Sociocultural Definitions of Death
What comes to mind when you hear the word death? A driver killed in a traffic accident? A transition to an eternal reward? Flags at half-staff? A cemetery? A car battery that doesn’t work anymore? Each of these possibilities represents a way in which death can be considered in Western culture, which has its own set of specific rituals (Bustos, 2007; Penson, 2004). All cultures have their own views. Among Melanesians, the term mate includes the very sick, the very old, and the dead; the term toa
refers to all other living people (Counts & Counts, 1985). Other South Pacific cultures believe that the life force leaves the body during sleep or illness; sleep, illness, and death are considered together. Thus people “die” several times before experiencing “final death” (Counts & Counts, 1985). The Kwanga of Papua New Guinea believe that most deaths are caused by sorcery (Brison, 1995).
In Ghana people are said to have a “peaceful” or “good” death if the dying person has finished all business and has made peace with others before death, which implies being at peace with his or her own death (van der Geest, 2004). A good and peaceful death comes “naturally” after a long and well-spent life. Such a death preferably takes place at home, which is the epitome of peacefulness, surrounded by children and grandchildren. Finally, a good death is a death that is accepted by the relatives.
Mourning rituals and states of bereavement also vary in different cultures (Rosenblatt, 2001). There is great variability across cultures in the meaning of death and whether there are rituals or other behaviors to express grief. Some cultures have formalized periods of time during which certain prayers or rituals are performed. For example, after the death of a close relative, Orthodox Jews recite ritual prayers and cover all the mirrors in the house. The men slash their ties as a symbol of loss. The Muscogee Creek tribe’s rituals include digging the grave by hand and giving a “farewell handshake” by throwing a handful of dirt into the grave before covering it (Walker & Balk, 2007). Ancestor worship, a deep respectful feeling toward individuals from whom a family is descended or who are important to them, is an integral part of customs surrounding death in Japanese culture and of Buddhism in Japan (Klass, 1996b). Some cultures, such as the Toraja of Indonesia, do not encourage people to dwell on the dead or memories of them; nevertheless, they still maintain contact with the deceased through dreams (Hollan, 1995). We must keep in mind that the experiences of our culture or particular group may not generalize to other cultures or groups.
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How people experience loss through death varies a great deal among different cultures.
Death can be a truly cross-cultural experience. The international outpouring of grief over the death of world leaders such as Pope John Paul II in 2005, after terrorist attacks such as the one that killed thousands in the United States in September 2001, or during natural disasters that kill tens of thousands of people such as the cyclone in Burma and the earthquake in China in 2008, draws much attention to the ways in which the deaths of people we do not know personally can still affect us. It is at these times we realize that death happens to us all and that death can be simultaneously personal and public.
Altogether, death can be viewed in at least 10 ways (Kalish, 1987; Kastenbaum, 1985). Look at the list that follows and consider the examples given for these definitions. Then take another moment to think up additional examples of your own.
Death as an image or object
A flag at half-staff Sympathy cards Tombstone Black crepe paper Monument or memorial
Death as a statistic
Number of AIDS patients who die 496 CHAPTER 13
Murder and suicide rates Life expectancy tables Death as an event Funeral
Family gathering Memorial service Viewing or wake Death as a state of being
Time of waiting Nothingness
Being happy with God all the time State of being; pure energy Death as an analogy Dead as a doornail Dead-letter box Dead-end street You’re dead meat In the dead of winter
Death as a mystery What is it like to die?
Will we meet family?
What happens after death?
Will I learn everything when I die? Death as a boundary
How many years do I have left? What happens to my family?
What do I do now?
You can’t come back.
Death as a thief of meaning I feel so cheated.
Why should I go on living?
Life doesn’t mean much anymore.
I have much left to do.
Death as fear and anxiety
Will dying be painful?
I worry about my family.
I’m afraid to die.
Who will care for the kids?
Death as reward or punishment
Live long and prosper The wicked go to hell Heaven awaits the just Purgatory prepares you for heaven
The many ways of viewing death can be seen in various customs involving funerals. You may have experienced a range of different types of funeral customs, from very small, private services to very elaborate rituals. Variations in the customs surrounding death are reflected in some of the oldest monuments on earth, such as the pyramids in Egypt, and some of the most beautiful, such as the Taj Mahal in India.