Cultural Differences With Grieving

Written by brian canty
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Cultural Differences With Grieving
Mourning conventions ease the grieving process. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

Grief is the deep sorrow felt by an individual on the loss of someone he felt close to. It is idiosyncratic to the individual experiencing it, and therefore varies greatly within countries and cultures. A distinction should be made between grieving and mourning. Grieving is the emotion, while mourning is the process by which culturally similar people cope with a death by following certain conventions.

Consistencies Around the World

One ubiquitous factor throughout world cultures is how the death of a person is marked by a ritual. Forms of burial and cremation are found in cultures as geographically separate as Egypt and Korea. Specially designated sites for burials are also common across the world, such as Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, or Chin Pao San, Taiwan. There is usually an involved period of formalised mourning before and/or after the burial, such as an Irish wake or the Jewish shiva, to acknowledge the sorrow of the bereaved and the qualities of the deceased.

An Outlet for Grief

The rituals surrounding death often involve an outlet for grief, or some other cathartic ceremony designed to give relief and reassurance to the mourners. In the Philippines or Greece, for instance, public displays of grief are considered fitting tributes to the deceased, where a strong outpouring of emotion demonstrates love, piety and sorrow. At the other end of this spectrum, the Japanese tend to refrain from such public displays, considering them inappropriate and, at times, shameful. Gender differences figure strongly in determining emotional displays. In traditional China, women lament openly, while men remain reserved.

Customs of the Bereaved

Customs and practices that involve mourners tend to adhere to culturally accepted norms of decorum and clothing. It is quite common, especially in Western countries, for close family members to wear black clothing to express their sorrow. Black is considered a sombre, mournful colour that does not distract from the sorrow of the mourner. Historically, the wearing of black, especially by widows, extended for months, even years. In recent times, though, it is customary only for the formal ceremonies of death. During the shiva period in Judaism --- a weeklong mourning period for close family members after the burial --- clothing may be torn and facial hair untended to display a lack of interest in earthly vanity in such a sorrowful time.

Customs with the Body

While burials and cremations are commonplace all over the world, their precise customs differ greatly. As a rule, the practice of these customs offers stability for the bereaved, consoling them that their loved one has passed on to another stage of existence. In the Muslim tradition, the body is wrapped in cloth and then placed in a grave that is oriented towards Mecca. A Christian burial involves a casket or coffin being placed in the ground in front of a tombstone. In a Tibetan sky burial, the body is broken up by rogyapa and left outside to nature, thereby fulfilling part of the Buddhist philosophy of nourishing nature once the spirit has departed the body.

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