How Cultural Exposure Changed My Thoughts on Death

Author: Gloria Horsley

I keep hearing from people that the United States is a death-denying society. After my recent trip to India I am not sure I agree. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her landmark book, "On Death and Dying," brought death to the forefront of the American consciousness more than 40 years ago. Today, there are numerous books, workshops and research projects examining death and dying. It is my belief that the United States is seen as a death-denying society because of our diverse backgrounds; Americans have a more eclectic approach to grief than more homogenous societies. We don't have set rituals for dealing with death and, for the most part, we can freely express emotions or just choose to walk away. While more ritualized responses to death can reduce anxiety, they can also lock the bereaved into rigid social norms.



My daughter Heidi and I recently visited Southern India, where a predominant percentage of the population are followers of the Hindu faith. During the trip, we had the opportunity to discuss grief, loss and recovery with one of our Hindu male tour guides. He led us on a tour of the city of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges River. For Hindus, Varanasi is a sacred place where pilgrims visit, bathe and scatter remains in the sacred water. 

Our guide met us at our hotel an hour before sunset and, with hundreds of other pilgrims, we headed toward the river. When we reached the banks of the river, we crossed a large cement plaza filled with swamis, priests, gurus and beggars waiting for the nightly Ganga Aarti ceremony honoring the sacred Ganges. We crossed the plaza and walked down a long stairway that led to a waiting rowboat. We were rowed out into the river by two young boys who stopped a few hundred feet from shore where we, along with dozens of boats filled with pilgrims and tourists, watched the colorful sunset ceremony honoring the river. 

After viewing this magnificent ritual, our guide suggested that we move onto the crematorium, as it is "quite dramatic at night." Dramatic is putting it mildly. As we approached the cremation site, all seemed dark with the exception of a half dozen or so large random bonfires burning in an area smaller than a football field.

The Crematorium 

From our boat, which was stopped about a hundred yards from the shore, we could see that the body of a man, face exposed, was being prepared for cremation. He was wrapped in gold cloth and was carried by four men and dipped into the Ganges. He was then put on the ground to drain off the water after which he was placed on the prepared wood pile. Finally, the "main mourner" lit the fire. The main mourner could be identified by his newly shaved head and white robe. 

The whole scene was surreal, but I was really taken back when our guide suddenly said, "My father was cremated here a month ago, and I was the main mourner." At a loss for words, someone in our group actually said, "Wow your hair must grow fast." Which, to my relief, he gave a hearty laugh. He said that he was still very sad but had been told by the priest not to cry as it would interrupt the rising of the spirit into heaven. At this point, his voice cracked and he turned his back on the whole scene. 

TAPS understands that we cannot turn our back on grief. Even though a culture provides a set of ceremonies around death, grieving is a universal human response.

The grief journey is not individualistic, but rather to be shared and undergirded by the communal sense of our own mortality. Indeed, it is not something most people want to deal with until they have to. I think denying death until it happens is as natural as grieving a death. 

Below are thoughts on grief relating to the death of my son, both parents and two siblings. 

Four Lessons I've Learned

  • Grief is a normal reaction to loss.
  • Grief is a journey of indeterminate length.
  • Those who have experienced full sadness can know true joy.
  • My experience: The first year, I was frozen in grief and had to just live it. The second year was tough because I was thawing out. During the third year, the healing began, and today, I am a very happy person! 

It is my hope that you will honor your own grief, develop your own rituals and realize that the one constant variable in grief recovery is time. I invite those who have lost hope to lean on the hope of others until you find your own. 

By Dr. Gloria Horsley, MSCNS: Dr. Gloria Horsley is an internationally-known grief expert, psychotherapist and bereaved parent. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Clinical Nurse Specialist, and has worked in the field of family therapy for over 20 years.