Individual Variations and the Grieving Process

Some young people are well acquainted with dying and death. Many are not. Either way, most people are aware of and familiar with a specific death culture by an early age.

What is death culture? Death culture is the acting out of beliefs, practicalities and emotions around the death of a loved one. For example, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, death culture commonly includes Christian ceremony, quiet viewing of the embalmed and made up body in a casket at a funeral home, burial in a local cemetery and a public but very curbed display of grief. Certainly this is true for the majority of Western European-American communities.

As a contrast, common death culture in India includes Hindu tradition, viewing of the unembalmed body by gathering extended family in the home of the deceased, cremation and open grief.

People raised with a standard death culture are conditioned to expect that standard, and thereby believe that they require that standard. Many of them are not even truly aware of other death cultures, and often dismiss the alternatives as unnatural or inappropriate upon learning of them.

How might a young person in Kansas respond to an old tribal custom of placing the dead in trees, so that the elements and animals can do the work of body disposal? Would someone believing in the importance of returning to the earth accept modern embalming and internment within a lead vault? Both probably feel that their own community’s practices are best for closure and practicality.

There is a call for change in what Americans expect after the loss of a loved one, and for a number of reasons. One: Christianity is no longer assumed to be everyone’s choice religion, nor is everyone assumed to be religious. Two: Generations of anti-depressant taking, therapy going adults suggests that emotions such as grief should not be repressed. Three: The conservation of energy, space and materials is a prominent national issue, and must be considered by the funeral industry. This last point is perhaps the most obvious and immediate reason for change.

Consider the so-called green burial. Certain American entrepreneurs purchase land for the purpose of conserving it. They then reserve acreage on that land as memorial gardens, meaning a public cemetery. However, people wishing to obtain burial plots there need to agree to environmentally friendly burial. The bodies must remain unembalmed, and they must be wrapped or contained in biodegradable materials. The grave markers might be small stones embedded in the ground, allowing for “natural” looking landscapes. Proponents of green burial assure that the buried bodies will be safe distances from power and water sources. They also report costs much lower than those of more elaborate burials.

While the concept of green burial might be environmentally and financially ideal, the notion of an unembalmed, makeupless body, quick internment and natural decomposition bothers some individuals. Those raised with the standard of dead bodies looking as though they are asleep claim that a body actually appearing dead would haunt them, and inhibit closure.

Is it possible that many Americans today are so separated from death that when it happens to a loved one they are afraid to literally look death in the face?

In previous centuries, people died at home, surrounded by their families. Technology was limited, and serious illness usually meant the end of life. People accepted this. Children knew about it, and didn’t fear it, as it was simply the natural course of things. The bodies of deceased loved ones were nothing to be averse to. On the contrary, families honored their passed members by washing and preparing the bodies themselves. Of course, quick burial meant that anyone not in the area did not get to see the body. Because extended public viewing was not the standard, people did not expect it, and worked through their grief toward closure with time. Softened empirical evidence of the death was not necessary.

And it is not necessary today, despite the fact that it is possible and widespread.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to expect the majority of Americans to simply alter their perceptions of death culture, especially when it is something rarely discussed in national conversation. Still, those with newer and changing ideas on the subject hope that increased information and dialog will bring an opportunity for change.

Death culture is not morbid. It is a highly reflective element of society, and should be seen as a chance for expression and function. If Americans can find a way to practice death culture that works for both closure and practicality, it would no doubt promote global good and acceptance.