Potent, Enduring, and Varied: A look at the funeral traditions of four different cultures

Funerals in Other Cultures

Funeral traditions are potent. They touch our hearts. They express our deepest understandings of life and death. They form major landmarks in the life of every one of us.

Funeral traditions are enduring. They change slowly, if at all. Each subculture, and each group within a subculture, seems to have its own ways of marking the end of life.

Funeral traditions are varied. There are surprising differences in the ways people bury their dead, reflecting contrasting understandings of death. The first time I encountered those differences was as a boy in China. My father had taken me along to visit a dying neighbor. The old man was lying on his bed, and under his bed, clearly visible, stood his coffin. He spoke of it with satisfaction. Its presence meant that he would rest in the earth in a corner of the family farm in this fine wooden coffin. That was a comfort to him. Can you imagine keeping your casket in your bedroom?

The four brief articles that follow are intended to express a little of this potency, enduring quality, and variety of funeral traditions. Written out of four different cultural settings (Hispanic, Navajo, Japanese, and African American), they give a taste of each tradition. Reading them can help you think in new ways about your own funeral tradition and the ideas of life and death implicit in it.
—Harvey A. Smit

The late Harvey Smit was executive director of Reformed Worship and editor-in-chief of CRC Publications.