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On Out Own Terms: Moyers on Dying
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Funeral rituals across the world reflect the way various cultures value death. Considering different approaches to death can enrich our own perspectives.

Asia: Opportunities for Happiness
Asian cultures do not embrace the idea, common among Western cultures, that life after death takes place in a realm apart from the living. In Tibetan Buddhism, which is practiced all over Asia, instructions are read to a dying person to help guide him or her to a good death and rebirth. When the person dies, funeral rites last 49 days, encompassing seven cycles of a transitional state ("bardo"), which end in a final rebirth of the dead person. Mourners chant sutras daily to help guide the soul of the deceased and emphasize the great opportunity for happiness ahead ("nibbana"). A person buried in this tradition is cremated, and mourners look for evidence of "lotuses," or colored clusters of burned material, among the ashes as evidence of good deeds done by the person during his or her lifetime.

Russia: Bells and Black Bread
In Russia, Russian Orthodox church bells ring one note to call worshippers to service, a low-to-high note sequence for baptisms, and a high-to-low note series for funerals. Funerals are generally held on the third day after someone dies. On that day, family and friends gather for a special memorial dinner. Then, on the ninth day, when the soul is believed to leave the body, a special church service and dinner are held. On the fortieth day, the soul is said to depart for the other world, and a service and dinner party are again held. At each party, a glass of vodka covered by a piece of black bread is left for the deceased, in a reversal of the traditional Russian custom of breaking black bread when meeting someone for the first time. Though traditionally, the body lays uncovered in state for the three days until burial, cremations are becoming more popular as a less expensive alternative.

The Lakota: Be Kind to Your Brother
Lakota parents often say to their children, "Be kind to your brother, for someday he will die." The Lakota, the second largest group of Native Americans in the U.S., learn that death is a part of life. Denial and anger in the Lakota grief model are, therefore, minimal. Upon dying, all people and animals enter a neutral spirit land ("Wanagi Makoce"). Since the soul is thought to exist before birth, being good during life has nothing to do with attaining heavenly grace. When a person dies, his or her family will choose burial over cremation, because the spirit of the dead person is thought to reside in the body and should not be disturbed. The family, believing that a person's true character emerges in grief, try to be as virtuous as they can in the year following the death. A cheerful religious gathering ("wanagi yuha") to remember a person's spirit is then held a year after the death. In this ceremony, family and friends tell stories about the dead person, distribute the deceased's possessions to people that have helped the family most in the year following the death, and exchange practical gifts, such as clothing and tools.

Mexico: Day of the Dead
Poet Octavio Paz writes that Mexicans are "seduced by death." The Mexican "day of the dead" ("dia de los muertos") on November 2 is festive rather than morbid. It is characterized by visits to cemeteries, the placing of marigolds on headstones, offerings to the dead, as well as exchanges of sugar skeletons and skulls. The sugar skull or skeleton is more prized if it is decorated with one's own name, in accordance with what Paz calls the "macho" belief that one must look death in the face. Death is also unflinchingly embraced in art: One Diego Rivera mural in Mexico City depicts the artist hand-in-hand with a female lover who represents death. Cremations are very popular in some parts of Mexico because ashes are easy to move during times of political tumult, and graves are often robbed. In rural areas, Catholic Mexicans usually prefer burials to cremations. Funerals and wakes center around family and friends, and children are encouraged to take part in each aspect of the funeral.

Judy Huang is a staff writer at Thirteen Online.

Copyright 2000, Educational Broadcasting Corporation/Public Affairs Television, Inc.

On Our Own Terms - Moyers on DyingThirteen/WNET New YorkPBS Online