Tag Archives: funeral customs

Washing One’s Hands After a Funeral

Main piece: There’s a tradition of washing your hands after a funeral so you don’t bring death into the house. If you’ve been near a dead body, you want to get the death off your hands. You don’t want to bring death into your house. Even after my dad’s funeral, friends of my mother, who had stayed back to help with the catering and the flowers, they put a pitcher outside. I was impressed by all that actually. It’s what you do. Some cemeteries have a water fountain. Outside Jewish funeral homes there’s a place to wash your hands. 

Background: My informant is a 51 year-old Jewish woman. The majority of the funerals she has attended have been in Jewish cemeteries with Jewish burial practices. She doesn’t remember where she learned the practice exactly, but she recalls vividly seeing the pitcher of water outside a Jewish funeral home at her aunt’s funeral when she was fourteen. The logic makes sense to her, and she has partaken in this ritual many times before. 

Context: I was talking to my informant about Jewish traditions, and this was the first one that occurred to her. 

Analysis: This practice makes a lot of sense. A funeral is a liminal space, as it is the final celebration of the life of someone who is now deceased. With that comes a lot of uncertainty, and fear that death can come for anyone else next. By washing your hands before entering a home, you don’t cross the doorway between a graveyard or a cemetery – a place of death, and your house – a place where you live/where life happens. This also promotes the idea that death can linger/cling to a live person, and having a ritualistic cleansing of death from your hands encourages a sense of protection, and that it won’t come for you next. 

“Then we burn them and it is thought to go to the afterlife”

Context: My informant is a 26 year-old woman who is of Chinese descent. She grew up in Hong Kong and lived there until she moved to Pasadena at the age of 7. She described common practices for her family over holidays and how those were carried out at her buddhist grandfather’s funeral. She knows and loves these stories from personal experience.

Informant:

“For every holiday, we never celebrated like “Christmas”, we would celebrate my grandma’s lunar birthday or a special dragon boat holiday like all these random holidays that I grew up with. A lot of Chinese people will have an altar to honor their ancestors consisting of a little red box and red candles with a little sign. Sometimes there are little figurines. Before everyone eats you put out a table in front of it with specific dishes (tea, wine, chicken, rice, fruits, vegetables) and incense. You pray to your ancestors at the altar. They sell these papers that have gold foil and you ball them up then burn them to help the things get into the afterlife. This would happen on every Chinese holiday. Then when my grandpa passed, he was Buddhist, so we had all these traditions of when you go up and honor the body you go up in generations and bow a certain number of times, eldest to youngest. There would also be all of these elaborate paper items like iPhones or houses. Then we burn them and it is thought to go to the afterlife. There’s all these different chants that we would recite at the end as well.”

Thoughts:

I found this story really beautiful and moving. The symbol of burning these paper items in order to send them to those in the afterlife is one of the biggest things that stood out to me. Even the concept of having ancestors in the afterlife that you can easily access is a really intriguing concept that I had never thought of before. I also loved the idea of having this spread of different foods to offer as well. This shows how important food is in their culture and how much they honor and acknowledge those who have passed. 

Shaving a Path to the Future- Congolese Funeral Tradition

Context: This is a tradition that takes place when a Congolese woman’s husband passes away. My informant [OD] learned of this tradition from her dad and witnessed it occur when her uncle passed away.

  • What occurs?
    • When her uncle died, her cousin[his daughter] and aunt[his wife] shaved their heads as a means of honoring him and paying their respects. 
  • What was her opinion?
    • OD thought the tradition was very symbolic and powerful. By shaving their heads, her aunt and cousin marked a new phase in the life of their family. In addition, OD believed that it was valuable to maintain these traditions as Congolese Americans. Given the fact that they were in another country, maintaining these traditions was very important to her and those within her community.
  • Thoughts: After listening to OD’s explanation of this Congolese tradition, I agreed with the aspects of maintaining tradition as I am Nigerian American myself. Shaving one’s head to honor the life of a loved one may be viewed as very extreme from an outside lens, but because I have witnessed similar acts it was not that odd or strange to me. When my grandfather passed away, my parents flew back to Nigeria to attend his funeral. From my mom’s accounts, because of my grandfather’s status within his community, it was a tradition that all of the members of his family[wife, children, inlaws] dressed like him to both honor and emulate his spirit. This was a really powerful and symbolic gesture similar to OD’s tradition, it marked a new phase in my family’s life. While my grandfather had passed on, his spirit and legacy would live on in the members of his family. While it’s difficult to maintain traditions away from home[Nigeria or the Congo], in both cases, it is important to preserve them because they have such important value and continue to teach those who practice them more about themselves and where they come from. Traditions are important to me and I am inspired by the powerful meanings behind simple acts as shaving one’s head and even dressing like a deceased loved one. These traditions take on new subjective meanings to the families and communities that practice them and continue to preserve the connections between them and their respective cultures.

Vietnamese Funeral Traditions

Main story: 

Transcribed from my friend telling me about an event from his childhood memories. My friend will be referred to as TA and myself as MH. 

TA: Funerals are a bit different in Vietnam than here. Honestly, it gets a little crazy with the amount of people. But essentially what happens is that when the person dies they are put in a coffin for people to come and visit- I don’t know do you guys do that here? 

MH: Catholicism does open caskets during the funeral service in the church but that is usually the extent. 

TA: hmm, yeah this is usually a couple days long. So the date is set for the main service and then the few days leading up to the service like every single person in the family, including distant relatives, come visit and pay respects. It’s kind of insane how many people roll through. And then, on the main day when the casket is on the way to the burial grounds people will line the streets to say goodbye. 

MH: Like the entire way? 

TA: Sometimes, but not all the time. It’s like here in LA, you wouldn’t line up along the 10 West but you could line up alone Jefferson St leading up to the freeway entrance. That sort of thing, obviously if you are super rural then you could I guess go the whole way; but yeah that’s the main idea. And if you have money then you like have to get live music to be played, but it’s not a party it’s like sad music but you should do it if you can afford it. 

MH: Does it end there? Are there any post burial events? 

TA: Yeah, kinda. You have to go and visit the grave sight kinda frequently after the person is buried and bring them things. 

MH: Anything? Or like their favorite things? 

TA: You bring flowers, and usually their favorite food. And then you kind of just keep doing that forever haha. I guess until you die and the cycle repeats. But I think it’s a nice way to remember the dead. It may just be me though. 

Background: 

The informant grew up in South Vietnam and finds himself questioning some of the funerary tactics found in western cultures. Such as the typical Irish wake where people drink and tell stories and sort of be both sad but also cheery at the same time. 

Context : 

I was chatting with my friend on a video call during quarantine here in L.A. and I was curious about things he finds really different back home in Vietnam compared to here in the United states. 

My thoughts: 

I am Irish and Italian Catholic by heritage. So I couldn’t help but laugh when my friend was confused by the seemingly celebratory funerary practices of the Irish. I do think it was interesting how he found it disrespectful to spend the day drinking and remaining once the funeral service is over instead of a more somber procession. 

An Irish Wake

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Informant: Grandpa, he always used to tell the story about the Irish – I’ve told you this one before – about the Irish wakes – cause the Irish always had the big parties. And, uhh, that was back in the days, when, you know… they were having a party for one of the guys that had just expired. And he was in the kitchen laid out on the kitchen table! And everybody was, you know, laughing and going on because… they celebrate death, in a different way. And so. (laughing) and then all of a sudden the guy sat up! Because they didn’t have embalming back there, and back then and stuff, you know. You just – they just, they laid you out and you wait a couple days-they – you know, they didn’t keep you around for very long cause you start smellin’. So, you know, people with diabetic comas and stuff like that they didn’t know about that back then, so, uhh, he just sat up! (laughs) And he wasn’t dead anymore! He asked for a beer! He said, “everyone’s drinking a beer, I want one too.” I think I would’ve been scared out of my mind!

Interviewer: Right!

Informant: Eh, if your grandpa- when he told it it was always funnier.

Interviewer: No, that was funny!

Background: My informant was born and raised in southern Illinois to very strict Catholic parents. She has strong Irish and Italian heritage. This is a joke/story that I’ve heard many times since growing up, in slight variations.

Context: The informant is my grandmother, and has always had a proclivity for telling stories, jokes, and wives tales. This piece was selected out of many from a recording of a long night of telling stories in a comfortable environment.

Thoughts: I think that the main joke in this story is that the Irish drink a lot, which is a simple and common theme for Irish stories and jokes and stereotypes. There is also a layer in which the man waking up is funny in itself, though I’ve realized it has to do with who is telling the story. I’ve heard it told more straightforward and snappily, getting to the line at the end where the man says he wants a beer as if it’s more of a punchline. In this telling, however, my grandmother focused around the absurdity of someone you thought was dead sitting up and thinking everything was fine.