A Brazilianís Description of Grief and Bereavement Practices

Beth Scheinfeld



My interview was with Carmen, raised in a small town in Brazil, in an upper class Catholic family. Carmen is 42 years old, married, mother of two daughters, and a lapsed Catholic. She got a college degree in Brazil for teaching, but the U.S. schools have insisted on her repeating many of her classes for her teaching accreditation. Carmen has lived and worked in the U.S. for 8 years, since meeting and marrying her American husband. She and I worked side by side as executive secretaries for nearly a year.

Carmen cautioned me that her experiences of grief and death come mostly from her childhood experiences in a small town in Brazil. Different rituals are practiced in larger cities, then and today. Also, certain rituals are determined by class rank, as being unavailable or unaffordable to the lower, poorer classes.

After a death the whole extended family, regardless of distance, gather around the bereaved, staying at the nearby homes of family members. The viewing is held at the family memberís home with the most space for a viewing. The funeral home or hospital prepares the body for burial. An open casket viewing occurs within 24 hours of death, and burial or cremation follows as soon as possible after the viewing. Cremation has becoming increasingly more common than burial in the middle and upper classes of Brazilian society, due to the lack of burial space and because of the desire to bury family members in a shared plot. Relatives and friends remain nearby the bereaved for at least 7 days after the death. This is so they may attend the mass that takes place on the 7th day after the death. Today, this 7th day ritual is celebrated with flowers, because of the difficulty of getting dispersed family members together.

Many practices are followed in order to provide comfort and solace after a loss. Older relatives still express their grief with loud crying and moaning, as a sign of the extent of their suffering. Carmen remembers a great deal of emotional expression at funerals. She was uncomfortable with the dramatic display of painful emotions, exhibited mostly by her motherís side of the family. Carmen identified more closely with her fatherís family who behaved in a more controlled, sedate manner at highly emotional times. Younger generations rarely display the dramatic reaction their elders commonly practiced, comforting themselves instead by remembering pleasant moments and fun times with the deceased.

It used to be the tradition for the bereaved to wear black for one year after a death. Carmen recalls that her mother, a wealthy Brazilian widow after Carmenís father died, had an entire wardrobe of black dresses made. However, the color was "too strong" for her, and made her mother ill, causing her doctor to advise her not to wear black to indicate mourning.

Some of the countryís cultural rituals may act to worsen, not ease the pain of the bereaved. When Carmen was growing up Brazilians generally didnít allow children to view the body of the deceased, believing the sight would be too difficult for young children to bear, possibly causing nightmares. Children who have lost a parent are cautioned to be kind to their surviving parent, and to not cause any unnecessary trouble. Children are told that their parent is in heaven, and are comforted by their many aunts and uncles when they ask for their dead parent. Children are given books that show that their parent is "with the angels now". After a while, Carmen maintains, the children are very comfortable with the thought of their parent in heaven. They are kids, Carmen says, and they forget. Although Carmen seems to believe this, she also recalls that when she was told her grandfather had died and gone to heaven, Carmen still wanted to see him. She recalls a very painful memory of asking, but not being allowed, to see her dead grandfather.

Brazilian superstitions about death include the idea that water in the area of a cemetery or in a home that someone has just died is impure, or contaminated. People in these areas must drink bottled water, or at least offer pure water to their guests. It is also disrespectful to step on a headstone in a cemetery.

One ritual that may be more religious than cultural, was the habit of the Catholic church to not allow personal eulogies at a funeral. Carmen recalls her mother wanting to say some personal words at her uncleís funeral 20 years ago. Carmen encouraged her mother, but her mother was unable to do so because she felt restricted by the custom of only church leaders officiating at funerals. Eulogies are commonly delivered by a family member today, both in small towns and cities in Brazil.

Carmen believes there has to be a place after death. There is no hell, but a place that is similar to life on earth, where people probably get what they deserve.

Another Brazilian custom is the practice of a quick burial or cremation. This occurs usually within 24 hours after the death, in order to let the body rest. Such a quick funeral practice can cause pain for some family members of the deceased. Carmenís mother wouldnít delay Carmenís fatherís funeral until Carmen could fly from the U.S., so that she could see her father one last time. Carmen decided not to return to Brazil after her fatherís death, mourning privately in the U.S., far from her Brazilian family. She reports being tormented by nightmares for many months after her fatherís death, with dreams of her fatherís headless body being eaten by worms. She would wake up nauseous and scared. Carmen attributes these nightmares to missing the chance to see her father one last time before he was buried. Carmen consulted a psychologist twice after these dreams, but felt the psychologist could not help her because of a lack of understanding of Carmenís culture. Carmen claims to have heard her fatherís voice several times since his death, and has been able to find some solace by saying a mass for her father.

To illustrate what constitutes unhealthy grief, Carmen told me this story. As in many cultures, Brazilian parents suffer unbearable pain and have extreme difficulty accepting the death of their child. Carmenís aunt went into a coma after losing a daughter in a car accident. The aunt has remained comatose and hospitalized for the past year, deteriorating physically, losing weight and getting smaller. Carmen explains that the pain of her daughterís death was so strong that her aunt couldnít stand it.

As life and grieving continues after a family memberís death, the bereaved is kept watch over by other family members, the length of time depending upon the seriousness of loss. In another example of unhealthy grief, Carmen described the difficulty her sister had accepting the loss of her husband 12 years ago, at 24. Her sister refused to talk after the funeral, and neglected to care for her 10 month old child. Carmenís father took his daughter to counseling a week after her husbandís funeral. She stayed in therapy for 2 years. The baby and their bereaved daughter lived with and was cared for by Carmenís parents for several months after their son-in-lawís death.

As is true in most cultures, public displays of intense emotion by women are more acceptable than by men. A woman crying in public will receive attention from many bystanders, regardless of class or station. Public crying for men, except at a funeral, would be extremely uncommon. It is important in Brazil that men behave, as Carmen says, like macho guys.

A great deal of support for the bereaved exists in Brazil, from community, friends and family. Funerals are a time for families to set aside differences and to come together for consolation. Friends and neighbors will often provide more daily assistance - with meals and companionship - than family members who live further away from the bereaved.

It may be reflective of Brazilís feeling on the whole of the impact of death on the individual that employers will grant a minimum of one weekís leave after a death. Three weeks off is not uncommon, if the employer is agreeable, and depending upon the closeness of the deceased to the employee.

The awareness of the presence of the deceased is commonly reported in Brazil after the loss of a loved one. Carmen again spoke of her sister who had lost her husband at a young age. This sister has a quick, explosive temper. When very angry, the sister has claimed to hear (sometimes also to smell) her dead husband cautioning her to be calmer, telling her that just because he is no longer around there is no reason for her to behave in such a violent manner. One time when driving when sleepy, Carmenís sister felt her husband press the brake pedal of her car, saying to her that if she didnít stop this car, both she and their son would soon be with him. Carmen doesnít confirm the truth of these occurrences, but believes that her sister believes her dead husband protects her.

Carmen observes that families are closer in Brazil, and congregate more often for many occasions, birthdays, anniversaries. Carmen gets a called as soon as a tragedy occurs, the familyís attempt to bring her closer, regardless of time of day or night. The family practices the same habit for birthdays and other family gatherings; calling Carmen and passing the phone around to all the family members.

After her youngest brotherís death, at 38 years old this past summer due to alcoholism, Carmenís mother went to live with one of her daughters. The Brazilian believes that Ďif youíre suffering, Iím sufferingí. People show their concern by visiting a bereaved friend or family member regularly, to make them smile, to keep them from being overwhelmed by their suffering.

Since the recent death of her brother, Carmen has felt even more strongly the pain of being unable to see family members before death, an unavoidable problem of being separated by great distance.

I discovered from my interview that Carmenís death rituals and bereavement practices were more similar than unlike my own, Jewish American observations and experiences. I am 40 years old, unmarried, a parent, an office worker, with family dispersed around the US. Carmenís experiences with Catholic treatment of death, grief and bereavement rituals are familiar, as they are similarly practiced in the US, and are depicted many times over in our movie and television entertainment sub-cultures.

Written for Grief in a Family Context, Fall semester, 1997.


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(C) 1997, Beth Scheinfeld. All rights reserved. Interested parties may contact her through the course instructor, at gilbertk@indiana.edu.