Nation’s diverse funeral practices may reflect deeper values

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Map by Kelsey Johnson

BYU nursing associate professor Karen de la Cruz attended her sister-in-law’s funeral when she was a teenager. As part of Philippine tradition, her mother-in-law began to wail.

“My mother-in-law actually threw herself into my sister-in-law’s grave, on top of the casket, into the dirt, and I was stunned,” de la Cruz said.

De la Cruz said in Phillipine culture, the mother of a child who dies is expected to have an inconsolable outburst of grief in order to prove her devastation. The Philippines are predominantly Catholic, and de la Cruz said mourners would pray for eight days with the casket in the home. This allows the family to socialize and talk about their loved one with those who come to visit during the mourning period.

In America, 50.2 percent of people chose cremation while 43.5 percent opted for burial in 2016, according to the National Funeral Directors Association 2017 Cremation and Burial Report. The percentages reflect the greater trend of increasing cremations and decreasing burials in America.

According to the report, the trend is due in part to religion and age. The report said non-religious Americans are more likely to consider cremation, along with the Baby Boomer generation which will be age 65 or higher by 2030.

Funeral director Brad Walker said America is in a process of de-memorializing, or not doing as much for those who die. He said America is one of the only countries where cremation is often done without celebration, while in Japan, which has 100 percent cremation, there are days of celebration and social gatherings following the death.

Walker said people are doing less memorializing and are more concerned with convenience and cost. He said he believes this affects American culture and how people deal with one another.

“If we don’t do special things in remembrance for the people we love most, then how do we treat the people we don’t love that are around us?” Walker said.

Walker quoted British Prime Minister William Gladstone, who said, “Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.”

De la Cruz said Americans generally don’t like to talk about death, even though everyone will die eventually.

“It’s something that we avoid, especially in our culture. We really don’t want to talk about it that much,” de la Cruz said. “And yet death is as much a part of life as birth is, and for the same reasons. It’s progression. But it’s hard to look at it that way sometimes.” 

In Ghana, de la Cruz said family solidarity is treasured but can sometimes be taken to excess. Ghanaian funerals are often extremely elaborate and expensive. The body of the deceased may go in a freezer for years as the family works to gather enough money for the funeral. She said families end up spending huge amounts of money on the funerals rather than other essential things like education for their children.

Kathleen Owen is part of a nonprofit called Funeral Consumers Alliance of Utah, which according to its website, helps consumers with their right to “affordable, meaningful, dignified after-death arrangements.” Owen said to her, death practices do not need to be elaborate in order to be meaningful.

Owen served an LDS mission with her husband in New Zealand, and she said deceased people there are usually honored through home funeral services in which the family sleeps in the same room as the dead body for three days. Owen said when her husband passed away, she participated in at-home preservation of the body and always had someone in the house with him in order to show her respect.

“To show respect for your deceased person, you do it with love, not money,” Owen said.

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