Dancing with the dead

Some cross-cultural perspectives

Visit Mexico in October or November and you’d notice rather distinctive street decorations. Mexicans cover the streets with paper or cardboard skeletons, coffins, death masks and skulls. November 2nd in the Christian calendar is All Souls’ Day, but for Mexicans it is the Day of the Dead too, drawing on pre-colonial Indian traditions. Death is personified in figures doing everything that the living do. Openness about death and dying, and an open emotional response to death is central to that culture.

Similarly, in Pacific cultures such as New Zealand Maori, Tonga or Samoa, death is treated as a normal rite of passage. When someone dies, normal time ceases to matter for the bereaved, as relatives and friends gather, bringing food and gifts, keeping vigil day and night until the funeral and burial. At the funeral itself speakers often address the dead person directly, farewelling them publicly.

Attendants prepare the body and organise the funeral, and are considered tapu or unclean. In many cases special food is prepared for them, and they may not touch the food but are fed by others, until they are rendered ‘normal’ or clean again after all the ceremonies are over.

Traditional ways of dealing with death are interlaced with Christian beliefs and liturgy, and introduce children to core beliefs, and the realities of human life. Most of us feel uncomfortable or apprehensive about death, perhaps embarrassed when approaching someone who is ‘bereaved’ (literally deprived or robbed). This is a pity. Though nothing we say can ever be of real comfort, it’s a great help to be given simple, genuine sympathy, instead of being avoided out of embarrassment.

Many years ago, a few days after my mother’s sudden death, I returned unexpectedly from abroad, and rejoined a seminar group at Auckland University, New Zealand. I met another student, a Maori woman, and told her why I was there. Minutes later, another Maori woman arrived, exuberantly commenting on my presence. I didn’t know what to say, but was saved by the grace of the first woman: she spoke in Maori to her friend:

"Kua mate tana maamaa" (his mother has died).

Without any embarrassment or awkwardness, she turned to me and said:

"Kia ora, Roger, me too maamaa" (bless you, Roger, and your mother).

That was all she needed to say, and it was a lesson I have carried with me. Perhaps being open about death and dying enabled her to respond easily to my needs, as Mexican, Polynesian and many other people might, and many in so-called ‘more developed’ cultures find harder?

Roger Cowell

© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 31st October 1999