Good grief: The culture of mourning

By Christian Nielsen

There is something of an inner circle to whose circumference varies from to culture. Knowing where you fit in takes some research.

4 November 2009

You never greet the ‘real mourners' at a Jewish funeral. Only the closest family at a Swedish funeral wear a special white tie. And you bring condolence money in a special black and silver decorated envelope to a Japanese funeral.

The news of is never easy to take but for those not in the inner circle it can also be confusing and awkward, from what to say on the card to what to wear at the funeral, or even if you should attend the funeral or send a card.

Attending funerals in a foreign country, with different traditions and mourning practices, is really a minefield. Do you send flowers? If so, what kind? Do you attend the ‘party' afterwards – what do you call the party?

seems to be a universal response to death or loss, but just how it is expressed – ritually and emotionally – differs between people, communities and cultures. The Encyclopaedia of Death and Dying – it really exists – even notes a scholarly distinction between grief and mourning on a cultural level.

“Grief is a subjective state, a set of feelings that arise spontaneously after a significant death,” it says, “whereas mourning is a set of rituals or behaviors prescribed by culture's tradition.”

But the concept of grief is a modern construct, it goes on. “Grief as a real subjective state grows from a culture that prizes and cultivates individual experience.”

In Japan, for example, grief can be considered an expression of social harmony – within the family or community – not an individual expression. Hitan, the nearest equivalent word for grief in Japanese, doesn't necessarily imply a response to death or loss – just sadness or sorrow.

The Irish, on the other hand, appear to embrace both grief and mourning for its individual and ritual significance, typified in the Irish wake where kin and community come from near and far to pay their respects to the departed and his family.

Outward expressions of grief like keening – a mix of wailing and chanting – are less common nowadays, but still form part of the Irish myth. The Catholic also obviously plays its role in traditional wakes, with mourners taking turns to kneel by the body to pray or offer a Rosary. After the funeral, people gather again at the deceased's home or a venue to remember and celebrate his life.

“There's grief and sadness, but there are also anecdotes and shared memories that collectively celebrate the person's life, not his death,” an Irish friend tells me. “And then there's the Guinness – the elixir mediating grief and gaiety,” he adds.

Protestant and private?

Now take the Swedes, whose mourning is more private and inward – more Protestant, dare I say. Only the closest of family and friends attend the funeral. It is altogether more discrete and sombre.

An Englishman recently posted a question on an online forum in Sweden to find out how he should respond to the death of a colleague's father. The responses were mixed. Many said, yes, he should express sympathy to the colleague (a card, message of condolence) but that it would not be appropriate to attend the funeral or other arrangements.

A similar question was posed in which the person wanted to know how to behave when his girlfriend's father died… what to say, wear, do, etc. He didn't feel he could consult anyone close to the deceased, as it felt out of place. The answer he got speaks volumes about the different cultural responses and rituals even from one side of Europe to the other.

And I quote: “It is usual to ring the number on the press announcement to the funeral home and inform them you will be attending (catering). It is usual to take a single flower (like a rose or something) as well as any other flowers you might send to place on the coffin at a particular moment in the service where the vicar asks people to come forward and say their goodbyes.

“Sometimes there is a clue in the press announcement about whether the family want a donation to a charity instead of a funeral bouquet from relatives (although you should still take the single flower).

“There is usually a ‘do' afterwards – often in the church hall or a nearby restaurant. Usually it is something simple like open sandwiches/salad [sic]. Close relatives and friend[s] make speeches.”

Grief, not all human

Just for interest's sake, apparently grief is not strictly speaking a human preserve, according to the wonderful Death and Dying Encyclopedia.

“In every culture people cry or seem to want to cry after a death that is significant to them,” it says. Grief could also be an instinctive response shaped by evolutionary development. “Primates and birds display behaviours that seem similar to humans' in response to death and separation. Instinctual response in this sense is a meta-interpretative scheme programmed into our genetic inheritance, much as nest building or migration is hard-wired into birds.”

It goes on: “Culture, of course, influences how people appraise situations, yet similar perceptions of events trigger similar instinctual responses. A significant death, then, might be regarded as a universal trigger of emotions, although which death is significant enough [to] spark such a response depends on the value system of a particular culture. Universal instincts, then, might provide the basis for concepts that could explain behavior in all cultures.”

So, there you have it.

Published with the author's permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.


  • Christian Nielsen

    Christian Nielsen is a journalist, copy writer and editor based in Brussels. He writes pretty much anything that takes his fancy, from the woes of travelling with kids to the dangers of antidepressants, but technology, EU affairs and science writing pay the bills.

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4 thoughts on “Good grief: The culture of mourning

  • Pingback: The interesting ways 5 different countries celebrate death | News For Women | WomensTrader

  • Thanks Robert for that story. That’s serious respect! I get the feeling we in the West go to such lengths to process the grief and dispense the mourning so we can move on, get on with our lives. How many people wear black for prolonged periods following a death nowadays? Widows are even encouraged to find love again. It all seems so alien to a world that has rituals like the Day of the Dead.

  • Christian, I very much enjoyed your piece about mourning and grieving.

    My wife and I got to experience some of the ceremonies here in Oaxaca,Mexico, when the elderly mother of our landlady died. The most striking part was a stunning reproduction of a Baroque religious painting that was made of colored sand on the floor of their living room. We went with her to church for nine days. Then we went with her and her many friends to the cemetery, where the colored sand that had made up the painting was ceremoniously poured over the grave.

    A bit more than a year later, and every Day of the Dead since then, our landlady builds an altar, or ofrenda, in a sheltered area in our compound, where she puts out brightly colored flowers, photos of her mother and father, plus their favorite food and drink. She, like most Oaxacans, believes that the spirits of los fieles difuntos–the faithful dead–come back for a visit on the 2nd of November (the spirits of dead children–los angelitos–come on the 1st).

    Here’s a story that illustrates how real these beliefs are in Oaxaca. One of our friends here is a very dignified 65 year old indigenous woman who has been selling woven goods to tourists at the zocalo–town square–since she was a little girl. She’s intelligent, educated, a good business woman, flies frequently to the U.S. to visit her children who live there, etc.

    Last year, just after Day of the Dead, she appeared with a nasty burn on her forehead and face. When we asked her what happened, she explained in complete seriousness that she had been preparing a pot of mole (an incredibly rich and delicious sauce that, properly made, requires dozens of ingredients and takes days to prepare) to offer to the spirit of her mother. However, she was in a hurry and decided to leave out some of the ingredients. At that moment her long-deceased mother, properly angry, made the boiling hot sauce jump out of the bowl and burn our friend.

    This year, needless to say, she took no shortcuts and emerged from Day of the Dead unscathed.

    And, needless to say, we treasure these opportunities to catch glimpses into a very different culture.

  • KhaledDiab

    Fascinating piece, Christian. Though all in all, we have fewer taboos today than yesteryear, death is one of those areas which seem to have actually become more taboo with time. So, I’m glad you saw fit to write about it.

    On the subject, I would highly recommend Julian Barnes’s new book, Nothing to be Frightened of, which is all about how we deal with our mortality.


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