Our world has changed so much: we are all multicultural now, with all the richness and confusion that creates. One area where this creates a challenge is when it comes to making response around a death. Co-worker, family connection, fellow student: we may be uncertain what is culturally appropriate when encountering the death of someone whose background is different than our own.
My first suggestion on this front is to ask directly what might be best appreciated. The second is to do a little research on the internet or make a phone call to an ethnic association or associated place of worship. It is worth the trouble to get this right if you can. Flowers, for example, may be a perfect choice for a Buddhist but are wrong for a Muslim.
Below are some guidelines for response in some settings:
Attendance at services is seen as a significant sign of respect and compassion. You offer spoken or written words about the good qualities of the one who has died and offer wishes for peace to those remaining. Do not send flowers.
Traditionally those who attend services for people of Japanese descent bring a gift of money in a special black and silver decorated envelope. The money is usually used rather than new.
Observances of a death may be more celebratory for Buddhists because of their belief in reincarnation. Flowers or donations to the family are appropriate in the case of the death of a Buddhist. Do not provide gifts of food.
Gifts of food are appropriate during Shivah, although the food must be kosher if the family keeps kosher. Donations to identified charities is also appreciated. Do not send flowers.
The traditional condolence gift to a Hindu family is fruit. At a Hindu service expect to have to remove your footwear.
Protestant Christians appreciate a note or words of sympathy, flowers and/or meals for the family. A donation to the church or an identified charity is also appropriate.
Particular to the practice of Catholic Christians is the option to make donations for special masses to be said in memory to benefit the soul of the departed. Otherwise they appreciate the same condolences as Protestants.
This list doesn’t cover all the varieties of custom but points out a few of the kinds of differences one may encounter. It will always be appreciated if you attempt, at least, to accommodate the cultural traditions.
How about you? Do you have a story about giving or receiving an act of condolence that was out-of-keeping with the tradition? Any advice for others?