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Latino and Latina death practices differ significantly from those of Anglo Protestant families, yet they are largely unknown outside the Latino community.

Candi K. Cann, assistant professor in Baylor University’s Interdisciplinary Core of the Honors College, authored a study on these differences, seeking to dispel the idea that U.S. customs surrounding death and dying are monolithic and homogenous.

“Death practices in the contemporary United States are one of the few remaining places in which diasporic identity is emphasized and even solidified,” she said.

Distinctive customs include:

  • Wakes – informal gatherings that may last all night either at the deceased’s home or a funeral home in which food is eaten, games are played, and memories are shared.
  • Having at least one person with the deceased continually until burial, and family involvement in preparing the body for the wake and funeral.
  • Small items (pictures, letters, jewelry, religious icons) placed in the casket (or in built-in drawers in the casket) to emphasize family, community and religious bonds.
  • Rosary recitals in the presence of the deceased, followed by recitals at the family home for nine nights after the funeral.
  • A four-part funeral mass followed by formal remembrances and prayers for the dead – “masses on the third, seventh and 30th days following a death or a funeral, and then annually after that.”

“I realized that these practices reflect a central part of Latina/o identity formation, yet seem invisible to many, because the death industry in the United States remains so highly segregated,” Cann explained. “I wanted to at least attempt to counter the myth of death in the United States as uniform and analogous.”

Cann emphasized the importance of shared food and sitting with the deceased in comments to EthicsDaily.com.

“By eating with the dead, sitting with the dead until their burial, and including children in bereavement customs, death becomes a part of everyday life,” she said.

“Sitting with the body is really important, and the importance of the wake can sometimes eclipse the funeral itself,” while “food serves as a way for people to define themselves and to bind the community – not just in the act of eating, but in the types of food that are eaten.”

While her study focused on Catholic Hispanic practices, she emphasized that there is an increasing number of Hispanic Protestants and that “Pentecostalism is fast-growing in this community.”

When asked about ways Protestant ministers could become more aware of these distinctive death customs, she said that “the most important way for pastors to understand these practices in death is simply to sit with people in life – to learn about Latino customs, to have conversations, and to demonstrate through Christian hospitality the desire to be present for all who are in our community.”

The full study is available here.

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