Funeral Customs of African Americans and American Jews

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¡§The chaos of death disturbs the peace of the living. This unsettling fact of life has proven to be a rich source of inspiration for human efforts to find order in disorder, meaning in suffering, eternity in finitude. Religion, culture, social structures, the vitality of these rudimentary elements of communal life depends upon ritually putting the dead body in its place, managing the relations between the living and the dead and providing explanations for the existence of death.¡¨ - Gary Laderman - 2003

A ¡§melting pot¡¨ is an accurate description of America¡¦s cultural diversity. Everywhere across the country many people from different countries and cultures have migrated to the United States. Some form subcultures or communities while others are dispersed and isolated. Over time, many of the ceremonies and traditions, such as funerals, associated with a particular culture have been influenced by or mingled with Euro-American customs, causing people to loose touch with the context of their own traditions. For example, some conform to American burial customs and adopt secular attitudes about bereavement, which tend to underestimate the power of grief and the impact of loss. This is particularly true with younger generations born in the United States. Also, ¡§¡K uniquely American is the mass use of embalming, as it is the base of the American economic funeral industry.¡¨ (Mitford ¡V 1998, Introduction) However, many prideful people keep the traditions and customs of their indigenous cultures alive, retaining their distinct ethnic or religious traditions. This paper will compare the similarities and differences in funeral practices between two large populations and sub-cultures of the United States; African Americans and American Jews, and also how American influences have affected their traditional funeral customs. In the past, when a person died no one asked, ¡§When should we schedule the funeral?¡¨ or ¡§How much would you like to spend on a casket?¡¨ Members of the community simply appeared and began preparing the body for burial and the mourners would provide comfort to the bereaved. Death itself has become something of a stranger because it used to be that death was an everyday occurrence of life, for example people did not live as long, higher infant mortality rates, etc. People usually died at home, surrounded by loved ones. ¡§Funerals, like weddings, were not invitational events, but community-wide gatherings. But today, it is possible to reach the age of forty without ever attending a funeral or visiting a house of mourning. In addition, death and dying are removed from the flow of daily life as most people die in hospitals and nursing homes. Thus death comes as terrifying shock, leaving the bereaved unprepared and adrift.¡¨ (Diamant - 1998, Page 4) The funeral service then, in any culture, is a social function in which the deceased is the guest of honor and the center of attention. A funeral service is a ceremony held in the presence of the body, with either an open or closed casket. There is also a ritual called a memorial service. This is a service held after the body has been removed. It can be either a substitute for a funeral service or in addition to it. It performs much the same function as a funeral service but tends to have a more positive atmosphere, because it is focused on the virtues of the person who has died instead of on the dead body. (Morgan - 2001, Page 81) The funeral service, memorial service, or both may be followed by a committal service. ¡§A commitment, or committal service is a brief, optional service held at the graveside or in the chapel of a crematory. It is usually in addition to a funeral or memorial service and is the occasion at which the immediate family and possibly a few close friends bid good-bye to the body.¡¨ (Morgan - 2001, Page 81) With death we experience loss and with the loss, grief, which is the process by which loss is healed. Therefore no matter what the cultural...
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