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For the past two decades, the traditional funeral rite has been in transition for various reasons: changes in social stratification due to a declining economy and shrinking resources; increased immigration to the United States; neolocal spread of the family to many geographic loctions; increased demand for cremations; decline in religious practices and increased secular observances; and a shift from ancestral to contemporary funeral rites.

However, in thanatological terms, there are cultural universals that have remained consistent in funeral services: announcing the death, care of the deceased, a method of disposition, a possible ceremony or ritual, and some form of memorialization.

According to sociologist Norman Goodman, Introduction to Sociology (1992), the United States is characterized as a “nation of immigrants,” reflecting vast cultural diversity. Within a culture, there are many subcultures possessing unique traits that set them apart from each other.

As a funeral service professional, I have been privileged to arrange and direct funeral rites that have been rich in cultural diversity. I, for more than two decades, have felt privileged to be part of a society that requires the care and respect of the dead,regardless of the social,economic, religious or ethnic position of the deceased within the community.

African American

Funerals: The majority of funerals that I have arranged have been for African American families. Dr. Ronald K. Barrett, in Contemporary African American Funeral rites and Traditions (1995), states that “descriptions of contemporary African American funeral and mourning customs illustrate the persistence of traditional customs despite time and circumstance.”

Within the African American community, there exists a wide array of burial rituals which are specific to ancestral roots in West Africa. Funeral rites of the Caribbean tend to be elaborate, steeped in religious ceremony (usually Protestant), and grounded by cultural heritage.

Despite the declining ecnomy, the last rites are considered the final rite of passage for those whose elders passed down specific customs from the West Indies. The funeral is a communal affair in which each person has explicit duties to perform.

There can be a period of more than a week from the time of death to the burial, either to transport the deceased back to the West Indies or to accommodate the arrival of family from that location. The few cremations that are requested by African Americans of Caribbean descent take place only after the same traditional viewing and funeral service. The lowering of the body and covering of the grave is considered mandatory, which might explain the reason for small numbers of cremations.

African Americans whose heritage is ingrained in Southern tradition follow many of the practices of Caribbeans. There has been a rise in cremations, however, not as a result of a declining economy, but because of the desire of the deceased to have the cremains spread in the land of their birth or with their ancestors.

There has been a marked change in specific funeral rituals in that the order of service includes far more secular as opposed to religious activities. Many of the services are held in the funeral home rather than in the church, and the music is more contemporary. “Amazing Grace,” which is a standard funeral spiritual, has been replaced by Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” or other more current songs.

The wake may also include a video presentation of the life of the deceased with her or his favorite music (for example, jazz) playing in the background. The religious items historically placed in the casket have been replaced with the favorite items of the deceased, such as CDs, a microphone of a former disc jockey or a stethoscope around the neck or a former doctor.

The Southern African Aerican appears to make a statement about the life of the deceased with the items she or he chooses to display in the casket. This is unlike Caribbean mourners who place artifacts in the casket that are far more secretive (for example, a lock of a survivor’s hair in a special pocket).

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article will be continued in next week’s edition to cover other cultural funeral rituals.