Researching bereavement traditions

Professor and students work with the funeral industry to better understand grieving traditions and needs in a growing community

A tradition within the Hispanic community of holding an extended wake next to the body of the deceased, complete with eating, drinking, games and gift-giving, still tends to surprise many in the U.S. funeral industry.

Dr. Candi Cann, assistant professor in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core of the Honors College, said death research in the U.S. tends to overlook bereavement customs of those who are not Anglo-Protestants. She hopes to correct that--beginning with a study of Catholic Latino communities which often hold overnight wakes and present food to the deceased.

Cann teaches classes on death and dying. In 2015, she took a group of her students to a Latino funeral home in Central Texas to observe some of the differences between bereavement traditions in the Anglo and Hispanic communities.

The hallmark of the Latino funeral is the extended wake, which often lasts overnight. Mourners bring their children, and it is common for families to set up card tables so that they can play dominoes and other games and exchange stories about the deceased loved one. Flowers and candles are placed near the body when the visitation begins.

"My students--nearly all Anglo--were fascinated," Cann said. "This world was entirely foreign to them. The idea of eating and serving food at a wake was one that my students found not only foreign, but repelling. They couldn't imagine eating in the presence of the dead. I realized that these practices reflect a central part of Latina identity formation, yet seem invisible to many because the death industry in the United States remains so segregated."

Funeral directors are seeing a need to expand their services, she said. Hispanics are the country’s largest minority--approximately 17 percent of the population--and expected to double to 106 million residents in 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Cann's research found that while the need for ethnic funeral services is growing, many funeral homes are not familiar with other cultures.

"The industry wants to serve this community, but it doesn't know how," she said.

Her study, Contemporary Death Practices in the Catholic Latina/o Community, is published in the journal Thanatos. She has prepared training modules about Latino grieving and funeral practices at the request of the Funeral Service Academy, a national education organization for funeral directors and embalmers.

Establishment of ethnic funeral homes with bilingual staff is on the rise, and some traditional Anglo funeral homes are actively recruiting bilingual staff, Cann said. Changes include making adjustments so that catered food can be served during wakes.

Cann said that her research is an introduction.

"There is much more work to be done," she said. "Death practices in the contemporary United States are one of the few remaining places in which ethnic identity is emphasized and even solidified. I wanted to at least attempt to counter the myth of death in the United States as uniform and analogous."