Cultural Influences on Death and Dying

Over the past decade I have come to recognize many strengths and weaknesses within my repertoire of being. In particular, my seemingly growing fascination and simultaneous fear regarding the topic of death and dying―a sole characteristic that has remained consistent throughout my varied and numerous periods of personal growth. It wasn’t until the death of my grandfather that I began to view dying through a more amicable and familiar lens―a perspective strongly prompted not just by the experience of learning how to say goodbye, but also by a burgeoning understanding of how to celebrate life even in the absence of living. In addressing the loss of this significant father figure within my life, I came across a rather ‘life-changing’ read: Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. The memoir explored the human experience of living and dying ultimately, encouraged my exploration of cultural influences on the interpretations of and stories surrounding death.

Literature argues that differences in conceptions surrounding death and dying are deeply entrenched in understandings of what happens once one is dead. According to Gire (2014), in cultures heavily shaped by Abrahamic religions, death is viewed as a singular event which does not entail the end of life. Within this context, death is perceived as a stage by which the individual sheds his or her physical form, allowing for the continuation of the spirit (Braun & Nichols, 1996; Gire, 2014). In some Indigenous cultures, the dead and living are thought to exist simultaneously – whereby the dead may impact the living by offering protection or instigating misery in accordance to how they were treated by others at the time of death (Gire, 2014). In cultures entwined with Hinduism, death is viewed as a recurring event whereby an individual is reborn into a new identity (Gire, 2014). This parallels Chinese cultures in which behaviour and actions in one life inform how an individual and their family members are reborn within a future life (Braun & Nichols, 1996; Gire, 2014). For instance, if an individual dies a terrible death in one life, the event may be viewed as punishment for a sin within a previous life (Braun & Nichols, 1996; Gire, 2014). Within Buddhism, death serves as a means to leave behind painful and unfulfilling material attachments (Gire, 2014). In other cultures, death may be viewed as a ‘dettaching’ event where spirits acquire peace after permanently departing from the world of the living (Braun & Nichols, 1996; Gire, 2014).

Within the context of medicine, it is important to note how the aforementioned cultural and spiritual ideas influence conceptions surrounding what constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ death (Gire, 2014). Within regions of Ghana, an acceptable death is one in which the departing individual has achieved personal goals and aspirations (Gire, 2014). In Western cultures, an appropriate death may be one involving structured environments, such as hospitals and end-of-life care facilities (Braun & Nichols, 1996; Gire, 2014). Within many parts of the world, such definitions may also include the  opportunity for families and caregivers to adequately bid farewell and prepare for the passing of a loved one (Gire, 2014). In others, a good death may include the attainment of a long, healthy life (Gire, 2014).

Such contextual factors provide crucial considerations for health providers, involved in the provision of palliative care and end-of-life services. This is especially true in informing providers how to approach and address conversations surrounding death within culturally diverse and complex Canadian populations―especially in ensuring that adequate bereavement and funeral practices are met through patient-centered care.

Photo by Ravi Pinisetti on Unsplash

References:

  1. Gire, J. (2014). How death imitates life: Cultural influences on conceptions of death and dying. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 6(2), 3.

Braun, K., & Nichols, R. (1996). Cultural issues in death and dying. Hawaii Medical Journal, 55(12).

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