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Cultural Differences in Death Rituals

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 1898 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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The Culture of Death Rituals

A ritual is defined as “A behavior, often performed in repetitive and stereotyped ways, that expresses people’s anxieties by acting them out and that may be performed with the desire to influence supernatural beings or supernatural power to achieve greater control over the natural world” (Crapo, 2013, Glossary). During some point in our lives, we have all experienced a ritual whether we were aware of it or not. It could’ve been for a family member or friend’s funeral, a baptism, or even a wedding. When reflecting on these three events, you may notice one thing they all have in common: they are all rites of passages. According to Crapo (2013), rites of passages are ceremonies that are held whenever a member of society undergoes a significant change in status within the lifecycle of the group (Glossary). Death is a rite of passage we all will go through one day. It is unavoidable which can make it terrifying, but also intriguing. Throughout this essay, I will cover America’s culture on death rituals from an outsider’s perspective to see the overall importance that is or is not, placed on American death rituals. I will also discuss death rituals in Japan from an insider’s perspective to become more familiar with the meaning behind Japan’s rituals. In both countries, whatever rituals performed is considered standard for society to follow and are only questioned when said rituals are strayed away from. As the world has evolved, these death rituals have changed with it.

Part I

In this section, I will explain general American death rituals from an etic perspective. An etic perspective is defined as, “an outsider’s or observer’s alleged ‘objective’ account” (Crapo, 2013, Ch. 1.1). Think of a time when you experienced another culture either through travel or just an authentic restaurant. At one point during your experience, something may have happened that seemed odd or silly. I know I have said to myself, “wow, this is uncomfortable” as the mariachi band has sung their hearts away to my table at a Mexican restaurant. Well, that same culture, which’s actions may have been awkward or silly, has had the same thought or feeling toward American culture. It is essential to think out of the box, placing ourselves in other’s shoes.

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A great example of an outsider’s perspective on a known culture would be when Horace Miner wrote about the Nacirema culture. He describes the rituals and habits of this culture, which are quite alarming. After a thorough reading, you come to realize once finishing the article that Miner is describing the American culture. It is shocking to see how foreign our own American culture can be when taking the view of an outsider. When realizing that the American culture didn’t shock you before reading Miner’s article, it makes one thing evident: once you’ve learned about a culture that seemed odd, it may no longer seem strange.

Death is always one of two: expected or unexpected. Depending on whether the death in question was expected or not seems to determine what path the living takes when it comes to rituals, regardless of the religion involved. When an expected death has happened, every detail seems to play out without flaw. The body is transferred to a funeral home, and is either embalmed for a funeral then burial, or cremated. Some bodies are preserved, and then later cremated after a funeral service has taken place. It all happens so quickly and efficiently that once everything is complete, its as if everyone effect by the death moves on with their daily lives as if they were never disturbed. On the other side of the spectrum, when a death is unexpected, it seems to affect the living more intensely and for a little more time. Family and friends mourn for weeks, creating multiple physical memorials to remember and honor their loved one. An example of tragic and unexpected death is the Columbine Shooting in 1999. After the shooting, students started piling everything from flowers to posters in a grassy area near the school parking lot. The students also memorialized the murdered students’ cars that remained in the school parking lot. These memorials stood in remembrance for two weeks and were then removed.

In Erika Doss’ article (2006), there is a passage regarding the modern Westerns’ approach to grief being “viewed as a disruptive and debilitating emotion, and one that had to be dealt with—”worked through”—as quickly as possible, hence the emphasis on severing ties with the dead, with “letting go” and “moving on” (Doss, 2006, p.301). For some time until recently, it appears that death in America, whether expected or unexpected, was handled quickly and without post-funeral instruction. Grieving after the funeral was done in private, as public grieving was greatly frowned upon. Those affected by the death were expected by society to find closure and move on. Although there is still a lack of post-funeral instruction, the public is moving towards changing the view of public grieving that was previously frowned upon to an “increasingly permissible public emotion in America” (E. Doss, 2006, pg.306).

America is home to many ethnicities and religions. Each has their preferences on how funeral ceremonies should be done and how the deceased’s body is cared for. Take away anything related to religion or ethnicity, and there lie the basics of what the American culture influences death rituals. Because of all of the different religions Americans practice, there is a wide variety of beliefs on what happens once a person dies. Some believe nothing at all happens, that the deceased is gone and there is no afterlife. Many religions in America believe in some type of afterlives, such as limbo, reincarnation or heaven. Although there are still no instructions on how to proceed after one is gone, most Americans will make their own, unique path when dealing with loss.

Part II

In this section, I will explain the Japanese death rituals that are carried out regularly in everyday life, from an emic perspective. As Crapo (2013) defines it, “An emic description or analysis- that is, an insider’s or native’s meaningful account- may be written for outsiders but portrays a culture and its meanings as the insider understands it” (p.27). In her article, Rites of Passage to Death and Afterlife in Japan, Tsuji (2011) describe in great details Japanese traditions and how she felt lost once she moved to America and experienced the lack of direction after her husbands’ death.

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Japanese death rituals are better understood by first explaining the rites of passage leading up to one’s death. These rites start at age 60 and if one is lucky to live as long, go to age 111. Japanese culture considers these special rites that happen after Kanreki (60th birthday) to be initiations, or cultural guides, towards one’s death. Even after death, one is considered to have rites still when they are being remembered through ancestral worship. After death, the rituals begin with the Japanese Mortuary Tradition. This tradition helps guide the Japanese before and after death. Before someone dies, next of kin will wet the dying relative’s lips. This act signifies the nearness of death.

Once a person dies, a feast follows. Ritual services are carried out every seven days until the forty-ninth day after death, and another ritual takes place on the hundredth day. On the forty-ninth day, an elaborate service takes place honoring the deceased, and a feast follows. After the hundredth day, rituals will take place periodically depending on the anniversary year of death. These ritual services serve as a guide for the deceased to go from limbo to transforming into a Buddha. The dead then are on their way to ancestorhood.

The elderly are considered the caretakers of the ancestors in the home. Elderly women will perform daily rituals for the family’s ancestors and pass down stories of the deceased to the next generation. Young family members will know their long deceased relatives just as well as they would if the deceased were living. One day it will be this generation’s responsibility to continue passing down the stories of the family’s ancestors so that future generations can know them as well. For the surviving family, every morning before eating breakfast, a member of the family will offer some type of food and drink to an altar in the home that honors deceased family members. The meal provided may consist of the ancestors’ favorites or fresh foods that are considered delicacies. A priest from the temple will come on the anniversaries of the family members’ deaths to chant sutra, even long after the relatives have passed. During religious weeks families will visit the family grave to keep the spirit of the dead alive.

Today the Japanese culture has encountered hardship as these rituals are strived to be kept alive. There are a growing number of couple-only and single-person households. Japanese birth rates are declining as divorce rates increase. This has been viewed as disrespectful to the Japanese culture and has also damaged patrilineal descendant reliance. Non-traditional ways have become more popular, not by choice when caring for the dead. This is due to grave site shortages and the enormous financial burden put on the surviving families. The Japanese culture has created some possible contemporary solutions to these problems with effort to ease the financial burden. One of these options consists of single women and childless couples purchasing eternally worshiped graves. Some people have even chosen the opportunity to have a living funeral so that they can be apart of the event.

Anthony Pinn said in his article (2015), “Humans move through the world aware that life is framed by death, and death by life” (p.348). In essence, it doesn’t matter where a person is from or what they believe in, death is inevitable.


  • Crapo, R. H. (2013). Cultural anthropology [Electronic version]. Retrieved from https://content.ashford.edu/
  • Doss, E. (2006). Spontaneous Memorials and Contemporary Modes of Mourning in America. Material Religion, 2(3), 294-318
  • Miner, H. (1956). Body Ritual among the Nacirema. Links to an external site. American Anthropologist, 58(3), 503–507. Retrieved from https://www.msu.edu/~jdowell/miner.html
  • Pinn, A. (2015). The End: Thoughts on Humanism and Death. Dialog: a Journal of Theology, 54(4), 347-354. Retrieved from the EBSCOhost database.
  • Tsuji, Y. (2011). Rites of passage to death and afterlife in Japan. Generations Journal of the American Society on Aging, 35(3), 28-33. Retrieved from the EBSCOhost database.


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