H. was born in rural Puerto Rico, the son of a mechanic and a homemaker. At the age of three, he and his family moved to urban New Jersey. He is now 44 years old, married to a woman of Norwegian descent, with 3 young children. His parents are practicing Catholics. As a child H. attended a Catholic church with a large Hispanic population. Now he attends a Baptist churchwith his wife and her family. He speaks only a little Spanish and describes himself as "Americanized". Other than his grandparents, who lived in Puerto Rico, there have been no major losses in H.'s family. He described the traditions practiced by his family, especially his mother, to commemorate a death.
Traditions and Rituals:
H. says that, because his grandparents died in Puerto Rico and he did not attend the funerals, he is not familiar with Puerto Rican funerals. He believes that there is a seven day mourning period, which includes burning a candle continuously for seven days. H. is very familiar with "The Day of the Dead", which is practiced by his mother. The Day of the Dead actually lasts for a week during each November (he is unsure of the date). During this time a candle is burned in the home and prayers are said for loved ones who have died. There is much talk of lost loved ones and memories are shared among family members. Church is attended, candles are lit in church, and a woman wears a flower on her dress. H. believes that the location of the flower signifies what family member the woman has lost, but he is not sure of the details. Similar traditions are practiced on the anniversary of a death. The candles and prayers are believed to provide benefit to the souls of the deceased.
Comfort and Group Support:
H. finds his mother's celebration of the Day of the Dead comforting. The idea of the smoke from the candle going up to Heaven is comforting to him. He regrets that he does not practice this in his own home because he is "too Americanized". He feels that the Day of the Dead is a practice that aids healthy grieving. He does not find anything painful or unhealthy about it. He feels that the group support that takes place, both in the home and at church, helps in resolution of grief. His mother told him of a Puerto Rican practice that she herself is uncomfortable with - when someone has died suddenly (by accident or sudden illness), crosses and candles are placed at the site of the death, both immediately after the death and on anniversaries. H.'s mother told him that when traveling on roads in Puerto Rico, many sites can be seen marked with candles and crosses. She finds it "spooky".
Beliefs about Life After Death:
H. believes in life after death, but is torn between his family's belief that the soul immediately ascends to Heaven, and his recent readings about a waiting period before Judgment Day. He says that he finds the belief in immediate ascension to Heaven more comforting. He says that he hadn't given it much thought until the interviewer asked the question, and plans to continue his reading.
Public and Private Mourning, and Gender:
H. finds the relationship between private and public mourning in his culture to be consistent. People are expected to refrain from excessive displays of emotion in public, and men usually show less emotion both publicly and privately.
H. spoke fondly of the practices of his culture, and seems to regret some gaps in his knowledgeof his culture, related to his Americanization. To me, it seems that H.'s mother is taking care of the dead for the family. I wonder if, when his mother dies, H. (or someone else in the family) will feel a need to carry on the traditions. The Day of the Dead provides a connection with lost loved ones, as if the dead are there in the home with the family when they are remembered. Typical American practices which I have observed (such as visiting the grave and leaving flowers) don't seem (to me) to provide as much connection.
Written for Grief in a Family Context, HPER F317, Spring semester, 1997.