USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘funeral’
Customs
general

Funeral – Ireland

My informant is Irish-Korean. When her grandfather passed away, her family flew to Ireland for the funeral. She explained to me a couple of the events that took place for his funeral:

“So my Granddad passed away two years ago. The first funeral event we had, we had kind of like this viewing of the body for close relatives. They are very ‘light feelings’ I guess about death in Ireland so they just had my Granddad kind of exposed in the kitchen right where the food was. No one found it weird and it was just a very normal thing to do. He was in my uncle’s house and not in a proper setting. He was in a coffin, but like an open coffin. Kind of laying super casually by all the food, and people were eating around him and I felt really weird. So we had that event, and then that night all his (Granddad’s) sons and daughters– so like my dad and he has seven siblings– all stayed in the house with him there. And they had him there in the living room and they all just slept in the house, I guess to…bond? Or as a last time remembrance? And then we had another open body funeral for the whole community since we’re from a smaller community in Ireland. They had his body in a funeral home and all my siblings and cousins and relatives that could come would kind of stand in a line around the ‘funeral home’ –I don’t really know what the building was–and everyone in the town that knew my Granddad would shake every single relatives hand as a way of showing (and) saying that they’re sorry.”

Although Irish wakes are responses to the death of relatives and close friends, they are much more casual compared to American ones. In Ireland they like to play pranks with the corpse by creating situations where the deceased seems alive. It’s representative of the strange state between life and burial. We can see this when my informant’s grandfather’s corpse was casually set out in the kitchen, as people ate and interacted with each other in a very social and optimistic environment. This is very different from all the funerals I’ve attended; people are very quiet and somber. Their sadness comes from placing emphasis more on the loss of life as opposed to celebrating the life of the deceased. I also thought it was interesting how my informant’s relatives would sleep near the corpse. It’s as though they’re treating her granddad as alive, one last time.

Customs
general

Jewish Funeral

My informant is African-American and is from Boca Raton, Florida. Her family practices Judaism, so she explained to me a part of their funeral ritual:

“We do this thing called Shiva. Basically it’s like you sit in your house and people bring you food. It happens for seven days, so it’s like a week of mourning. People come by whenever and they bring all sorts of food as a way to say sorry. It includes friends and family. It’s like, if you’re Jewish you just know that they’re going to have a Shiva, so you should stop by and bring them food. Usually there’s a lot of people there because once someone passes away usually the mourning house will get a lot of visitors. It’s kind of like a.. not like a social like you go there to socialize. But you go there and you’re eating a little and chatting. You could stop by and there’s no one there.”

As we’ve learned in class, death is a rite of passage. It is a transitional process where the deceased moves from the living world to the world of the dead. According to my informant it sounded like shivas are not entirely somber and grim, but have some light-heartedness to it as well. From other funeral rituals I’ve heard of, it seems like the gathering of people is the most shared attribute regardless of whether or not it is to mourn together or reminisce and celebrate the life of the deceased.

Folk Beliefs
general
Protection

Pagpag

Pauline is an international student from the Philippines. She is studying Chemical Engineering in the United States, and she plans to return to the Philippines once she graduates and receives her B.S. in Chemical Engineering. Her hobbies are watching anime, eating delicious food, and taking naps.

Original Script

In the Philippines, there’s this superstition that like every time you go to a wake or a funeral you’re not supposed to go straight home. You’re supposed to do this thing called pagpag, which is basically like after the wake or the funeral, like you go anywhere else that isn’t your home so like people usually like go to the mall, they don’t do anything, they just go in and walk out and then they go back home. Because that way you’re kinda like removing all of the bad energy and stopping the spirits from following you home. Because we believe like if you go straight home you’re going to bring all that bad energy with you. And the word pagpag basically means like for example if you have like a carpet and you want to remove all of the dust and hair you kind of flap it like that and all of the dust comes off and so that’s kind of like when you go into the place you’re kind of making pagpag all the bad energy from yourself.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant and her family are less traditional and do not perform pagpag after funerals. However, when the informant attends wakes or funerals with her more traditional Filipino friends, they make her perform pagpag with them. They usually go to a mall or a park for a while before returning to their homes

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant in a study room at Parkside IRC.

Pagpag is a term that means “to shake off the dust or dirt” in Tagalog. Filipinos have used the term to refer to the superstition that one cannot head directly back to one’s home after attending a funeral until one has performed pagpag. This ancient practice has been preserved by Filipinos in fear of the possibility of the dead’s soul following the visitor home after the wake.

My Thoughts about the Performance

There are many superstitions about funerals or wakes that involve one being haunted by the deceased. I find it interesting that many of my Filipino friends still practice pagpag with their families after funerals. They reason that these superstitious beliefs are merely guidelines to prevent any consequences; they lose nothing for following them. In other words, it is better to be safe than sorry.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Signs

Shadow in the Burial Pot

Daniel is an immigrant from Hong Kong who immigrated to the United States in search of better opportunities and a better life for both him and his family. Living in a poor family with seven other siblings, he immediately went to work as a police officer after receiving his high school diploma in Hong Kong. Once he moved to Los Angeles, he worked as a computer technician, and subsequently, changed his career to a funeral counselor.

Original Script

This is our Chinese Asian tradition. When we do the funeral service in the cemetery, we will try to keep our shadow away from the burial pot. We believe that if our shadow fell into the pot, our soul will be buried together, which will cause us bad luck and illness.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant heard of this superstition from a Taoist priest during a funeral service. During one particular funeral service, his shadow was about to be caught in a burial pot before the priest pulled him away and explained this superstition to him.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant at his house.

There is the belief that the shadow is the manifestation of the soul; it is commonly associated with life and death. Among many cultures around the world, chaos and darkness were believed to be the beginnings of the cosmos. Thus, people came to believe that the shadow, as a reflection of darkness, possesses life within itself. In addition, one’s shadow imitates one’s actions; it seems to emulate life, leading to the assumption that shadows are living beings. From this belief, the Chinese superstition—a person’s shadow caught in a burial pot will invite bad luck and sickness—was born.

My Thoughts about the Performance

There are many superstitions revolving around death and funerals. According to some cultures, one’s shadow is an essential part of one’s humanity, identity, or soul. Losing it would incur bad luck or even death on the person. I find it interesting how the superstition told by the informant leads to the loss of a person’s soul. I expected the consequence of a person’s shadow entering the burial pot to be the person being haunted by the deceased, because this is one of the most common penalties involving the dead.  

general
Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Indian Cremation Ritual

Informant SM is a sophomore studying Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California. He is very passionate about philanthropy, specifically helping poorer parts of India and aspires to one day become a doctor. The informant tells me(AK) about an Indian tradition centered around cremation he is fond of and believes many Indian people practice.

SM: It is customary in Indian tradition to cremate someone’s body after they die. And then you take the ashes, and you put it in a place that’s very special to this person.

AK: Wow I think I’ve heard of something similar. What does this ritual mean to you?

SM: It’s a way of celebrating someone even after they have died.

AK: Where did you learn this ritual, and does your family practice it?

SM: I didn’t learn it from a specific person, but it’s just part of Indian culture. I haven’t had a chance to experience it because none of my relatives have died in my lifetime.

AK: Where would you want your ashes to be placed?

SM: Oh wow, that is a tough question (laughs). I guess I’d pick Mount Tambora, you can call it Mount Tam — in San Francisco because it’s this really beautiful hike, and it’s kind of the first hike I went on with my family. Yeah, I guess that’s where I would put mine.

I was definitely familiar with this ritual, but I had never heard the part about placing the ashes in the person’s favorite place. As I asked the question to my informant about where he would like his ashes placed, I began to think about how I would answer that question. It certainly is a very difficult question because it’s so difficult to determine someone’s favorite place. I feel like at this point in my life, I don’t really have a favorite place, but if I had to choose, I think I’d just pick my room in the house I grew up in.

 

Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Scattering Ashes at Sea

The informant, AA, is from a Vietnamese family. While she was born in California, her parents are first generation immigrants who escaped the Vietnam War. While she is Christian herself, many of her family members are Buddhist. AA describes a funeral tradition that combines elements from both religions:

“So when my grandpa passed away, we followed Buddhist funeral traditions as well as our own. My grandpa was Buddhist, and so was my grandma- my older relatives were all Buddhist. In Buddhist tradition, you’re supposed to cremate the body and put the ashes in an urn. So we did that. And a week afterwards, we went out to sea on a boat, and a pastor was there. He delivered a sermon and we all said prayers as we were spreading the ashes into the sea. Basically it’s meant to symbolize this idea of- taking souls across the sea into another world, the afterlife so to speak.

It was just a way to mourn and respect my grandpa. I think that for my parents it was a great relief to be able to spread his ashes and let him be free. They didn’t want to keep him an urn. It was a very liberating gesture.”

Is this specific tradition particular to your family or is it commonly done?

“The spreading of ashes, I think, is commonly done in a lot of traditions. It’s definitely common for Buddhists. What’s special about this funeral is that we incorporated some elements from our own religion- Christianity- with my grandparent’s old Buddhist beliefs. There was a bunch of different people at the funeral. It was a very mixed group.”

 

My thoughts: This personal account shows how religious practices can take place outside of the established church doctrine and combine many aspects from different religions. There are some recognizably Buddhist practices that took place at this funeral, such as the scattering of the ashes in the sea. The idea of having a pastor and a sermon, however, appeals to the Christian members of AA’s family. They have created a completely new funeral tradition that is a composite of different faiths and is ultimately unique to this family. Every family expresses their faith differently- there is no one standard way to be a Buddhist or a Christian.

 

Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Cat Over the Coffin

The informant, JT, is the mother of one of my friends. She is Vietnamese, and she grew up in Ho Chi Min City. Here she shares a superstition regarding funerals and her own personal experience with it:

“In the Vietnamese culture, when someone passes away, there are many things you are never supposed to do with the body. Autopsies are looked down upon by some more traditional people because the body should remain whole. If someone steals a part of the body, they may be able to do black magic with it. The person is never cremated either.

They dress the body in simple clothes and put it in the coffin, where they leave it there for about three days, so family and friends can pay their respects. But the coffin always has to be supervised, at all times. They say that if a cat jumps over the coffin, the lid will open and the person will wake up!

Let me tell you something! When I was 12, I walked by the house where they have the funerals, and I saw exactly that happen. They would keep the coffins outside so people could go to look at them. A stray cat from the street went to where the coffin was and jumped over- and the lid of the coffin flew open! I saw it with my own eyes and it was the scariest thing I ever saw in my entire life! The man sat up for a second, and then he lay down and went back to how he was before. I heard people say though- and I don’t know if this is true- that it’s possible for someone to wake up after the cat jumps and stay alive.

I guess it’s because they say that cats have nine lives, they don’t die like we do. It’s really freaky actually!

 

My thoughts: Cats feature in many superstitions around the world. They’re often associated with bad luck, witches, and even the devil. This may be because of the secretive and solitary nature of cats- they have a certain sense of mystery surrounding them. In this folk belief, the cat is associated with bad luck at funerals. Many other cultures also have superstitions involving people coming back to life at their own funerals or wakes. This could be due to the fact that before modern medicine it was harder to determine whether the person in question had actually died. So there may have been real life cases were people seemed to come back from the dead when they were really never dead to begin with that in turn inspired folk beliefs such as this one.

I noted that superstitions still play an important part in the funeral traditions of Vietnam often clashing with the “modern” and the “scientific”, such as autopsies.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Kinesthetic
Life cycle
Old age
Protection
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.

 

ANALYSIS:

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.

Customs
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.”

 

Thoughts:

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.

Customs
Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Czech Funeral

“I went to a funeral recently for my Czech nanny who passed away recently. Hana practically raised me, so her death was very, very difficult for me. I thought that I wouldn’t even be able to handle going to the funeral, my emotions were so high. But it was unlike any funeral I have ever been to. Most funerals are miserable, everybody crying, everybody in black. They’re awful experiences, and I hope you never have to go to one. But this one was different. This one was exactly what I needed to help grieve. So it was actually a celebration of her life. Whenever anyone spoke, they were just to recall fun times they had had together. Her favorite music was playing. Everyone was wearing bright colors. The old and the young were all mingling and engaging with one another. It was beautiful. I think that’s how a lot of the world celebrates death, or at least they should. I think I heard someone say that it’s the Czech . . . or I guess Slavic people in general have a healthier outlook on death than most.”

The informant has never lived outside of her hometown in Orange County. The experience was so novel to her that it began to represent much of her understanding of modern European culture, as she now believes that such funeral practices are more common in Europe. The informant really stressed the communion of the old and young at this funeral, as no one was segregated into groups based on age or gender. Given the deep Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions of the Baltic regions of Europe, such an funeral seems very uncharacteristic, given traditional Christian death rituals. Perhaps this informant’s experience is indicative of changing times in which, as she said, a healthier outlook on death has become the norm.

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