with spices, and you can’t give gifts or anything. I’ve even heard that if you die from a snake bite they won’t cremate you, they’ll just, like, throw you in the water. I don’t even know why. I also heard – and this one’s really gross – that it used to be a thing that when young women died, they would seal off their vaginas before cremating them so that evil spirits couldn’t rape them in the afterlife. There are all kinds of crazy things like that.”

Death customs are some of the richest aspects of folklore – they explain so much about the way a certain group or culture or community acts when alive! Death customs are usually associated with religions, though there are also death customs specific to certain nations of other groups that have little to do with religion. The custom of Sutak brings to mind the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva for dead relatives – there is a general respect for the dead in most religions, and family members are expected to pay tribute to their fallen loved ones by abstaining from certain things. I’m interested to learn more about the snake bite custom – whether it’s true, whether it’s still done, and most importantly, why? It might have something to do with the fact that snakes are sacred because a snake is the garland of Lord Shiva, an important Hindu figure.

Old age

Three Old Ladies

Informant: Three ladies were visiting with each other, and one lady said, “I just don’t know what’s happening to me. My mind wanders. I tried to put a broom in the refrigerator the other day!”

The other lady—the second lady—said, “I know what you mean! I was—my husband and I were watching television the other day and I wanted to say something to him, but I couldn’t remember his name!”

The third lady said, “Well, thank goodness nothing like that has happened to me.”

[informant leans forward to knock on wooden table—knock on wood]

“Yes, come in!”

The informant (my grandmother) was born and raised in Texas. She spent many years moving from place to place across the world with her husband, a banker, before settling in Connecticut long enough to work as an English teacher at the Greenwich Country Day School. She currently lives in San Francisco, CA.

The informant told me that this joke had gone viral at the old person’s home in which she lives. I believe that this joke might be popular with such an audience because they can relate to the troubles the three aging women face—deteriorating memory, both short term and long term. The punch line of the joke is that the woman who claims to be the most mentally competent and unaffected by aging is, in fact, the one who can’t tell that her own knock on the wooden table isn’t a knock on the door. The joke assumes that the audience knows what the practice of “knocking on wood” means.