Study Finds Death Practices of Latino Community Often Overlooked

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

new study by Baylor University professor Candi Cann found that the mourning and memorialization practices of the Latino community, which differ in some notable ways from Anglo-American death customs, have been largely overlooked the funeral industry in the United States. Cann's research focuses on death and dying, and she teaches courses on a variety of death studies subjects at Baylor. Her latest study was born out of a visit to the Funeraria Brazos funeral home in Waco, Texas with a group of her students. Cann published her research in the latest edition of Thanatos, a bi-annual, peer-reviewed scholarly journal put out by the Finnish Death Studies Association.

Funeraria Brazos opened in 2003 to focus on serving Waco's 30% Hispanic population, and providing death care specifically catered to the needs of that community. Currently the largest minority group in the United States at 17% of the population, "Hispanic American" is a more general term for "Spanish-speaking", and while used interchangeable with Latino here and in Cann's article, it actually encompasses a large and diverse minority group; including people from South America, Central America, Mexico, Spain, Cuba, Puerto Rico, all with customs and beliefs specific to their heritage and nationalities, that all intersect and branch off in a myriad of ways. In short, as Cann quotes past researchers, “the Hispanic culture in the United States is the grouping of many entities, nationalities, and cultures as ‘webs of significance’”, who share a common language, culture, or even liturgical calendar."

Many funerary practices overlap with traditional Catholic services, as that is the predominant religion, though as of late it has been expanding to other Christian sects. There are aspects to the funeral that are universal to Latino culture, the two most significant of which are the sharing of food and the extended wake.

Food is brought in and served to friends and family, as well as offered to the deceased, and there are catering services facilitated by the funeral home and provided by restaurants around the area. It's a highly active and lively affair, with people coming and going, playing card games and dominos, sitting and sharing stories, and preparing and sharing food. Family members often participate in preparing the body for visitation and prefer to not leave the body alone until it is finally buried. Candles and statues and prayer cards adorn the room and casket, small memory drawers are filled with mementos and keepsakes, and the extended wake can often run all night long. As such, Funeraria Bravos has extended daily hours of operation and flexible hours on the weekends as well.

Furthermore, the bereavement process doesn't just take place during the time of death - Latino culture celebrates not just All Soul's Day, but the anniversary of the loved one's death. Cann describes it in her article as a mentality of "caring for the dead" as opposed to "remembering the dead." Not to suggest that the latter conveys a lack of care or concern, but Latino death practices involve elements of community and participation, with a focus on the memorial space and their relationship to it and the deceased over time. Whereas in the Anglo-American tradition is in some ways focused on an expedient and one-time service, and memorialization can take place privately and continue outside of the cemetery or funeral home. They are very active visitors of the deceased throughout the year.

The death care industry is not unaware of this community, nor unwilling to accommodate them - Cann believes that it is more an issue of not knowing how to serve them best. She hopes that her research can shed some light, and was also commissioned by the Funeral Services Academy to provide materials on Latino funeral customs. New York repealed its ban on food served in funeral homes this summer, and New Jersey has a bill proposed to do the same. NJ and NY were outliers in terms of the food ban, but it is still far from a common practice. We've spoken a lot here about the impending rise of the death rate due to the Baby Boomer population as a change that will impact the industry. Likewise, attention should be paid as well to Hispanic Americans, which will expand to nearly 106 million by 2050.

The whole article is short - about nine pages - and really worth a read. You can read the article online at Thanatos Journal.