2020 Crisis

COVID-19 and the Changing Culture of Grief Around the World

By: Justin Cook


Death rituals have always been imbued with cultural values. What happens, though, when minority cultures, who are among the most impacted by COVID-19, have their death rituals upended or halted entirely? 

In Ghana, where “there is no such thing as a private burial…and funerals are huge, dramatic and regular ceremonies,” mourning norms are now disrupted (Ohene).  Public gatherings of grief are not allowed because of social distancing enforcement. Gone too are the typical three days of condolences for both Muslim and Christian believers which would bring large groups of friends and family together. 

In India and Iraq, body disposal has become a contested issue. The problems range from an Iraqi man who was denied his father’s body for eight days to cremains piling up in Indian crematoriums “because families can’t come to pick up the ashes” (NPR). This lack of transport is also impeding the Indian cultural belief that having ashes submerged in the Ganges river guarantees salvation.  Furthermore, specific practices associated with death care are being systematically denied to mourners. Kissing, hugging, bathing, and even embalming the bodies of COVID-19 victims are all forbidden by the government of India.  Body-washing is typically practiced by Muslims and the denial of this last bathing of the dead is seen as discriminatory.

In Algeria funerals that would have drawn hundreds of people together now have only two or three family and friends in attendance. One mourner explains that “In Algeria, it’s a moral obligation to express our condolences to say goodbye and to honor the life of our friend.”  Continuing to recount how at the recent ceremony of his friend, that last a short thirty minutes with only one imam reciting a prayer for the deceased, the mourner believed that the restrictions “[go] against our tradition but we have to follow the rules” (Davies and Castano). The funeral of his friend should have been far more expansive.  Gone are extensive readings from the Quran, traditional singing to honor the dead, and large gatherings for shared grieving.

Credit: The Gender Spectrum Collection, photo by Zackary Drucker

While it is not responsible to lay blame at the feet of the government for imposing such strictures or on the funeral industry for enforcing them, especially after reports of at least 60 people testing positive for COVID-19 in Spain after attending a funeral, I am left to wonder how these cultures are dealing with these disruptions and what role technology can play in helping the bereaved mourn their loved ones. 

When reflecting on the Zoom funeral she’d just performed, one rabbi commented: “Geography is not a problem anymore, and that’s an amazing thing. So all these funerals and all these shivas, I’ve got people from all over the country who wouldn’t fly in for the funeral, normally, but now can be there. There’s an equalization that’s happening now. Our homebound people, our elderly people are now the same as us. For me, it feels like such a big deal for them. There will be loss, I think, when we’re back together and they’re on the outside again” (Miller).

There is no easy answer for how technology and mourning interact especially when both are dependent on cultural values. That said, The Order of the Good Death has compiled some inspiration and tips for mourning in digital spaces. They suggest using technology to its fullest potential by creating digital alters/ artwork, and utilizing video platforms for things other than work or mourning (like family meals, or game parties, or just regular meetups), building things together that remind us of our loved ones (like song playlists), and using delivery services to do the work you cannot (like sending care packages and having meals delivered). While these practices can never truly replace lost or suspended cultural touchstones of mourning, they can begin us on a path of shared mourning and renewed governance over important death rituals. Technology is not the problem and it is not fully the solution, but it is a path forward and a part of what seems to be a new reality for mourning and grief. 

It all seems to come down to togetherness. This pandemic has created new and interesting ways to mourn. However, it also reinforces the distance between us as we share hard emotions that cannot now be lessened by physical intimacy and presence. Andy Langford, COO of Cruse Bereavement Care, comments that, “When you feel you have no control over how you can grieve, and over how you can experience those last moments with someone, that can complicate how you grieve and make you feel worse” (qtd. in Amante, Hafezi, and Choi). Of course, the reverse is also true, “Even in self-isolation, collective grieving still matters” (Waters). 

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