Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Balancing the Individual and the Community"

I realize I never posted my Freudian Floyd paper. Perhaps someday. I'm really
just not a fan of Freud. At all. However, my paper about Adler? Winner. Even if
it is biased. Anyway.

My second Birth and Death main reflection paper.

I'm having trouble spelling "individual."

___________________________________Balancing the Individual and the Community
___________________________________Reflection Paper #2

___________________________________Carina Botterbusch
___________________________________Sociology 317
___________________________________Dr. Hayes
___________________________________March 14, 2010

_____Studying different cultural views of and reactions to death not only expands awareness, but also allows our own death culture to be understood in a broader context. By developing a cross-cultural perspective, American death culture can be viewed in a global context and comparisons can be made so that the American perspective of death can be understood, challenged, and improved. Differences and similarities are made apparent by studying various cultures and thoughtfully recognizing these differences and similarities makes it possible to see the strengths and flaws of the American perspective of death.
_____When developing a cross-cultural perspective of death, general categories of customs and rituals arise, including the setting of a death, the planning of a ceremony, the ceremony itself, the grieving ritual, and the process of coping and moving on after a death occurs. A cross-cultural comparison of these five general categories shows that American culture has a much more individualistic attitude. Individualism is considered to be one of the American core values and it is especially visible in regards to the American perspective of death within any of the five general categories of death culture.
_____The setting in which a death occurs essentially can be anywhere. Because of the medicalized nature of American society, American deaths tend to occur within hospitals. This is different from other cultures, which place an emphasis on the importance of being at home to die. Ann Crawford, quoted by Ken and Nga Truitner (1993), explains that it is very important in Vietnam to die at home, rather than at a hospital (p. 131). Truitner (1993) says that this belief is also important in the Buddhist culture because a death is believed to be better if it occurs within familiar surroundings (p. 131). The Hmong culture also shares this value and Bruce Thowpauo Bliatout (1993) explains that a person is not allowed to die at another person’s house (p.84). These customs of having death occur at home reflect the belief that familiar surroundings can increase the peace of an individual while he or she is dying.
_____However, in America, deaths usually occur in unfamiliar hospitals and people usually die alone. Within Buddhist culture, it is important that a person be surrounded by close family to put his or her mind at ease (Truitner, 1993, p. 130). This is important so that the stress of death can be lessened by having the opportunity to focus on relationships. Through this cross-cultural perspective of the setting of death, it is clear to see that death settings in America tend to be secluded and individualistic. While individualism can be healthy to an extent, studying the Vietnamese, Buddhist, and Hmong cultures provides an understanding of the mental and emotional benefits of dying within a familiar setting and among close family.
_____There are also cultural differences visible in how death is prepared for and how funeral ceremonies are planned. In some cultures, the individual does not plan his or her own funeral. For example, within Jewish tradition, close relatives are excused from religious rituals “so that they may attend to the funeral arrangements” (Cytron, 1993, p. 118). Muslims also do not plan funerals in advance, but planning differs from Jewish tradition because, within Islam, close relatives do not help plan because they are the most emotionally affected by the death (Gilanshah, 1993, p.142).
_____These perspectives differ from the American culture, which again reflects individualism by writing wills and planning funerals in advance. Rather than placing the responsibility of funeral planning in the hands of a person’s family or community, within American culture, most funeral preparations are made by the individual far in advance of death. While neither of these methods seem detrimental to a person’s emotional health of dealing with death, a cross-cultural perspective can be beneficial in achieving a sense of balance in regards to how funerals are prepared for and planned.
_____Next comes the ceremony, which is where the most diverse cultural differences can be found. However, even though there are vast differences between the details of funeral ceremonies, such as the body, offerings, and the speaker and leader, the focus and purpose of funeral ceremonies are largely the same across cultures. For example, within the Hmong culture, proper burial and remembrance of the deceased is essential to protect the family (Bliatout, 1993, p. 83). Many other cultures use the funeral to return the family and community to emotional health. Some cultures are more individualistic in the purpose of funerals, such as the Buddhist religion, where funeral ceremonies are performed for the benefit of the community, as well as for assuring a good rebirth (Truitner, 1993, p. 130).
_____The funeral ceremonies of the American culture are even more individualistic. Because of the preplanning that almost always goes into an American funeral, the ceremony of a person tends to be very unique and personalized. Although there is now even greater diversity because of the desire to be eco-friendly, the traditional American funeral illustrates the expected norm of having a personalized ceremony to reflect the personality of the individual. Jessica Mitford (1978) takes this one step further and argues that the American funeral has become a status symbol and a means of leaving a lasting legacy (p. 164). While status symbols can be good to a degree, a cross-cultural comparison is crucial to not allowing our individualistic mindset to distract us from the equally important purpose of comforting the community.
_____The cultural attitude toward death and death rituals can best be seen in how the grieving process is acted out. A cross-cultural perspective of grief after death shows more commonalities than differences and illustrates a general concern for the well-being of the larger community. This is visible with the Jewish culture, as explained by Cytron (1993): “…as individuals share their grief with one another [they are] in the comfort of, and sustained by, their religious community” (p. 121). Re-establishing solidarity by focusing on the community is also evident in the openness of many cultures about grief over death. For example, Buddhists outwardly portray their grief and offer comforting words to the close family of the deceased (Truitner, 1993, p. 133). Similarly, Martin Brokenleg and David Middleton (1993) illustrate that Native Americans express grief balanced with acceptance, rather than denial and anger (p. 108). A cross-cultural perspective shows that grief affects the community both as a whole and as a group of individuals.
_____While American customs of grieving over death also focus on the community as a whole, there again is a more individualistic focus. Mitford (1978) says the funeral business has exploited this attitude by selling funerals based on the myth that seeing an ideal picture of the deceased is essential to the grieving process (p. 165). However, when compared to other cultures, such as the Native Americans who express grief coupled with acceptance, one can see that this desire for the “ideal picture” functions as a type of denial, which is not helpful. From personal experience, I have also seen how the American process of grieving is very individualistic. The American grieving process tends to focus on a number of individuals, rather than a group that is viewed as a community; evident in how mourners are comforted by being asked how they are doing, rather than about the family or community. Likewise, people say, “Let me know if you need anything,” to comfort mourners, rather than expressing concern for the larger group that has been affected. Although this concern for individual comfort can re-establish the solidarity of a group by focusing on the well-being of others, a cross-cultural perspective is important to have so that the family, group, or community is not overlooked due to this individualistic attitude.
_____Finally, cultural differences exist in how people cope with a death and ultimately move on. Many cultures continue to hold memorials and mourn until one year has passed. Many cultures also utilize prayer as a way to cope, such as Lakota Indians who pray for their own personal comfort (Brokenleg & Middleton, 1993, p. 110). Anne S. Straus (2005) explains that the Northern Cheyenne Indians also pray, but for the different purpose of asking for the soul to return home (p. 75). Straus (2005) also says that they are coping with the emotional impact in a communal way; not from fear of their deaths, but from fear of the isolation that follows when loved ones die (p. 76). This reason for fearing death is very different from the American fear of death, which is motivated by the individualistic attitude of “I don’t want to die.”
_____The actions that make up the process of moving on after a death also differ across cultures. Because of the individualism of American culture, there are typically no steps that need to be taken once the funeral rituals have ended. Although the will still needs to be carried out, there are usually no decisions that the family needs to make because of the plan that is laid out in the will. Other cultures have a more communal attitude, such as the Lakota Indians who distribute possessions after a person dies (Brokenleg & Middleton, 1993, p. 110). Although I am not certain of the of the emotional affects of being actively involved in this process, it seems like it may help people cope more than the American custom of allowing a lawyer to do all the work. A cross-cultural perspective of the methods of coping shows that American culture may be too focused on the individual, which means we may be likely to overlook the needs of the whole community.
_____Developing a cross-cultural perspective of attitudes toward and rituals surrounding death shows that both differences and similarities exist between cultural traditions. This broad view allows American traditions to be examined so that they may be improved. Across the general categories of the setting of a death, the planning of a ceremony, the ceremony itself, the grieving ritual, and the process of coping and moving on after a death occurs, it can be seen that the American culture is much more individualistic, sometimes to the point of secluding an individual and neglecting the larger community. Individualism is certainly not completely bad, but it can be when it is taken to an extreme. This is why it is important to develop a cross-cultural perspective so that American funeral customs can be challenged and a balance between the individual and the community can be achieved.

Bliatout, Bruce Thowpauo. (1993). Hmong death customs: Traditional and acculturated.
_____In Donald P. Irish (Ed.), Ethnic variations in dying, death, and grief (pp.
_____79-99). Routledge.
Brokenleg, Martin & Middleton, David. (1993). Native Americans: Adapting, yet
_____retaining. In Donald P. Irish (Ed.), Ethnic variations in dying, death, and
_____grief (pp. 101-111). Routledge.
Cytron, Barry D. (1993). To honor the dead and comfort the mourners: Traditions in
_____Judaism. In Donald P. Irish (Ed.), Ethnic variations in dying, death, and grief
_____(pp.113-123). Routledge.
Gilanshah, Farah. (1993). Islamic customs regarding death. In Donald P. Irish (Ed.),
_____Ethnic variations in dying, death, and grief (pp. 137-144). Routledge.
Mitford, Jessica. (1978). The American way of death. (pp. 163-167).
Straus, Anne S. (2005). The meaning of death in Northern Cheyenne culture. In
_____Antonius C. G. M. Robben (Ed.), Death, mourning, and burial (pp. 71-76).
Truitner, Ken and Nga. (1993). Death and dying in Buddhism. In Donald P. Irish
_____(Ed.), Ethnic variations in dying, death, and grief (pp. 125-135). Routledge.

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