Culture and Death: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

From culture to culture, the sacred journey of death comes with diverse rituals, practices, and traditions. As we observe Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’ll be diving into the connections between culture and death around the world.

Asian American

Some common characteristics across Asian funerals include the respect of elders, use of specific colors like white and yellow mums, the use of incense to help loved ones along on their journey to the afterlife, and honoring deceased loved ones with three full days of visitation prior to the funeral.

Asian funeral traditions vary depending on where a family is from, their religious beliefs, and social status.

For example, Korean funerals vary widely depending on the economic status and religious preferences of the person whose life is being honored.

In Japanese funerals, cremation is generally chosen, and the memorial service follows Buddhist or Shinto customs depending on the family’s religious preferences.

Buddhist Taiwanese families conduct “Tou Qi” – pronounced “tow chee” – on the seventh day after death as it is believed that in this ritual the spirit of the recently deceased revisits the family for one final farewell.

While Filipino funerals have become westernized in many ways, they are still characterized by a public wake held for three to seven days.

Pacific Islander

A traditional Pacific Islander funeral service can be a multi-day event full of family gatherings, feasting, and an extensive gift exchange. Oftentimes, a whole pig is roasted for several days in a traditional earthen oven and served alongside taro, yams, rice, and fruit. Generally, a structured funeral program is arranged with singing, musical tributes, scripture or poetry reading, and remembrance talks about the deceased.

Cultural traditions at the end of life vary from island to island. In Samoan culture, before the funeral service takes place, the tulafale, or the family member selected as the orator chief, is the designated storyteller and funeral leader who is responsible for notifying family and friends about the death.

Today in the kingdom of Tonga there is a strong Christian presence, and ordinary people are buried with a lot of attention and on the public graveyards in funeral rituals, called mala`e. Tapa mats and banana leaves play a key role in covering the body before it is lowered into the ground.

An annual remembrance of the deceased is also an important aspect of modern Pacific Islander funeral traditions. On a special day, such as the loved one’s birthday or a national holiday such as Memorial Day, the family of the deceased may choose to spend the day at the gravesite. The time is spent remembering the individual, cleaning the gravesite (if necessary), placing flowers at the grave, and preparing and eating a picnic lunch. Storytelling, singing, and children playing at these annual remembrance events are very common.

What are your traditions and practices for end-of-life? Share them with us: jpropst@alivehospice.org

Our grief services offer interactive workshops and weekly groups for those experiencing grief and coping with loss. If you or someone you know may benefit from these special events, visit our full calendar at AliveHospice.org/Events or contact griefsupport@alivehospice.org.