Daniel Kancel, PhD, is the rector of Adventist University Zurcher, Antsirabe, Madagascar.

I started my pastoral ministry in the area of Paris, France, and the first group of churches assigned to me included a Ghanaian congregation. Originating from the French West Indies, I had no clue at that time how my church members conducted their funerals. I was in the last year of my doctoral studies, but despite my thesis topic being Jewish ossuaries and my master’s on mourning rites in the Bible, I was not prepared for that first funeral.

Saturday evening, we assembled in a larger room than the one we normally rented. Because the burial was planned to take place in Ghana, the coffin was not there. We had a nice program: I preached the sermon; we prayed, sang hymns from the hymnal, and had a final prayer; and then I prepared to leave. At that very moment, something I had not expected took place—a cross-cultural funeral. The gathered mourners pushed aside the chairs, turned on some loud religious music, ate, and then began a traditional funeral dance. I then had to deal with two (mine and theirs) different funeral cultures and practices. My case is far from unique because migrations around the world have brought people from everywhere to anywhere, and death does not wait for people to return home.

Through the ages

Cross-cultural funerals are not new. The Bible presents an example in Genesis 50. At the time of his death, Jacob was living in Egypt. Verse 2 tells us that Joseph asked his physicians to embalm his father. Embalming was not a Semitic practice but an Egyptian one, as was the 70-day mourning period. Then Jacob’s body was taken to the land of Canaan, where Semitic rites occurred with a 7-day period of mourning and burial in a tomb. Here we see a mix of practices—neither of them being inappropriate but rather different ways of taking care of the body and expressing grief.

In Jerusalem, some tombs of the first century have revealed that people who had come from distant places and died there were buried according to Jewish customs. At that time, the practice was to put the corpse in a tomb for one year; then, after the flesh had decayed, the family collected the bones into an ossuary kept in the tomb. The practice was typically Jewish for the period but did involve foreigners, as evidenced by some ossuaries bearing an inscription with the title proselyte attached to the name of the deceased and other ossuaries bearing foreign names.1 It shows that people practiced funeral rites that differed from those in the deceased’s place of origin. So, how can we, as ministers in the twenty-first century, deal with cross-cultural funerals?

Universal realities

The first point to understand is that some realities are universal: bereavement (the loss), grief (the sadness associated with the loss), mourning (the rites performed in that circumstance), appraisal (evaluation), and coping (life adjustment).2

When someone dies, the living have to face four different phenomena: the treatment of the body, the grief of the relatives and close friends, viewing of the dead, and usually, an embellishment of the person’s character and life—an imaginary story, so to speak.3 Depending on the culture, facing these four responses and practicing mourning will occur in different ways.

Cultures

The second point to understand is the priority of cultures. No culture is above another, but in this case, the practices of one will have to be chosen over another because the funeral has to be conducted in a specific way. As ministers, we need to understand that the priority in this case is neither our culture nor that in which the funeral takes place but rather the culture of the deceased and the mourners. The mourners are the ones grieving, so the ceremony should address their needs.

Funeral rites have a major role in helping mourners cope with their loss. In a given culture, certain rites serve as bereavement and coping mechanisms, and it is important, as long as it is not contrary to the Bible, to let people employ such practices because they work better for them. “Although we clearly recognize emotions that are familiar to us, the range of acceptable emotions and the precise constellation of sentiments appropriate to the situation of death are tied up with the unique institutions and concepts of each society.”4

Here is where we should be cautious as ministers because some funeral rites may raise uneasiness in ourselves as we may not know them or their meaning or because, in our own culture, they have another implication that may not be positive. Before judging or overreacting, we need to know what the customary rites are and their significance in that culture.

Know beforehand

Third, it is best to become familiar with practices beforehand. A minister might be called to participate in the funeral of a stranger, but the majority of the funerals will involve our own parishioners. Why not take time to review their different cultures and learn how they conduct funerals and handle death? Though funerals sometimes are performed without any meaning for the bereaved,5 it is not always the case. There are resources explaining the general points of the main cultural types of funerals.6 If some church leaders or members are from the culture of the deceased, it is good to consult them on what to do and what to avoid to have a smooth ceremony. Here is a set of useful interview questions:

  • What is it like in your culture when a family member dies?
  • What does the immediate family do when a family member dies?
  • What do friends and other relatives do when a person dies?
  • What expectations do people in your culture have for the immediate family and other relatives?
  • How long is bereavement expected to last?
  • What is different if it is a child who dies?
  • What meaning is attached to the death of an infant or child?
  • How does religious affiliation affect what family members do and what is expected of them?7

Reaffirm the Bible

Fourth, as ministers, we need to reaffirm the centrality of the Bible and the hope given in Jesus Christ. It is clear that some funeral rites violate Bible teachings. Others may fall into a shadow zone. For example, what is the cultural meaning of things deposited upon a tomb?

I remember one funeral where the mother of the deceased refused to allow the body of her son in the church building for the ceremony because, for her, “the temple” must not be defiled with a dead body (a concept in line with Jewish thought, even though she was not Jewish). Culture and religion are not the same, and since a funeral is an emotional rather than rational moment, things tend to get done according to feeling rather than faith, culture rather than religion, but the church where the funeral takes place should have the last word on how things happen out of respect for what it is and proclaims.

The situation is different when the funeral takes place outside the church building, such as in a funeral home. While funerals are not a time to fight over the Bible or against each other, it is important to show that what matters most to us as believers is not details of practice but what the Lord tells us in that circumstance. We should be careful and kind as we share what the Bible teaches, pointing people to the great resurrection day when all the dead in Christ will come back to life.

Be a blessing

Finally, we should remember why we are doing what we are doing. As ministers, we are not going to funerals just to show our presence. We need to have in mind what the Bible explains about our ministry: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15, NIV). And “to the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:22, 23, NIV).

Paul’s work was an example of cross-cultural ministry, adapting and adjusting. “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law” (vv. 19–21).

The key idea here is winning the other. What a blessing if something as sad and apparently terminal as a funeral actually becomes a positive thing because our attitude has given someone, whatever his or her culture, an opportunity to meet Christ.

  1. Bellarmino Bagatti and Joseph Thadée Milik, Gli scavi del “Dominus Flevit” (Monte Oliveto – Gerusalemme). I. La necropoli del periodo romano (Jerusalem: Tipografia dei PP. Francescani, 1958), 81, 84, 89, 95.
  2. Éric Crubezy, Aux origines des rites funéraires (Paris, FR: Odile Jacob, 2019), 26, 27. See also Erich Lindemann, “Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief,” American Journal of Psychiatry 1001, no. 2 (1944): 141–148; Richard S. Lazarus and Susan Folkman, Stress, Appraisal, and Coping (New York, NY: Springer, 1984). Although we will not discuss the other aspects of mourning rites here, when conducting cross-cultural funerals, the minister will have to help relatives pass through the other four realities.
  3. Crubezy, Aux origines, 21. On the last item, the imaginary story, we can note that the deceased are almost never presented in a bad light during funerals. They were usually a good man, a loving mother, a faithful friend, and so on, even though sometimes relatives know perfectly well that it was not the case.
  4. Peter Metcalf and Richard Huntington, Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 43.
  5. Metcalf and Huntington have a subhead that says much about the United States: “The First Paradox: Ritual Uniformity and Indeterminate Ideology.” Even though their book was published in 1979, their observation is still relevant: “The overall form of funerals is remarkably uniform from coast to coast. Its general features include: rapid removal of the corpse to a funeral parlor, embalming, institutionalized ‘viewing,’ and disposal by burial. . . . A study in Philadelphia revealed that 90 percent of burials were conducted directly from funeral homes. . . . Regarding final disposal, over 92 percent of deaths result in earth burial.” Metcalf and Huntington, Celebrations, 187.
  6. A good starting point is Colin Murray Parkes, Pittu Laungani, and Bill Young, eds., Death and Bereavement Across Cultures, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2015).
  7. Sandra Lobar, JoAnne Youngblut, and Dorothy Brooten, “Cross-Cultural Beliefs, Ceremonies, and Rituals Surrounding Death of a Loved One,” Pediatric Nursing 32, no. 1 (Jan.–Feb. 2006): 46, table 1.

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Daniel Kancel, PhD, is the rector of Adventist University Zurcher, Antsirabe, Madagascar.

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