Today, nearly 1.3 billion people throughout the world, encompassing a diverse range of cultures, are Catholic. Orange County is home to a sizable number of ethnic communities, and two of the most prominent, Hispanics and Vietnamese, comprise a high percentage of the area’s 1.3 million Catholics.
Every ethnic group has its own distinct ways of honoring the dead, a subject that comes to the fore during All Souls Day. Before outlining the cultural differences between different communities, however, it’s essential to understand that there are far more similarities, particularly as it relates to death and dying. First and foremost, Vietnamese and Hispanic Catholics are, well, Catholic.
“As a rule, the Church provides the Roman Ritual … as the standard for all Roman Catholic liturgical rites throughout the world,” says Fr. Joseph Son Nguyen, priest in residence at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Fountain Valley. “There are some local customs that may be approved or adapted in translation, as long as they do not significantly alter the Roman ritual or show a belief that is different from the official Church teaching.
“There are longstanding customs practiced by [different ethnic groups] regarding death and funerals,” Fr. Joseph Son adds, “but the church discourages them or even teaches against them. Different customs differ among cultures, but they cannot be classified as differences among ‘Catholic’ peoples.”
Since family plays such a prominent role in Catholic life, it’s no surprise that like Hispanics, Vietnamese folks place a strong emphasis on familial and relational aspects of rituals. Fr. Joseph Son says. “Dress, colors, mourning periods, processions and burial locations all indicate the relationships that exist between the living and the deceased. Most of these [original] customs are not strictly observed, but they may be modified or simplified, depending on the circumstances.”
Fr. Joseph Son notes that what may appear to be unique customs among Vietnamese and Hispanics are actually traditional Catholic practices that have been dropped by many other Catholics.
When strictly observed, a Vietnamese elder son mourning a deceased father dresses in a white-sack cloth, wears a short white hood or headband, walks backward in front of the casket in the funeral procession, and mourns for three years by wearing a piece of cloth or headband. He refrains from unnecessary or excessive celebrations during this period. In addition, he may hold a memorial Mass, family reunion and reception for his father 30 days, 100 days and/or yearly after his father’s death.
A great-grandchild, who normally wears a red headband, dons a yellow/gold headband during the funeral rites, says Fr. Joseph Son. A daughter and/or daughter-in-law normally wear a full white hood and white sack-cloth mourning dress. She may lie down at intervals in front of the casket during the procession.
No overview of Hispanic customs pertaining to death and dying would be complete without at least a mention of the very colorful Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Practices include private altars, honoring the departed with sugar skulls, marigolds, cardboard skeletons, masks, incense, fruit and nuts, and other foods and decorations.
When a family member dies, the viewing is often done at home and family members take an active role in participating, says Deacon Guillermo Torres, the Diocese’s director of Hispanic Ministry. Certain family members carry out specific roles in the mourning process.
“The role of women in times of death is implicit,” says Deacon Torres, “but it’s rooted in traditional roles of keeping family traditions, nurturing, doing prayers, feeding the family and caring for kids. Males are seen more as providers,” he adds, noting that this traditional gender distinction is especially distinctive in the Hispanic community.
This distinction is also more pronounced when it comes to expressing emotion. During the grieving process, women cry more than men. “This is typical – but it is implicit,” Deacon Torres says. “Nobody teaches men [to hold back tears]. I saw this difference between men and women myself, when I was very young.”
Although some in the Hispanic community choose to be buried in their homeland, near their deceased family members, this is not as common today. Family members bring clothes to funeral homes to dress their loved ones themselves. Some prepare the deceased’s hair and stitch or pin into fabric-lined caskets images of the Virgin Mary, photographs, rosaries, jewelry, books and poems.
As is the case among Vietnamese Catholics, the mourning period is longer.
“It’s a slower process in Hispanic cultures,” Deacon Torres says. “Today, we expect most mourners to bounce back to normal life right away. With Hispanics, the grieving process can take up to a year or more. Family members may wear black clothing for that period of time.”
Fr. Joseph Son says that while cultural differences exist in the Catholic community, the bottom line is all about faith. “All of these [different] customs indicate ritualistic relationships only. They do not indicate differences in belief about death and the afterlife among Catholics throughout the world.”