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The Community in Culture

The Community in Culture

Changing the Process of Mourning 

By Atheris Seals 

If there is one shared experience of humanity, it is that people crave compassion and love. Identity cements a place of belonging where genuine emotions and moments can be shared. In the lowest moments of life, that belonging offers healing and community.  

Culture can be found anywhere people can exist. Whether it is a home, a school, a city, a country, or a religion, the world is a brilliant painting of overlapping cultures. They teach us how to cook and eat recipes that have been passed down for generations. We learn to sing and dance in ways that hold meaning and purpose. We learn to hold each other dearly and celebrate life for what it gives. Even in death, it teaches us how to mourn together and prepare for the end.  

A few students from Walla Walla University were asked how their cultures address mourning and how that impacts people’s grieving processes. Hannah-Jane Gillespie, a junior fine arts major and resident assistant, shared her experiences with grief from when she was a student.  

Gillespie’s school was a small academy on a farm with a close group of students and faculty members. She looked back at the time she spent there in seventh–twelfth grade, and the grief that hit the school. During those years, there had been two fatal tragedies of community members from her school. When the school announced their deaths, Gillespie recalled the “moments of visceral experience,” hearing that they “had a student pass away through suicide” and that her “teacher got hit while riding his motorcycle and passed away.” [1]  

Everyone there grieved as one whole. After an early dismissal, the students and teachers came together to either hold each other and cry or stand nearby to mourn. [2] Gillespie said that in that group, “everyone mourned in a way they knew they would be comforted.” [3] She still deeply remembers that moment because of how much everyone comforted and cared for each other. Later, the community came together once again and created a garden for the student and signed a motorcycle for the teacher in their memory. [4]  

Gillespie’s school was full of people dedicated to each other and a togetherness in grieving. She said it was “different from having someone pass away in your personal life,” but that it was nice to have the community. [5]  

Danyah Morales-Cruz, a sophomore exercise science major, has also found the presence of community in their culture. Morales-Cruz was born in Mexico and was raised practicing Catholicism. A part of their culture they admire is the overlap of tradition and religion when it comes to respecting the dead.  

Morales-Cruz described some of the celebrations after a death, as well as the holiday Día de los Muertos. When someone has passed away, one of the first events organized is an “open casket service where everyone’s invited,” bringing gifts of chocolate, bread, and money, said Morales-Cruz. [6] This part is usually during a Mass and the priest at the church is invited to pray over the body. Moralez-Cruz further explained, “it’s more like a social gathering, a celebration of the life of the deceased, so you don’t see people crying.” [7]  

At the end of grief is a ray of hope. Photo by Atheris Seals.

In the days after the ceremony, there are periods of praying. In the first eight days, only family and friends come to pray. They set up a shrine and will sometimes pay members of the church to pray in their place. When it is over, they all share coffee, chocolate, and bread. There are then 15 days with more people coming to pray, and finally a period where everyone is invited to pray and bring money as a gift until 40 days since death have passed. [8] 

While the initial mourning lasts for 40 days, there is the annual Día de los Muertos. Morales-Cruz talked about the journey of honoring the dead, such as cleaning the grave and putting out candles, food, and flowers. Even in the house, the family will set up an altar with a portrait of the dead and their favorite foods. “You always put a bottle of alcohol and a hot drink. It’s important to put a train of cempasúchil [marigold] petals from the door to the altar. If you don’t, the dead won’t be able to locate it,” Morales-Cruz explained. [9]  

The binding factor in all these celebrations was the respect and care of the community. When asked about the lasting impact of these traditions, Morales-Cruz responded that it was “nice knowing that you’ll have people remember you. It brings the community together and it’s a good religious practice, bringing people closer to God.” [10]  

In a smaller interview, Jewel Aguilar, a sophomore nursing major, shared what she enjoyed of her culture’s mourning practices. She focused on the meaning of clothing, since “most Filipinos dress in white during funerals to symbolize hope instead of sadness.” [11] In the height of loss and pain, it is nice for everyone to have a reminder of the hope that will not abandon.  

See Also

Community, caring, and hope have been the key parts of some cultural responses to loss. While there is certainly no one way to grieve, it is nice to look at the variety of traditions that have existed and been with people in their moments of mourning.  

If you have a culture that is ready to follow you with caring hands, hold on to those people and celebrate the life you have and the lives that have been.  

Everyone’s experience is different, and this article does not represent every cultural experience of individuals at WWU. If you would like to share your own or comment on this article, send me an email at emily.seals@wallawalla.edu.  

References 

  1. Interview with Hannah-Jane Gillespie, 11/30/2021.  
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Interview with Danyah Morales-Cruz, 12/3/2021.  
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Interview with Jewel Aguilar, 11/23/2021. 

Cover art by Hannah-Jane Gillespie

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