Death in Boston: Dying, Mourning, and Religious Difference (2014)

Scholars and critics often point to an American tradition of death and mourning that dominates our culture’s funeral rites. It is at once derided and celebrated: for some, it represents a brutal scheme of extortion and abuse; for others a tasteful way to dispose of the dead.[1] For all, this tradition is a uniquely American event, one with no precedent in either American or Christian religious history.

This reading of death, dying, and mourning is valuable. It offers a fitting and nuanced window onto one of the most wrenching human experiences. It points to the fact of mortality, a reality that continues to shape modern America and which all will eventually face. It fails, however, to capture two essential aspects of the challenge that death poses as an object of cultural and religious importance. Though it artfully traces the strange genesis of a set of curious and touching practices, it forgets, first, that even the most novel ways of mourning must adapt to their environments and, second, that, in an increasingly diverse nation, to speak of a uniform or quintessentially American way of death simplifies a vast array of experiences. The American way of death still reflects its Christian, Protestant origins. Faced with this unfortunate fact, minority religious communities in Boston have responded in ways at once innovative and traditional.

Christian Histories

Boston holds a key place in the American history of death. While early Puritans practiced a type of austere mourning, Boston also served as the origin of the Rural Cemetery Movement, a revolution in cemetery design that roughly coincided with what Michel Foucault describes as the “individualization of death and the bourgeois appropriation of the cemetery.”[2] The movement embodied a host of overlapping and intertwined cultural shifts: it reflected changing class interests, concerns about public health, transformations of urban space, and the emergence of an aesthetic which, as scholars such as Tracy Fessenden have argued, remained rooted in a new, secular philosophy still deeply indebted to its Protestant origins.[3]

Beginning with the inauguration of Mt. Auburn cemetery in 1831, the Rural Cemetery Movement announced the role of the cemetery as not only a repository for the deceased, but as a cultural institution.[4] Instead of simply receiving the dead, the cemetery now offered moral lessons or, through its design, deliberately emphasized specific interpretations of death and dying. Its creators envisioned it as explicitly didactic, thereby foreshadowing later public projects such as New York’s Central Park.[5] The cemetery achieved its moral objectives through a carefully orchestrated combination of landscape and sculpture.

The aesthetics of the cemetery were not neutral: they held a distinctly moral message. This message in turn grew out of a past that, though not specifically Christian, was rooted in a Protestant, Christian culture. Many thinkers have noted the affinities of Protestantism, individualism, and other strands of modern, American thought.[6] Though American death practices are by no means simple extensions of this religious influence, they remain indebted to them and adapted to a cultural atmosphere in which such theologies dominated public discussion. This discussion influenced the philosophic underpinnings of American ways of dying and mourning as well as shaped the material realities of death and grief. The significance of the grave and landscape encouraged, or at least enabled, the establishment of certain methods of burial and memorialization. Gravestones and monuments represented acceptable ways to honor the dead, caskets and clothing prepared the body for its eternal rest. Cremation did not become a proper response to death for quite some time; when it did, it presented a logistical and theological challenge to its detractors and proponents.[7]

The above history is too brief—it misses much of complexity and intense emotion that permeates so much of death and mourning in America. Moreover, it bypasses economic influences and the fact that religious (and other) minorities practiced and died in America long before the present day. America has never been a uniform country, and one cannot ignore other variables, such as race and class, when talking about death. Yet, in a general sense, the point remains valid: the American way of death—this set of dominant beliefs and practices—does not simply illustrate a set of unique, American rites; it carries the traces of a Christian, especially Protestant, past both in its material and philosophical aspects. What happens, then, to this tradition when it encounters a rapidly diversifying population, one that hopes to grieve according to its own traditions and mourn in ways radically different from prevailing norms?

Death Care Institutions

Within the American tradition of death, three locations dominate the time of dying—the hospital, the funeral home, and the cemetery. Together, these organizations address the physical reality of death. Any split between these institutions, however, and the groups that meet the religious needs of a given community—like churches or mosques—simplifies the reality of religious life. in Religious institutions can—and often do—play far more central roles in death and mourning than death care organizations, and a funeral home may, in another situation, support the spiritual needs of a given family more than a congregation or pastor. But to understand how exactly death and diversity interact in Boston, and how American ways of dying have shifted and evolved in response to new religious communities and traditions it is important to discuss both those within the Protestant informed American tradition of death and those rooted in minority religious traditions, such as Islam or Hinduism.

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As the demographics of Boston have changed, so has the patient population of the city’s hospitals. Faced with an increasingly diverse client base, hospital chaplaincies and administrations have worked to provide a varied array of services and opportunities to individuals. Within the hospital, chaplaincies have made efforts to expand or diversify their staff, and often recruit multi-faith chaplains equipped to serve patients of all religious backgrounds. Some institutions, such as Boston Medical Center, have also established more general programs—under the heading of “bereavement,” for example—which incorporate, in addition to chaplains, social workers, psychologists, and other specialists. This aims to support individuals of non-Christian backgrounds or those who do not identify with a particular faith tradition. Perhaps most importantly, chaplaincies strive to maintain constant and active contacts with the city’s religious communities. At Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, when the chaplaincy staff does not have the resources or personnel to respond adequately to an individual, they immediately reach out to those in local religious communities with the necessary expertise.

This interaction with local communities, however, can also be challenging. As the moments before and after death are particularly charged times within both religion and medicine, conflicts—over religious obligations or the delivery of specific services—can separate individuals from communities and force the chaplaincy staff to mediate. Similarly, individuals of minority faiths, such as Islam, may be hesitant or afraid to reach out to chaplaincy staff if they are unsure of the local community or general atmosphere of the hospital.

Yet, for some, the challenge of serving larger, established minority religions, such as Islam or Hinduism, is primarily about resources, not process. It is with religions not yet similarly accepted that some chaplains feel unsure. Spiritual practices like Reiki carry religious significance for many but, given that such traditions sometimes claim medical or scientific authority, their place in the hospital remains contested. While chaplaincies are eager to serve ever-expanding communities, they operate with clear divisions between medical and religious authority. As death represents an event both religious and medical, these divisions take on even greater importance as one passes away.

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Following a death, one generally turns to a funeral home. Funeral homes have long held an important place in the philosophical and logistical realities of dying in America.[8] Funeral directors have provided the material care of the body, spiritual care of the family, and instruction on the traditions and ceremonies proper for the memory of the deceased. Yet even if the services a funeral home provides—transportation of the body, space for receptions and viewings, embalming, and so on—are not strictly Christian, they reflect the fact they were able to flourish in a predominately Christian environment. Embalming, for example, is a widely practiced in America today after gaining prominence around the time of the Civil War, as families sought to transport bodies home from the battlefield. To delay a funeral and chemically alter the body is, however, forbidden by several religious traditions, such as Islam and therefore underscores the challenge that religious diversity presents to funeral homes. Yet confronting diversity is not entirely unknown to American funeral homes. In the past, this diversity seems to have resulted in different funeral homes that served specific ethnic and religious groups, often reflecting those of the funeral director. A Polish funeral home, for instance, would cater to an area’s Polish Catholics, and a Chinese funeral home to the city’s Chinese community.

In Boston, this complex interaction has led to several trends among local funeral homes, each of which is deeply affected by the changing religious landscape of the city. First, some immigrant communities and ethnic groups in Boston, particularly those with a long history of life in the United States, are beginning to forego inherited cultural practices for a more “American” or “mainstream” ritual of dying. A funeral director with Dolan Funeral Services noted that, whereas Boston’s Catholic community previously supported a wide range of funeral homes each serving the needs of specific Catholic communities—Irish, Italian, Polish, et cetera—many of these homes have since closed. He sees this as reflecting a variety of shifts, including changing demographics and the sublimation of ethnic or national customs under broader American death practices. In his view, individuals no longer feel tied to specific ethnic communities or cultural practices. The director of Boston’s only Chinese funeral home, Wing Fook, has seen what she understands as a similar evolution within the city’s Chinese population. As American-born Chinese comprise more and more of the population, she anticipates a shift in the type of funeral rites practiced by the community. Certain inherited cultural and religious customs, such as the use of particular bereavement clothing or the obligation to observe periods of mourning, will no longer characterize a typical service.

Conversely, Boston’s funeral homes have responded to new trends in religious diversity by reaching out to new client bases and forming new professional networks. Dolan Funeral Services previously served only Catholics, but now works with Christians of multiple denominations, non-affiliated individuals, and Catholics from diverse ethnic backgrounds, including Caribbean or Cape Verdean. The funeral director also noted the funeral home recently hosted a Buddhist ceremony, an event that proved challenging for the director staffing the service, as neither he nor the family totally understood the necessary rites. So while some funeral homes remain eager to serve an expanding population, many lack the requisite knowledge to do so effectively. Successful partnerships, however, do occur: Wing Fook often works with Boston’s Vietnamese population, as well as the Nigerian community due to its large facilities. Likewise, many within the city’s Muslim community have formed a close working relationship with Faggas Funeral Home in Watertown.

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For both the mourners and the dead body, the last stop in the funeral service is often the cemetery. Here, families can bury the deceased or, at cemeteries such as Mt. Auburn or Forest Hills, participate in the cremation of the body. Yet while these practices are common to many faiths—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism prefer burial; Hinduism cremation—the cemetery is by no means a space free from the difficulties posed by a religiously diverse city. Cemetery regulations represent a particular point of friction: while state law stipulates relatively little regarding precise modes of burial or cremation, internal and industry regulations often occlude certain religious practices or norms, as we will see in the next section.

At the same time, some area cemeteries, like Mt. Auburn, are beginning to reexamine methods of burial, including the requirement that one must bury the dead in a grave liner. Islam and Orthodox Judaism prohibit the use of a grave liner, and Muslims and Jews have long faced significant difficulties in attaining proper burials in cemeteries without explicit Muslim or Jewish religious affiliations.[9]

In the past, Mt. Auburn Cemetery has accommodated Jewish burials by inverting the grave liner, thereby bring the coffin into contact with the earth. Now the cemetery has begun to consider new methods as well, though this development stems primarily from the growing popularity of “green burial,” that is, burial where the body returns directly to the earth. Indeed, many of the innovations that may lead to more accommodations for religious diversity in the cemetery do not grow out of the demands of religious communities, but of the challenges posed by limited space and resources. For now, however, a casketed burial within a grave liner remains the norm.

Area crematories, often affiliated with cemeteries, have also begun to offer new services to families of varying religious backgrounds. At Mt. Auburn, though the majority of the clients are still funeral directors acting on behalf of families, more families have started taking part in the cremation process itself. Buddhist and Hindu families in particular use the crematory space as an area for remembrance and ritual. While family interaction with the body is limited—far from what it would be in a traditional Hindu service—relatives can start the cremation and, if desired, retrieve particular bones from the remains. The cemetery and crematory remain places informed by American and Christian traditions of mourning. With the growth of non-Christian religious communities in Boston and the advent of new, unrelated trends in burial and grief, cemeteries have, however, engaged religious minorities to a greater extent than before.

Religious Communities

As cemeteries, funeral homes, and other institutions dedicated to death and mourning work to accommodate or adapt to a quickly changing city, local religious communities are likewise establishing ways of dying specific to an American context like Boston. These procedures demonstrate a variety of strategies for preserving and practicing religious traditions, including partnering with area institutions, creating parallel institutions, and adapting inherited religious customs. Although each religious group deals with the challenges of dying and mourning differently, I will highlight only a few examples from Boston’s Muslim and Zoroastrian communities.

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Despite the long history of Boston’s Muslim community, traditional Muslim burial has only become feasible relatively recently. Area mosques had made previous attempts to establish a Muslim cemetery in the Boston area, but had failed to secure the necessary land and resources for its construction. Given this, most area Muslims addressed the question of burial by either sending the deceased abroad, to their home countries, or by accepting the necessity of burial in a local, non-Muslim cemetery. This often entailed a casket burial with a grave liner, something clearly not in accordance with Muslim funerary practices. Many within the Muslim community were uneasy with this latter solution, so they developed a network of partnerships in order to make traditional burial in Boston possible.

These partnerships took two major forms. First, community members worked with area funeral homes to find spaces in which to wash the dead and prepare for burial. While several funeral homes gradually gained a reputation for catering to Muslim funeral customs, Faggas Funeral Home in Watertown, established a relationship with many members of Boston’s Muslim community. Volunteers would use the funeral home as a place to prepare the body for burial, and would work with the funeral home staff to ensure as quick a burial as possible. This changed after the founding of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC). The Center, which opened in 2009, has facilities dedicated to the washing of the deceased, enabling both quicker response times as well as prayer services in the presence of the body. The Center also has a staff member responsible for arranging the washing and burial. They maintain the relationship with the funeral home, however, both for help with transportation and staffing logistics. Furthermore, regulations require aspiring funeral directors to keep an affiliation with an established funeral home: the ISBCC’s funeral director is currently working towards his license, and anticipates that he will do so in affiliation with the Watertown home. He does hope, however, that one day the community will have an independent funeral home specifically devoted to Muslim needs.

The Muslim community also has established partnerships with area cemeteries. Rather than creating new cemeteries to serve Muslims, mosques have worked with local cemeteries to create sections dedicated to Muslim burials. Islamic Center of Boston – Wayland maintains a partnership with Forest Hills Cemetery for this purpose, and the ISBCC has arranged for a dedicated section in the Gardens of Gethsemane, a cemetery in West Roxbury. Even so, challenges remain. At the Gardens, the cemetery operator notes it is difficult to arrange for same day burials, as well as to design a cemetery plot in which caskets and coffins are not necessary. Despite this, he sees the partnership as productive and essential for the community. Members of the Muslim community also emphasize the relative ease with which one can obtain a Muslim service—including same day burial—though some hope for an independent Muslim cemetery in the future.

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While Boston’s Muslim community has managed to coordinate burial and mourning without significant alteration of religious practices, not all communities can do the same. As already mentioned, Hindu families must often make do with a controlled ceremony in a crematory which differs drastically from traditional customs. Other communities, if resources allow, continue to transport the deceased to their home countries in order to receive proper rites. An example from Boston’s Zoroastrian community illustrates the challenges faced by some non-Christian religious communities.

Zoroastrian tradition suggests that one dispose of the dead not through burial or cremation, but through exposure. In India and Iran, one would place bodies on the top of a “tower of silence,” where it would disintegrate and be consumed by birds of prey. Zoroastrian theology holds the soul leaves the body upon death: the corpse then becomes matter to be disposed of as efficiently and charitably as possible.

This funeral method is not possible in the United States. The position of a Zoroastrian in America, then, is far different from that of a Muslim; accommodation, at least in the near future, is not likely. The task of the religious leader in arranging for funeral rites becomes much different. One mobed, or Zoroastrian religious leader or priest, described his role as primarily advisory; he lets families know about Zoroastrian traditions and the resources available to them as they consider services and disposal of the body. He makes frequent use of resources compiled by an area foundation detailing the rituals and resources available to South Asians in Massachusetts.[10] The guide elaborates the necessary rites for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and others, and also specifies accommodations necessary and permissible in an American context. The guide testifies simultaneously to the optimism with which religious communities address the challenge of mourning—at no point is it assumed that religiously adequate rites are impossible—but also to the acknowledgement that in nearly all cases, rituals must be changed or reinterpreted for a new, American environment.

Though cremation has at times been a controversial practice among Zoroastrians, it currently represents one of the more accepted and embraced practices among Boston’s community. Regarding the services themselves, the traditional frequency of prayers, often monthly at first and then annually, presents difficulties given the lack of mobeds. Families are encouraged to decide for themselves what rituals they prefer.

Conclusion

For Boston’s religious communities, death presents a complex exercise in accommodation and adaptation. Like other challenges that face new immigrant and minority communities, death demands that numerous theological, psychological, and logistical problems be confronted, all with the added stress of being unpredictable (since, as many funeral directors have observed, death does not work on a schedule). It is, however, unavoidable, and religious groups have no choice but to develop methods of addressing death, dying, and mourning. Boston’s religious communities have set up a variety of strategies, often employing different tactics depending on their own theologies and positions within the city’s population.

Most common is a type of accommodation practiced by both religious groups and members of the death care industry. The innovations instituted by cemeteries and funeral homes, the ritual alterations and shifting theological guidelines encouraged by religious leaders—both speak to attempts to make dying responsive to religious tradition and local reality. Yet these tactics do not exhaust the methods used by religious groups. Indeed, accommodation often works in an ad hoc way: as noted, some cemetery changes have taken hold only due to a fortunate confluence of minority religious practices and new trends in burial. A larger religious community may experience this process as too slow or hesitant, and it is perhaps for this reason that the Muslim community, for instance, has forged partnerships with local funeral homes and cemeteries. Their arrangements go beyond accommodation; they work together with industry professionals to provide the dead with respectful and timely care. Some still, however, long for independent institutions—such as a Muslim funeral home or cemetery—and understand these institutions as the future of dying in Boston. Independence remains the goal, even with a functioning, multi-religious infrastructure already in place.

Given the limited scope of this study of death and religion, it is impossible to make any overarching statements about the current trajectory of death practice in Boston or in America. Clearly, death remains an area of intense concern and negotiation for both those within the death care industry and within minority religious communities. Groups go to great lengths to care for the dead—the accommodations and partnerships demonstrated by Boston’s various institutions suggest that mourning and remembrance hold singular importance in the life of a religious tradition. Yet it is hard to say what larger processes underlie the interactions of religion, death, and diversity explored above. Perhaps the alterations and accommodations embraced by religious groups and death care professionals speak to a process of assimilation that gradually absorbs all death practices under a traditional, American way of dying. Or maybe these same interactions highlight a new approach to death in America, one in which the Protestant schema of death will fade before an unprecedented diversity of mourning. Regardless, death continues to be addressed by a dazzling array of faiths and practices: it is a painful (and sometimes joyful) unknown to which all religious communities must respond.

—Lewis West, Pluralism Project Research Intern


[1] See, for example, Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963); Gary Laderman, Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[2] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” trans. Jay Miskowiec, in Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité 5 (1984): 6; for an overview of American (and other) funeral practices and attitudes towards death, see David Chidester, Patterns of Transcendence: Religion, Death, and Dying(Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1990), for an overview of death in the Christian West, see Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Penguin, 1981).

[3] Tracy Fessenden, Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[4] Stanley French, “The Cemetery as Cultural Institution: The Establishment of Mount Auburn and the ‘Rural Cemetery’ Movement,” American Quarterly 26.1 (March 1974): 38.

[5] Paula A. Mohr, “God in Gotham: The Design of Sacred Space in New York’s Central Park,” in American Sanctuary: Understanding Sacred Spaces, edited by Louis P. Nelson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 47.

[6] For example, Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Stephen Kalberg (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: California University Press, 1996).

[7] See Stephen Prothero, Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

[8] For a more complete history, see Gary Laderman, Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America (Oxford University Press: 2003).

[9] Given the long history of the Jewish community in Boston, several Jewish cemeteries do exist. Currently, there are no Muslim cemeteries.

[10] “Resource Guide: Last Rites for Indian American Community in Massachusetts.” Desai Family Foundation. Linked from the website of the Zoroastrian Association of Greater Boston Area. www.zagba.orgwww.zagba.org/last_rituals.pdf. Accessed July 2014.