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CROSS CULTURAL COMPARISON OF DEATH IN ARABIC AND AMERICAN CULTURES BY: ALI ZOHERY Anthropology, s a holistic study of human beings in their cultural context, has from its inception as a discipline been concerned with the study of man’s mortality. Death-related behavior has been of great importance to many of the central theoretical developments in anthropology, especially as it impinges on studies of social life. Death and its ritual not only reflect social values, but are an important force in shaping them (Goertz 1973: 94-8).A leading authority on death and dying has pointed out that "the way that a society or subculture explains death will have a significant impact on the way its members view and experience life." (Kubler-Ross 1975:27). The problem of death is a universal question, but the answer to that question differs among cultures. This paper focuses on death processes in both American and Arabic cultures with the purpose of highlighting universal and cultural specific characteristics in this regard. Both theological and secular belief structures related to death and dying will be examined. (Where specific references are not cited in relation to the material on the Arabic culture, the information has been drawn from personal experience.) The following table provides a global contrastive view of the theological belief structures in the two culture regarding death: Table 1.Belief Structure Issues American Culture Arabic Culture 1. Reward and Punish- Many believe in it. An overwhelming ment after Death majority believe in it. 2. Nothingness Some believe in it. No one would admit to such belief. 3. Transmigration of Some believe in it. No one would admit Souls to such belief. The Theological Belief Structures In American and Arabic Cultures The Table above is intended to highlight the issues that are considered to be common and those which are culturally specific in the two cultures. In relation to issue no.1, it is obvious that the majority, which is Christian in America and Moslem in the Arabic culture, believe in reward and punishment (heaven and hell) after death. In relation to issue no. 2, there are some in the American culture who believe in "nothingness" after death (Stephenson 1985). In the Arabic culture, however, there are almost none, and if there are some who do believe in nothingness after death, they never express this opinion in public, because, culturally speaking, to do so would be considered a challenget o the Moslems and the Christians in the Arabic world. This is also the case in regard to the issue of "transmigration of souls." It would be difficult to find an Ara who would admit to such belief. In the American society, one finds much more diversity in beliefs concerning death. Death in the American society has many meanings. It may mean that one is to dwell in heaven or hell. To some, death is a state of nothingness. To others, death is a transitory state until one returns in another life, or life form (Stephenson 1985). Theological Concepts of Death in America The Puritans who colonized New England in the seventeenth century held an image of the world which differed sharply from that of Americans today. The eschatology of the Puritans – that branch of their theology concerned with death – placed the individual in a terrifying position at the end of life. The Puritan belief structure held that the fate of almost all men and women (as well as children) was to burn forever in hell. A very few selected by God and known only to Him, would enter into Heaven. There was little that the individual could do except to lead as good a life as he or she could, ant to pray to be one of the chosen few to go to heaven.As a result of their beliefs, the act ofd ying was not one of calm acceptance and peacefulness. Since there was no way of gaining assurance of one’s salvation – even for the most devout leaders of the religious community, dying was a time of fear and anguish. In fact, if one ceased to be fearful of approaching death and damnation, this was a sure sign that one was either spiritually lost, or stupid, or both. And so "the puritan arrived at death’s door armed with nothing but doubt." (Stpehenson 1985:22}.One of the functions of a belief structure is to provide a explanation of what happens to the dead. The puritans knew where the dead were and why they were dead. Death was a result of humanity’s fall from grace. Death was everywhere, and it served as a constant reminder of God’s power over people.Gradually, as the eighteenth century wor eon, the puritan belief system lost its hold on the people although earlier a desolate existence had reinforced puritan beliefs. As life got better and material rewards increased, a tension was steadily growing. The double bind of attempting to lead a saintly life while at the same time knowing that one was most likely predestined to a hellish fate became more and more untenable. The only recourse was to reject the premises of such a belief system, and this was the option chosen by most of the population. As a result of this change in peoples’ image of the world, behavior associated with death and dying changed as well.A sacred image of death was no longer predominant by the time of the American Revolution. By 1800, thes acred death oft he puritan had been replaced in public image by a more naturalistic outlook on mortality, and the focus had shifted away from the dead person, and on to the bereaved survivors (Stephenson 1985:24,25). Theological Concepts of death in Arabic Culture Although Islam is not the only religion practiced in Arabic countries, it is by far the most prevalent and its tenets and practices affect the other religions that are touched by it. For this reason and because of the limited view of death here. Islam deals very graphically and the ultimate fate of man. Systematic instruction of these matters is not set down in the Qur’an, however, but in a later work, the kit al-ruh "Book of the Soul" written in the 14th century by the Hanbali theologian Muhammad ign Abi-Bakr ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyah.The Qur’an does establish the basic premise of Islamic teaching concerning death and that is of Allah’s omnipotence. Allah creates human beings, determinest heir life spana nd causes them to di e . "It is written." The concept of predestination is fundamental. The term Islam itself, meaning "surrender," implies an absolute submission to the will of God.The orthodox Muslim belief, when a person dies the Angel of Death (malak al-mawt) arrives, sits at the head of the deceased and addresses each soul according to its known status. Evil souls are instructed "to depart to the wrath of God," and good souls are instructed "to depart to the mercy of God." Both souls are eventually returned to their bodies and experience eternal damnation or salvation, whichever is applicable. In some modern Arabic cultures, the story of final judgement is regarded as metaphysical. The tendency which stresses individual responsibility was led by the Sufis. The Muslim attitude towards dead bodies finds cremation abhorrent. This attitude has had practical implications in relation to medical education. It is almost impossible to carry out medical postmortems in many Islamic countries. Secular Death in the American CultureBy the beginning of the nineteenth century, several changes in American life and thinking had combined to produce a radical shift in the image of death that people commonly held. This changed image was to last until the time of World War II. The period of the rise of the image of secular death. Clearly in the previous age of sacred death, there was a sharp distinction between the two spheres of the living and the dead. During the period of the secularization of death. However, contact with the dead became a topic of popular interest. For example, over a million people were involved in the spiritualism movement. Spirit photographs, accounts of life i nHeaven (which tended to be very middle class), anda ctual contact with spirits of the dead became a part of popular culture (Stephenson 1985:25). The rise of science also affected society’s image of death. Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, published in 1859, challenged the concept of God as creator and destroyer (Hofstadter 1955). A powerful implication of evolutionary theory is that life is constantly improving, that progress is an important aspect of life. This is certainly not the long-suffering and fatalistic philosophy of the puritan. Instead, people of this secular period believed that life could be made better, and not just endured.Life was getting better. Science was beginning to combat diseases that had decimated populations in the past. The germ theory stated that germs, not God, cause death. In the mind of the people, God was displaced from His position as ruler of nature. Death is not subject to the laws of nature. Therefore, as humanity learns to control nature, it will ultimately control death as well (Stephenson 1985:26). For hundreds of years, the dying individual had been at the center of the image of death. In the nineteenth century this changed, as death became a part of the natural process. This view has continued into the twentieth century and science and technology now heavily influence our contemporary image of death. At the same time that death was losing its sacred meanings, the more emotionally based nature of community living was being eclipsed by the heterogeneous life in cities and towns (Stephenson 1985:30). Others have pointed out that not only has the comfort of the sacred belief of personal immortality held by medieval man been lost in the modern American, but promise of historical immortality, 1.e., the welfare of posterity. In a society that emphasizes the future, nuclear weaponry and ecological pollution threaten the very core of belief. In the face of the dissolution of beliefs that aided in overcoming fear of death and dying, death became an object of hostility, repudiation and denial (Weisman 1972). The Avoidance of Death in Contemporary American Kubler-Ross (1975) has referred to the United States as a "death-denying" society in contrast to the Trukese, a Micronesian society (1975: 28-29) and the Alaskan Indians (1975:33} who are "death affirming" in that they prepare for death and the whole community participates in the process. Evidence of denying death lies, Kubler-Ross states, in the American’s practices of placing their dying in sterile hospitals away from view, away from their family and friends, hidden from children (who are not even allowed to visit in most cases). Death in the United States is referred to with euphemisms. Both medical professionals and family not only avoid the dying, but avoid discussing death. When aperson dies inA merica, he\she is quickly removed and not seen again until he\she has been cosmetically attended to and placed in appropriate attire on satin pillow. Artificial carpeting is used to disguise the earth at the burial site and mourners are sedated, so as not to experience the pain of the loss of a loved one. These are all acts of denial says Kubler-Ross (1975:39,44).Another example of death-denial, or avoidance, is expressed by Rosenblatt, et,Al (1976:82) who discuss the tendency in American customs for widows to avoid reminders of the deceased husband, such as getting rid of his possessions. Death has become less of an everyday reality. The United States has now reached the point whre it can be termed the first "death-free generation." Statistically, a family can reasonably expect that a death will not occur within it for twenty years (Stephenson 1985:31-32). Also, in America death has been institutionalized – hospitals, hospices and nursing homes serve to keep the dying out of sight. Death is thus more avoidable than it was in the past. Since it is also contrary to many American values, it is understandable that it is not a subject that Americans wish to discuss openly. Indeed , a great many people find the subject an intolerable one to deal with, and try to avoid any mention of it.The Image of Death in Contemporary America Americans believe in progress. Americans view time as linear and believe in progress. Americans view time as linear and believe that life has a particular direction to it. Time has become important to Americans and they measure themselves in terms of it. They admire those who reach high goals at a young age. Materialism is another powerful value in American life. One’s success is often measured in terms of accumulation of wealth and goods. In other times and cultures it was possible to be poor and yet highly respected by society. In today’s America that is no longer the case. Personal worth is more often judged in terms of one’s conspicuous consumption than of expertise, education or family. This has led to an increased valuation on things of this world: on one’s possessions and wealth. To some – if not most – Americans, the kingdom of heaven is available right here on earth, "if they can just swing the down payment" (Stephenson 1985: 33-343).The institutionalization of American society, the process of becoming more and more dependent upon large-scale organizations to meet daily needs, also performs the function of banishing death to the hospital, or nursing home – out of sight, out of mind.Often death is avoided by placing the institution between the family and the dying. Stephenson speaks of a case in which the parents of a retarded new-born chose to deny the doctors permission to perform simple life-saving surgery. The baby remained in the hospital and slowly starved to death because of an intestinal blockage that could easily have been removed. The father would call the institution everyday to inquire about the child’s condition. The hospital, in this case, became death caretakers, while the parents went on with their lives, avoiding any contact with their dying child. Many cases are reported families who stop visiting dying relatives, instructing the hospital to inform them when the death occurs.George M. Foster (1979) has pointed out that few Americans even conceive of alternative ways of dying. In death, Americans have abdicated care and decision making to hospitals and physicians. The trend away from medical fiat so evident in the new birth culture has not been evidenced in any complementary approach to death, he says, unless the present ventilations of concern about inordinate prolongation of life in hospitals represents some kind of overture. Hospitals continue to insulate homes and families from the rigors of coping with dying. Death takes places in the anonymity of "white-sheeted habitats" that, in the judgment of some critics, too often reduce patients to "room numbers" and their parents and children to "visitor" status ) Foster 1978:298. Funeral Practices in America Some writers have expressed amazement over the uniformity and total acceptance of institutionalized funeral practices in America, given the cultural and racial heterogeneity in the country. The overall form of funerals is uniform and generally includes rapid removal of the corpse to a funeral parlor, embalming, institutionalized "viewing" and disposal by burial (Huntington and Metcalf 1979:187). While there is general conformity, one of the exceptions may be the observance of traditional Jewish practice as set down by Jewish law (Hallacha), which unlike Western society in general, confronts death directly and regards it as a total family and community experience (Kubler-Ross 1975. The Jewish ritual allows the dying person to set his house in order, bless his family and make peace with God. The family and friends keep a bedside vigil, thereby assuring the dying that they are not alone. Upon death, funeral plans are immediately made. Realism and simplicity are characteristic of Jewish funerals. Unlike traditional American funerals, where loved ones are sedated so as not to express their emotion s , the Jewish traditio nallows full expression and has a ceremony called Kriyah "the tearing of clothes" by mourners who thereby vent their emotions. This is symbolic of the internal tearing asunder and separation from the loved one (Kubler-Ross 1975:48). The eulogy is intended to provoke tears, to make the survivors aware of what they have lost in the loved one. Mourners actually help shovel the dirt into the grave; they are not marched away before any dirt is thrown in, as is the case in most American burials. Funeral Practices in Arabic Cultures Both being semitic peoples, it is understandable that funeral practices in arabic countries would be similar to Jewish practices in some ways. Preparing the corpse for final disposal is a universal custom and interment in the ground is the most common form of disposal of the corpse. In the modern Arabic world, this is the only mode of burial, for reasons mentioned earlier. The corpse is first washed by specially trained funeral preparers, then wrapped in a white cloth. There is no "viewing" of the body, except by family members. Bodies are not embalmed in modern times. They are put into the graves wrapped in the cloths only. They are not placed in caskets. The whole community participates in the funeral ceremonies ads a means of receiving rewards from God for having done so. Muslim custom decrees that the dying be place facing the holy city of Mecca. The Arabic culture is not a death-denying culture. Death is accepted and understood. It is a part of their faith in God. I was fascinated to note the similarities between the Arabic language and death practices and those found in the Solomon Islands of the central Pacific Ocean. In the Arabic language, the word "mate" is the past tense of the word "maut" meaning "death." W.H.R. Rivers long ago presented information on death in the Solomon Islands. He reported that the inhabitants of the area had a word, "mate," which translates as "death" yet was not conceptualized as the opposite of "toa," "life." "Mate" was not considered a terminal state but a transitional period between two modes of existence. A person designated as "mate" was accorded funeral rites, but the burial itself was conceptualized as a festive symbolization of the passage from "toa" to "mate." Life and death are a part of a continuum, not polarized opposites (Moore, 1980). This is death-affirming as is the case in the Arabic culture. The Arabic widow does not avoid reminders of the deceased husband. On the contrary, she keeps safe the Husband’s belongings after death as opposed to the American way described earlier in the paper.The Relationship Between Violence and Death Concepts While striving to avoid the reality of death, American society seems to value violence. Some social scientists believe that as Americans have sought to repress from their conscious minds the reality of death, it re-emerges in violent forms to fascinate and horrify. This preoccupation with violence does not take place solely in the media. Many sports such as hockey, football and boxing have violent components. Hunting (which some people have trouble categorizing as "sport") is a major source of recreation for many. Children often engage in violent, or violence simulating games encouraged by toy guns, war toys and dolls and violence-prone media heroes (Stephenson 1985:36-37). Violence, in American life, is not restricted to witnesses experiences such as spectator sports, or simulated violence in play. In the American image, taking the law into one’s own hands and righting a wrong is acceptable behavior. The moral is that in America by acting violently one can prove one’s masculinity.Capital punishment is violent behavior. At its root, it is a form of revenge. It affirms that violence is an acceptable form of behavior when used in the name of the State and justice. The State uses violence to punish the offender and thereby to right a wrong (Stephenson 1985:37). Violence does not play an important role in Arabic culture. Contact sports that foster such feelings, such as football, boxing and hockey are not a part of the culture. The Effects of Secularism on American Culture There is no doubt that secularism has strongly impacted the structure of the social values of the past and brought about the following changes: Death became less of a spiritual matter. Death became more avoidable than it was in the past; Death became a taboo subject; Long periods of grief and mourning became seem as a waste of time (especially after the massive killings of World War II; Materialism became a powerful value in American life, placing an emphasis upon meaning and pleasure derived from this world. A change that has come to be called "the institutionalization of American Society" took place, whereby Americans became more and more dependent upon large scale organizations to meet their daily needs. This included hospitals and nursing homes for the dying and professional funeral directors for the dead. America entered a stage of romanticism of violence and a big growth of life insurance sales. (See Aries, 1974, Fulton, 1977, Howard and Scott (1985). The Secularism of Death in Arabic Cultures While, similar to the American culture, the Arabic culture has been affected by secularism regarding death values, the effects, however, are quite different. The predominance of Islamic values are still very strong despite attempts to sever the state from religion as far back as the 14th century (the end of the Islamic capliphate.) The effects of secularism can be seen, however, in the following ways: Many of the people who use to visit graves during the days of Moslem feasts are no longer doing so, especially in big cities. The forty day period of mourning became a far less intense period. (In this period people dress in black and stop doing any activity with a joyful connotation). A few cases of sending elderly parents to nursing homes are being reported. This is a new development, as it is traditional in the Arabic culture to revere older people, and it is considered an honor to have a parent live with one until death. Materialism is going ground in Arabic culture. Many societies are becoming consumer-oriented. Personal worth is being judged more often in terms of one’s conspicuous consumption than on expertise, education and family. This is reflected in marriages and through movies and the media.Violence, although by no means comparable to that in American society, is increasingly being reported in the Arabic societies with higher rates than ever before. Significance of the Comparison of the Two Cultures The similarities between the two cultures in their beliefs about death and dying can,undoubtedly, be attributed to the instinctive inability or refusal in man to accept death as the definitive end of human life. The various practices which reflect this tendency in man are culture specific and demonstrate the differences between the two cultures. While there seem to be some similarities in the trend toward secularism in death values between the American and the Arabic cultures, one must be careful not to take these cultures must be taken into consideration . Parallel to the rise in secularism in the Arabic world has been an equally powerful rise in Islamic awakening. Even the secularist oriented leaders cannot ignore the element of religion. A political leader like Sadat raised the slogan "Binding the State of Science and Faith." It is not to be assumed, therefore, that secular values will take hold in the Arabic culture to the extent that is has in America. References Cited Aries, Philippe Western Attitudes Toward Death. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Foster, George M. Medical Anthropology. New York: Newberry Award Record, Inc. Fulton, Robert "Death, Grief and the Funeral in Contemporary Society," The Director, November 1976, March, 1977. Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books. Hofstadter, Richard Social Darwinism in American Thought. Rev.ed. Boston: Beacon Press. Howard, Alan and Scott, Robert "Cultural Values and Attitudes toward Death," Journal of Existentialism 6(Winter 1965-66): 161-74. Kubler-Ross, Elizabeth Death: The Final Stage of Growth. Prentice Hall International Moore, L., Arsdale, P. Glittenberg, J. and Aldrich, R. The Biocultural Basis of Health: Expanding Views of Medical Anthropology. Waveland Press, Inc. Rosenblatt, P. Walsh, R. and Jackson, D. Grief and Mourning in Cross Cultural Perspective. HRAF Press. Stephenson, John S. Death, Grief and Mourning. London: Collier MacMillan Publishers. Weisman, Avery D. On Dying and Denying. New York: Behavioral Publications, Inc.