USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘funeral customs’
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White Headbands – A Chinese Folk Belief

Item:

Q: Why can’t you wear white headbands?

H: 嗰啲 (go2 di1) white 係人地死咗人地 先戴白色吖嗎(hai6 jan4 dei6  sei2 zo2 jan4 dei6  sin1 daai3 baak6 sik1 aa1 maa3)

[Translation: People only wear white when people die, right.]

Q: 白色件衫定係 白色喺個 頭(baak6 sik1 gin6 saam1 ding6 hai6 baak6 sik1 hai2 go3 tau4)

[Translation: White clothes or white on the head?]

H: 個頭 (go3 tau4)  Like when the parents, like the- your upper generation, like your parents or your grandparents or something, yeah.  When they pass away, so wearing the white [gesturing a headband]. So Asians nope, not gonna wear the white headbands.

[Translation: The head.] (Rest of line remains the same)

Q: So the person who dies wears the white or when you have someone who passed away?

H: Mhmm. So the younger generation will need to put the white thing on their heads, so that’s why no Asians wearing white headbands.

 

Context:

I collected this folk belief as part of a conversation in both Cantonese and English about Chinese traditions and customs.  The informant, denoted by ‘H’ in the exchange above, is Chinese and was born and raised in a Chinese community in Vietnam before immigrating to the United States in her late teens.  She can speak Cantonese fluently but chose to speak to me in both Cantonese and English for my understanding.  It should also be noted that the informant likely meant East and Southeast Asians when referring to Asians in the text because these are the cultures that are most similar to her own.  She didn’t mention specifically where she learned about white headbands from when asked but only said that you just know this kind of thing growing up because you would see it all the time in Vietnam.  She also told me about how one of her daughters unknowingly wore a white scrunchie once and thus had to explain the symbolism behind it before making her take it off.  White headbands as a funeral custom is an inherent part of the culture in which she grew up, and as such, she will never forget about it and will always stay away from wearing one out of proper context herself.

 

Analysis:

This folk belief can be tied to a belief in sympathetic magic: since white headbands are worn as part of funeral custom when a member of your family has died, you could potentially cause death in the family by wearing them if no one has actually passed away.  The likeness of performing the custom during a particular event may evoke the event itself to happen.  Here we can also see an example of the difference in color symbolism between cultures, a difference that becomes apparent when one is removed from the immediate environment of their own culture.  The informant grew up around this symbolism, taking it as a given, and as such never recognized it as significant until coming to the United States.  In the United States and other western countries, white is often a symbol of innocence and purity.  On the other hand, in Vietnam and other eastern countries, white is a symbol of death and thus only worn during funerary rights.  This is likely why the informant’s daughter did not initially realize the bad omen of wearing a white scrunchie because she did not have the background of having grown up in Vietnam where white headbands were only worn for funerals.  Now with another example of the symbolism in the color white in Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, I can understand why it is also a bad omen to wear white during the lunar new year.  Since it represents death, you may bring death upon yourself.  All in all, this folk belief outlines the symbolism of the color white in East and Southeast Asian cultures and furthermore, it proves how one’s own culture is not immediately recognizable until taken out of its initial context.

Adulthood
Customs
general
Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Polish Funeral Custom — Cannot Dance

Text

The following piece is a Polish funeral custom that I learned of through my family’s babysitter whose father had recently passed away. The woman is a forty-eight year old Polish native who lives in Chicago now. I had been dancing around and in my attempt to get the Informant to join me, she explained why she was unable to.

Informant: “No, no…Can’t dance, no.”

Collector: “Come on! Why not?”

Informant: “No, no…My father die. I no dance for six months.”

Collector: “You can’t dance for six months because your dad died?”

Informant: “No dance for six months for father and mother. Four months for brother, sister.”

Context

The Informant has understood this Polish funeral custom for as long as she can remember. She remembers not dancing for a while after her grandfather had passed away, and has always understood it to be something she must also partake in. When her father passed, her entire family made the unspoken vow not to dance as a sign of respect to the dead.

Interpretation

While surprised at first, after hearing the Informant’s absolute belief in this funeral custom, I was beginning to also see it as a reasonable practice of mourning. I believe that the reason the Informant and her family undergo such a long process of morning, with such a specific time period, is out of respect for the ones they loved who have passed away. By vowing to not dance for six months, the participants must make a conscious effort everyday to not partake in overly joyful actions, excluding dancing altogether. I believe that commitment to this vow displays a respectful process of mourning, a way of honoring the dead by not moving on quickly after they are gone.

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.

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.

Customs
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Spanish Funeral Celebration

We celebrate the death, well not the death, but a celebration of that person’s life. You know how here you wear black, you have a little get together, it’s very quiet, you can’t make jokes and it’s inappropriate if you do. Where in my family and culture you bring in a big mariachi and a banda, and you play and drink. The banda is literally a band and they have trombones, clarinets, and guitars…um, and basically you drink and get super fucked up until 2 or 3 in the morning. Or sometimes until the sun comes back up. And you make really good food and you just remember their life. I mean, you’re kind of talking about the person the whole time, for example you dedicate songs to them, and you’re just like, “this is for you, fucker! You fucking bastard, you owe me three dollars!” (laughs) You talk a lot about dumb shit they did or as a kid how stupid they were. It’s never like, “we miss them.” Although…the mother is usually crying…afterward you visit their capilla – if you build one – on the anniversary they died.

These funeral customs have similarities to Irish funerals. Like most funerals, it’s about the loss of a loved one, but instead of being somber, sad, and quiet like most Americans are during funerals, they cope with the loss through celebrating that person’s life. Clearly there’s still sadness – the mother usually being the one crying – but by celebrating, drinking, and telling stories about their lost loved one, they possibly have a stronger outlet for their emotions and are able to deal better with their grief.

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