Funerals and Faith: Cultural Rituals of Grief

Crippen March

My father died last month. Although his death was not completely unexpected, it was entirely shocking and disorienting. As I cycle through various stages of grief, my mind has traveled to previous experiences with loss across cultures. I have been married twice, and in both of these intercultural partnerships I have been included in rituals of mourning family members through marriage. As an inside-outside cultural observer, I was more of an intimate witness than in-group member in these traditions and expressions of grief that were bewildering and at times incomprehensible to me.

Cheryl Crippen
The author, Cheryl Crippen, with her father.

Within my family of origin, our cultural traditions surrounding death reflect a distinct English-German heritage that values stoicism and private bereavement that conveys a dignified respect of both the deceased and the living. No viewing of the body, no graveside burial, no public demonstrations of excessive emotion, no time off from teaching. Keep Calm and Carry On has been transmitted for generations within my family. We grieve loss while celebrating life and legacy, and our rituals reflect this as we gather in large and small groups to honor my father’s fascinating life and the wide impact he has had on others. This is comforting to me, and this is the way I process my grief.

We grieve loss while celebrating life and legacy, and our rituals reflect this as we gather in large and small groups to honor my father’s fascinating life and the wide impact he has had on others.

In my early twenties, my Italian mother-in-law died rather suddenly at the age of 62. I was unprepared for her death, and even less prepared for the Italian Catholic rituals of grief over multiple days with everyone wearing all black, all the time. There was a viewing of her body during the wake. Next up was a full Catholic mass, much of which was conducted in Latin, which appeared to be incomprehensible yet comforting to most. The Rite of Committal at the gravesite concluded three days of formal rituals, in which the casket was lowered into the ground for burial. My disorientation at these unfamiliar rituals was compounded by my observations of profound displays of emotional grief, such as sobbing, wailing, and collapsing in exhaustion at every event by most of the guests including those who were acquaintances. It appeared to be a cultural expectation of how to express sympathy and support. To me, it all felt very out of control and a bit disingenuous as though they were grief stealers of the family’s personal loss.

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Fast forward a decade to my early thirties. My husband’s family emigrated from Gujarat, India in the 1960s, with most of the extended family remaining there. We had scheduled a visit soon after our marriage to participate in formal introductions and celebrations of our union (“meet, greet, and eat” at each of dozens of household visits). His maternal grandmother died unexpectedly the week before our arrival. Although much of this is now a blur, a few memories stand out that trigger similar thoughts of disorientation.

There were clothing guidelines for the Puja, the prayer rituals associated with Jain spiritual ceremonies following her cremation. This called for all-white or light-colored clothing that had never been worn, and that were not “too fancy.” This required a trip into the garment district in Mumbai to find appropriate attire and have it altered to fit me, since at 5’ 10” I was not exactly a typical size in India. I’m also not one who is a fan of excessive attention, and this particular task generated quite a bit of notice–stares, whispers, pointing, gawking by onlookers at the huge American lady being fitted for funeral ware. After the fitting was complete, I was concerned that the Shalwar Kameez draped my lean frame like a burlap bag, but the tailor insisted it was perfect because I would “need to be comfortable.”

Crippen India
The author, Cheryl Crippen, in India, in 2004.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that this advice was foreshadowing the three-plus hours that I would be sitting cross-legged on the concrete floor of the temple during the puja. Once again, I was hopelessly disoriented by ceremonies surrounding death, this time affecting all of my senses. The puja was conducted in Sanskrit/Hindi/Gujarti accompanied by odd smelling incense permeating the room that left my throat dry. I was in physical pain from sitting on my ankles for hours. There were many rituals that resembled a game of Simon Says— dipping my fingers into a brownish-orange clay and touching ten spots on a sacred statue; placing offerings of flowers, milk, rice, water, and other objects into a metal bowl; grasping onto a communal pitcher while the priest sprinkled milk onto us, and other sacred rites that transpired while a trio of musicians chanted high-pitched, shrill-sounding devotional songs in the background. I would like to say that I felt connected and inspired, but instead I was bored and irritated with the sensory overload, classic signs of my own culture shock embedded within Jain rituals.

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My dad was an extraordinary storyteller and lover of diverse cultural ways of being, and he particularly enjoyed hearing about my cross-cultural adventures in marriage and participation in diverse religious traditions. In the years that have passed, I have come to understand that the Catholic Church provides structure for the bereaved, and the visible, public emotional demonstrations of sorrow provide emotional catharsis for both the family and the local Italian-American communities. The Jain tradition of sitting (uncomfortably) for long periods of time engenders humility and contemplation, which provides space for mind wanderings that lead to reflection and creativity. All of these are ways of honoring the deceased.

I am not a religious person, yet I have come to appreciate the role of religious institutions in creating structure to express grief and to provide essential social support systems. In these mind wanderings and reflections over the past few disorienting weeks, I have gratitude to my family’s faith community, and to my global village in providing support and coming together to honor my father and to pay tribute to his remarkable legacy, stories, and shenanigans. Peace be unto you, Dad.

– Cheryl Crippen

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