Unit 14: Introduction

Cultural Perspectives on Death, Dying, and Bereavement

Center for Cross-Cultural Research
Western Washington University

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Death, dying, and bereavement are human universals.  Everyone dies and most people who die go through the process we call dying (those whose lives are instantly extinguished by sudden accident, by warfare, or many other drastic means are unfortunately - or in many cases fortunately - exempted from this experience).  And most of the deceased leave behind friends, spouses, children, and relatives who are bereaved, going through a period of grief that is sanctioned by the culture in which these processes take place.  While the topics covered within this domain of interest may sound morbid and bleak, much of what constitutes culture can be understood by studying how people manage specific aspects of death and dying.  Numerous questions present themselves when considering this area of human inquiry:  How do various cultures interpret the meaning of death?  Is it a sad occasion in some cultures but a happy occasion elsewhere?  If so, what accounts for any differences?  Do all cultures grieve more for the untimely death of children than they do for the death of older people?  How are funeral rites carried out in different societies?  Do epitaphs and inscriptions found on tombstones and in obituaries have common themes?  If there are differences in these death-related phenomena, what accounts for them?

Many other questions can be asked in this intriguing set of interrelated topics.  The two current chapters in this unit can be viewed as interesting entry-level approaches to some of the questions in an area of human activity that touches everyone, both directly and indirectly.

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