Tag Archives: funeral customs

Shaving a Path to the Future- Congolese Funeral Tradition

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Congolese American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence:
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/19/2020
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Lingala

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

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Vietnamese
Age: 25
Occupation: PhD Candidate
Residence: Los Angeles
Date of Performance/Collection: 3/29/2020
Primary Language: Vietnamese
Other Language(s): English

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

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 70
Occupation: Health Care Worker
Residence: Alton, Illinois
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/28/2020
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

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.

Open Casket Funeral Ritual

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 54
Occupation: Off the Grid Director of Partnerships
Residence: California
Date of Performance/Collection: March 13, 2021
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): none

Main Piece: 

Informant-  I recently attended an open casket funeral for a family member. It was a graveside burial in the farmlands of North Carolina. Due to COVID, it was an odd liminal time period and therefore no one was hugging. My parents and I approached the tent which held the casket and prepared to say our goodbyes to the body. We each individually gathered close to the casket, reached down, and touched our deceived family member. I left her side and allowed time for my mother and father to say their goodbyes

Interviewer- Could everyone at the funeral approach the casket to say their goodbyes?

Informant- No the tent which held the open casket was for family members only. After the family members said their goodbye the casket was closed and brought to the burial location outside fo the tent. There, the coffin was closed and open for members of the community to observe.

Interviewer- Was touching the body an important part of the ritual? 

Informant- Touching the body is important because you receive a feeling that the soul has passed onto heaven. Each person holds is entitled to their own beliefs of touching the body or not but it is very important for me. Her body is left behind but is no longer the home for her soul. Touching the body allowed me to understand that her soul lives on in heaven and is no longer on earth. This is a moving experience. 

Background: The informant is 54 years old and returned to his home town in North Carolina to attend the funeral. The informant has strong religious views as a Christian. He has attended open casket funerals before and is familiar with the custom of touching the dead body. He learned about the moving experience of touching the dead body from his minister at church years back. Ever since his first experience completing this ritual he has continued to hold its importance. This ritual connects him closer to god and the natural cycle of life. 

Context: I collected this piece by interviewing the informant after he returned from this trip to North Carolina for the funeral. The funeral occurred outside during the day with a group of people. 

Thoughts: This ritual holds great importance for connecting participates to the cycle of life and understanding the uncertainty of death. Death and funerals represent a very liminal period where folk customs allow people to connect with uncertainty. This ritual and the importance of touching the dead body allowed the informant to grasp the idea of the body and the soul. The body and the soul are disconnected after death. The body is only the temporary home for the soul and this ritual gives the family a time to understand the movement of the soul. 

Throwing A Pinch Of Salt Over The Shoulder – Buddhist Tradition

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 20
Occupation: College Student
Residence: Irvine, California
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/3/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Main Piece

Subject: Um… I really don’t know the origins of this one… but… I believe it’s Buddhist or like… Asian. If we’re coming back from a funeral, a graveyard, or anything related to dead people, we don’t enter the house before throwing a pinch of salt over both of our shoulders. And it’s supposed to make sure that dead spirits don’t follow you into the house and haunt you. And I still abide by that.

Interviewer: When did you start doing that?

Subject: Ever since I was a kid, it was almost as customary as wearing like… black to a funeral. When you came back, sure enough, you threw salt over your shoulders.

Interviewer: Oh. Cool. Where did you first learn this?

Subject: Um… I probably got it from my dad. It was one of those things growing up… it falls more in line with Hawaiian superstition and East-Asian superstition than it does with like… Jew… Stuff. *laughter*

Context: The subject is a Sophomore studying Law, History, and Culture at USC. She is of Japanese and Ashkenazi descent, and a third generation resident of Hawaii.  She is a very close friend of mine, and is currently quarantined at her home in Irvine, California due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The following conversation happened over a facetime call when I asked her to tell me some traditional folklore connected to her heritage.

Interpretation: I had heard of throwing salt over your shoulder for good luck, but not in the context of after a funeral. I found that is a very common Buddhist folk tradition for scaring off spirits, as my subject mentioned. I thought it interesting that she learned the tradition in Hawaii, and it has Buddhist roots. I think that shows how culturally diverse Hawaii is. In addition to that, it is also a Christian tradition to throw salt over the left shoulder, because many Christians believe the devil lingers on the left shoulder and it can “blind” him. The Christian folk belief is likely how it was popularized in America. It was interesting how my subject described the tradition as being as customary as wearing black to a funeral. I think that traditions and rituals can become so normal that we take them for granted and subsequently forget the reasoning behind them.

For more on the topic, see:

Pettit, Carl. “Why Do We Throw Salt Over Our Shoulders for Good Luck?” TSM Interactive. Jan. 4, 2012. (Dec. 10, 2014) http://tsminteractive.com/salt-shoulders-good-luck/

Sue, Granny. “Pass the Salt Please: Salt Folklore and Superstitions.” Pass the Salt Please: Salt Folklore and Superstitions, 5 June 2017, grannysu.blogspot.com/2017/06/pass-salt-please-salt-folklore-and.html.

White Headbands – A Chinese Folk Belief

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese, Vietnamese
Age: 49
Occupation:
Residence: Ewa Beach, HI
Date of Performance/Collection: April 14, 2019
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): Vietnamese, English

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.

Polish Funeral Custom — Cannot Dance

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Polish
Age: 48
Occupation: Caretaker
Residence: Elmwood Park, IL
Date of Performance/Collection: 3-11-19
Primary Language: Polish
Other Language(s): English

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.

Funeral – Ireland

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence: Alameda, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/23/17
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

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.

Cherokee Death Rituals

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 83
Occupation: Retired Nurses
Residence: Tulsa, OK
Date of Performance/Collection: March 16th, 2016
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

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.

Spanish Funeral Celebration

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Hispanic (product of Spanish rule in the Americas)
Age: 21
Occupation: student, front desk worker/ website translator
Residence: Los Angeles
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/25/2012
Primary Language: Spanish
Other Language(s): English

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.