Comparison of Grief and Culture From Two Perspectives -

As a child growing up on the reserve and as a licensed funeral director in a small rural Ontario town.

Stella Dean,
February 26, 1997


I chose to interview a friend who also happens to be a funeral director in a small rural Ontario town. He is in his mid-thirties, married with two children, a boy and a girl. He is a soft-spoken, gentle man with a wonderful sense of humour. I will call him Richard to preserve his anonymity.

Richard spent his childhood on the Hiawatha Reserve, one of eight reserves in this part of Ontario. In 1793 a church minister writing of his visit to the reserve noted "the Natives were very friendly". The rituals and traditions of Richard's culture have stood the test of time over nearly 200 years.

Richard's mother is a full blood member of the Hiawatha band and his father was a non-Native from "the outside". Richard told me "My mother lost her rights to be considered a Native person when she left the reserve and married a non-Native person, but under an amendment to the Indian Act, she is now able to reclaim them and be affiliated with the Hiawatha Reserve. Because I am a first generation of my mother I fall under the provisions of Bill C.3l and am entitled to claim full Indian status. I own land on the reserve. My wife is a non-Native person and my children at present, don't have any rights, but the Indian Act is being amended and changes will be made. Then they will have a right to belong to the reserve as members, but their status won't be recognized by the Government of Canada."

Richard is the only Native person to be a partner in a funeral home in Ontario and was the first Native Canadian to graduate from his college. He believes he is, in fact, the only licensed Native funeral director practising in Ontario.

I felt that this would be an informative and interesting assignment and approached this interview from two perspectives - the rituals and traditions surrounding death, dying and grief that Richard experienced growing up as a child on the reserve and his work now as a funeral director in a small, rural Ontario town.


Q.1 When you were growing up on the reserve, what were the funeral practices, rituals and traditions used when someone died? Who participated in these rituals?

A. "On our reserve everyone came together as a whole and any differences that there might have been between family members were set aside in order that honour and respect could be paid to the deceased person. Each reserve has different rituals. On our reserve, unless it is a sudden death, we try to come together as a family and surround the bedside of the dying person for as much time as possible. We try to be there when the death occurs - death is part of the journey of life and we are there to help the person along the way.

When death occurs, the body is taken to the funeral home. Family members play no part in the preparation of the body. Unlike some funerals in Canadian culture, parents are not encouraged to help prepare and dress their children for burial. Family members decide what clothing the deceased will be dressed in, but the funeral director does all the preparation. The person is always embalmed. The casket is open for the visitation, regardless of the cause of death. I think this is to ensure that people cannot deny that the death has occurred - they are encouraged to accept the reality of the loss. Decisions regarding the funeral, type of casket, etc., are made by the family as a whole, but often it is the grandchildren who pay for the funeral. We have visitation for the public in the evening with a service the next day. The family can take as much time as they require in the afternoon and prior to public evening visitation to say their goodbyes.

On the day of the funeral, the grave is dug - never the day before. One of the beliefs among my people is that if you dig the grave the day before a funeral, it will be filled by nightfall, i.e. someone else from the reserve will "pass away". (I found it quite interesting that Richard, funeral director or not, used the term "passed away" quite frequently - he seemed to have some difficulty using the word "died" or "death". When I asked him about this, he agreed that on the reserve, people tend to use euphemisms such as "passed away" or "wake" and grinned as he said "Guess I have gone back to my childhood"!)

Funerals are held in the church which in this case, is the United Church of Canada. Richard is proud of the fact that their Church is the oldest United Church in Canada built on a reserve.

The family have more private visiting time prior to the service, then leave the funeral home or church and only go back in time for the funeral. On the day of the funeral the family do not see the public until after the funeral service is over. We are secluded from the public and often form a semi-circle around the casket as the funeral director is closing it, thus separating this last task from the view of other people. In this way, we are emphasizing our unity and the strength of the family circle. All personal differences and disagreements are put aside.

After the funeral we have a reception at the church or at a family residence. This is a celebration of life, not unlike an Irish wake and (Richard grinned here) sometimes it continues for several days! Everyone participates.

There is always a funeral service even for a stillborn child. The mother especially needs this because of the bond that has been formed during the pregnancy.

On some of the other reserves, they do things a little differently - put sweet grass into the casket and have sweet grass dancers and drummers. Sometimes the casket is not put into a hearse, but is carried to the cemetery by the pallbearers followed by dancers and drummers. People on our reserve do put sweet grass in the casket, although it is not a normal practice. We do not have dancers or drummers.

On my reserve we bury people year round. In this way, the death is finalized at the time of the funeral, the family members have begun to come to grips with reality and they do not have to go through the committal service again in a few months." [Sometimes in rural areas no graves are dug in winter and the bodies are kept in a vault for spring burial.] " I feel that our way is much more helpful to the family because until the burial has taken place, people cannot start the road to recovery.

As a funeral director serving families off the reserve, I am often aware of the difficulties people experience when they keep the urn containing the cremated remains in the house and cannot make up their minds what to do with them. Until they are interred or scattered, the family will not begin to heal.

We always use a vault for added protection - we believe in protecting what we have. Before cement vaults, we used wooden cases. Usually it is family members who fill in the grave - ours is a very small community, everyone knows everyone and many are related. I always stay and make sure that the casket is lowered and the grave filled in properly - both on the reserve and for the families I serve through the funeral home. I want to make sure everything is done right because if we do even a little thing wrong, it can cause people pain for years."

Here Richard told me a story about a lady whose mother died. During the arrangements Richard asked if he should take off her glasses before closing the casket and have them sent to an organization for use in third world countries. The lady asked him to put the glasses in the casket by her mother's started to cry and Richard apologized for upsetting her. She told him it was nothing he had done wrong. Apparently, the lady's husband had died some fifteen years previously and his glasses were not removed. This had bothered her afterwards because her husband had always said how uncomfortable they were and she was troubled because he had been buried wearing them. She was crying because she was pleased that Richard had thought to ask her about her mother's glasses.

Q.2 Do you believe that the rituals and traditions of your people are helpful and offer comfort in coming to terms with death?

A. "Yes. One of the most important aspects has to do with the unity of the family after death. As I have said, when a family member dies, all differences are put aside and after the funeral, often they are no longer a concern. So whilst death brings sadness, it sometimes is a blessing when it heals a rift in the family. I also think that because young and old are included in the rituals and traditions, it helps everyone come to terms with death as part of life. Children learn about death at an early age. In addition our families communicate with one another and work together.

I don't always see the communication and sharing with some of the families that I am dealing with as a funeral director in our town. Often one person in a family will make all the decisions about the arrangements without talking it over with the other members. Or the children will be excluded from taking part in the arrangements. The families I see often do not work together and continue the petty squabbles that were there prior to the death. The differences and estrangements continue after the death.

A noticeable difference occurs after the death with distribution of the belongings. In my culture anyone who gave the deceased something personal can take it back. Then the names of children and grandchildren are placed in a hat or a container belonging to the deceased, a name is drawn out and that person receives a memento. Once you have received one item, your name is taken off the list.

With the families that I see, often before the funeral occurs, it is obvious that there are problems about the deceased's belongings. Also, I am troubled when I see a widow, for instance, moving too quickly to dispose of her husband's clothing and other belongings. Sometimes people think by making one clean sweep and even selling the house, they are moving on. In fact, this often causes them regret and makes their grief more complicated later on. I always suggest that, if possible, they take their time before changing anything.

In my culture, we emphasize the value of the person, rather than the belongings. Everyone who has ever lived in our family has done something to make the next generation that much stronger. I would not be here if my grandfather had not helped me and taught me. It all goes back to the support within the culture. We also use a lot of memorialization - through pictures and certain other items - for instance, my grandfather died fifteen years ago and his hat is still sitting on the deer head he shot - this helps us to remember him."

Q.3 Did any of the beliefs of your culture add to the pain of loss?

A. "No. Families are always straightforward and honest in my culture. We see death as a natural part of life - we have observed it in nature - my people survived off the land. Death is no surprise, it happens with all living things. We look after our people in life and during sickness are always with them. When death occurs, we use our rituals and traditions to celebrate the life. We believe that there is a better life beyond death. Our children are not told 'Poppa has gone to sleep'. They are told that he has died and will not be coming back. There is no fear of the dead in my culture, the elders teach us 'it is not the dead who will harm you, but the living'. There is no fear of going to the cemetery either. "

Q.4 What are your beliefs about life after death?

A. "Right from the beginning my culture has believed in and respected the Creator. We always believe in giving back what we take from the Creator. We also believe that life is a journey with peaks and valleys, sickness and health, good times and bad times. The body is viewed as almost a tent and eventually we come out of the tent and go on into the afterlife. We were taught this way by the elders and since I became a funeral director, my views have solidified and I can understand what they were telling me. I am more focussed in my beliefs. The elders taught us that 'information that is not understood is not information'."

Q.5. How would you define healthy and unhealthy grief - in your culture and in the families you now serve as a funeral director?

A. "I think in my culture the grief is generally healthy because we all share the responsibilities of the care and the funeral arrangements. In our sadness we try to help one another. We use the rituals and traditions that have been passed down over many years and do not try to deny or avoid what has happened. We celebrate the life of the deceased person at the wake. In the case of terminal illness we are there for the person, as a family and we keep watch until the death occurs. Occasionally there are family members who don't want to believe Mum or Dad will die. They don't avoid the parents though, only the issue.

After the death we rally around the family member most affected and offer support. My sister's husband died when she was 23 years old. We made sure she was never isolated with her grief and that someone was always around to talk to or be with or go out with. We were there as a family at the time of death and we remained as a family afterwards. My sister eventually remarried. We have no set times for mourning or remarrige in my culture. When the individual is ready he or she will move on. Grief is something that cannot and should not be rushed.

As more people who have left the reserve return to it, we may see a change in the way grief is handled because they will have been influenced by their experiences elsewhere.

In the families I now serve as a funeral director I am concerned when there is a denial of the need for rituals. Many people want to avoid all the rituals surrounding death - sometimes they use expense as the reason, but in fact, you don't need to choose an expensive casket. People do not realize that they need time between the actual death and the final service to begin to accept the reality of what has happened. The funeral is designed to support the family as its members celebrate the life of the deceased person. It is a chance to say goodbye. Often I find that there is a great deal of guilt involved - perhaps there has been an estrangement in the family prior to death. Then a family member will try to compensate by including all the extras at the funeral service to assuage their guilt. Guilt is a big problem and often the reason that grief is unhealthy.

Rituals are healthy, they go back to the time of King Tut - when the body was wrapped in linen soaked in sweet- smelling oils. Today people often ignore the need for rituals only to come back later to ask for help. A lady whose mother had died in Jamaica telephoned me about arranging a memorial service. She went for the funeral but her husband and children could not go. They did not have any part in the rituals and now are having a very hard time. She wants to arrange to have a memorial service for her mother so that the family can be involved and begin dealing with their grief."

Q.6 What is the relationship between your private grief and your public mourning?

A. "These are difficult questions to answer. Both the grief and the mourning depend a great deal on the type of death. My grandfather died from a terminal illness. We watched him deteriorate in front of us. His death was a relief in many ways, so our grief was different. We mourned him as an elder and an educator and we grieved over his terminal illness. But I think our mourning was less because we had a longer period of time to become accustomed to his impending death.

When my grandmother died it was because she fell and broke her wrist and three weeks later she passed away. Her death was relatively sudden and unexpected and my grief was more severe. My grandmother was an important person to me and was very involved when I was growing up. There were many times we would not have had anything to eat if she had not supplied it. Although it is several years since her death and I appear to have dealt with it, in private I still have a great sense of loss and when she died, she took a piece of me with her."

Q.7 How useful do you think group support is in facilitating successful resolution of grief? How do people on the reserve resolve their grief?

A. "I really don't think it is ever 100% resolved. I think if you say your grief is resolved you haven't loved. On our reserve we have support groups in place for health care, alcohol and drug abuse, palliative care and bereavement. People from within the reserve go out to be trained and then come back to the reserve to work. In this way we are keeping up with the times. Group support is quite successful on the reserve. Our people are going all over Canada to get updated on different information.

I think group support is more successful on the reserve because our life is at a much slower pace - our people do not get so involved in their own affairs that they forget others. We share and do not lose touch with people who are struggling with a problem. Our culture is a tight family group. There was a time when we all thought we could look after our own. Then the pace was slower both on the reserve and outside. Now, even on the reserve we realize that we need help to keep up with the developing society so we are making sure that support will continue to be in place by educating our young people and encouraging them to come back to the reserve.

In the families that I now deal with I believe that many of them need some one-on-one help to deal with their grief. Support groups are very helpful for some people but generally speaking, not until several months after the death. Many of these families do not have their own good support system between members and this complicates the grieving process. Some people find it very helpful in a group setting, to share their feelings with others who have had a similar experience, others choose to keep their grief more private. Everyone's response is individual and we have to offer appropriate support according to needs."

What I Learned from this Interview.

The philosophy of the people in Richard's culture is very similar to my own. They live very close to nature and learn from it. After a death, however, there appears to be more caring and support of the bereaved person than that which often occurs among the families with whom I work. Perhaps this is because this is a small reserve (about 160 people) and life is still at a much slower pace. Or perhaps it is because Richard's people recognize the importance of those who preceded them as educators for future generations and respect the values that they instilled. Richard commented "we respect our past; we don't overlook it but we don't live in it either. We use the past to go forward into the future. Anything that is bad for the reserve is dealt with and then finished. Issues that come to the table are today's issues, not yesterday's. Our concern is what can we do for the future of the reserve - to expand and preserve it. We are a nation within a nation and we survive. I am proud of my Native heritage."

I was impressed by Richard's account of the involvement of the family before the death occurred - the way in which the dying person was accompanied and never left isolated and alone. This coincides with my own strong belief about the importance of sharing this time with those we love despite the sadness we feel over the impending loss. In Richard's culture, the illness is accepted as terminal and everything is done for the comfort of the person who is dying.

Richard's account of the family forming a semi-circle around the bed and later, at the funeral, around the casket prior to closure, indicates the closeness of the family unit in his culture and the protectiveness felt towards the person who died and those who grieve. This kind of ritual helps to cement the already existing bond between family members or encourages and fosters its development. Many families are now beginning to use similar rituals in our culture, but there are also those who cannot put aside bitter and long-standing differences.

This was an "interesting" assignment and one that personally, I found to be very satisfying. Richard happened to be a student when my husband, Jim, was doing some work in the funeral service course at the college. He was also the first Native Indian student and Jim was greatly impressed by his abilities and his sensitivity - he told me "this young man is going to make a fine funeral director and he is an expert in restorative work."

As events turned out, when Jim died Richard was working at the funeral home and in fact, he was the person who prepared him for burial. Richard was closely involved with the funeral, as a pallbearer and as driver of the family limousine. In this interview, Richard told me how helpful Jim had been to him in his student days and how he appreciated his soft-spoken manner as he worked with him during the course. He spoke of his great respect for Jim and his appreciation for his willingness to share his knowledge and experiences. It was and still is, very comforting to me to know that this quiet, sensitive young man tended Jim after death - I am sure it was done gently and with great respect.

Richard's final remark as I thanked him for the interview was "I miss my grandmother - I did this in memory of her."

Written for Grief in a Family Context, HPER F317, Spring semester, 1997.

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(C) 1997, Stella Dean. All rights reserved. Interested parties may contact her through the course instructor, at