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BEST SELLING PRODUCTS
As a third generation American of European descent I recall feeling surprise when I realized that others identify me as “white.” My family, descending from Italian and Eastern European ancestry, came to the US in the early 1900’s. In those early years, my working class family members were seen as immigrants and second class citizens. As my family moved their way into the middle class by mid-century, they got categorically classified as “white.”
White is not a label we identified with at home. We had our own rich, complex, and deep ethnic and cultural heritage identities to honor, maintain, and grapple with. Nevertheless, “white” is what we became as we marched into post industrial America and further down the winding road of assimilation. Additionally, it was into the void of “whiteness” that, over time, is what we lost our heritage and identity to.
What’s plain to see when we study immigrant history, is that In the midst of the many privileges of “whiteness,” there are also many losses. Losses of language, of family ties, of spiritual practices, as well as long-held traditions. We may or may not realize it but we are often adrift without a sociological compass and therefore bereft on a cultural and spiritual level. In addition to leaving our homeland, a place of generations-long belonging, we left behind our food ways, our textiles and fabric arts, our land relationships, our child rearing and tending practices, our celebration and prayer rituals, and most of all our death traditions.
I’ve been teaching death-related topics since 2016. Most of my death education students come from a similar background to me: European descent, middle class, college educated, and classified as “white” somewhere in the timeline of their journey. Over these years, the questions of traditions and practices inevitably emerges. We venture into conversations about sane, accessible, and holistic burial, funeral, and death tending approaches and how to reclaim them.
Because we are often cut off from our own, many of us reach out to other cultures’ practices in the hopes that we can find and make meaning in vulnerable times. Some of my greatest influences in the conscious and positive death practices have come from other cultures. The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Tibetan), the poet Rilke (German), Buddhist practices (Asia), the Dagara funeral and grief rituals (African), the chants and songs we often sing (Hindu/Indian) have been foundational pillars in building my own death literacy.
Thanks to the many social activists in the world, I am now learning about appropriation. Appropriation, in its simplest form, is the act of grabbing traditions from other cultures besides our own without permission and in ways that have not been reverent, respectful, or honoring of those cultures. It is born from ignorance and entitlement. Many of us are starting to learn about the massive appropriation that has gone on in new age and spiritual circles over the decades. From yoga and meditation to Kirtan, and Tantra, we don’t have to look very far to realize so much of our relationship to “spirit” has been taken from other peoples.
Over time I’ve come to understand that cultural traditions are forged within a contextual framework. A context that is made up of stories, histories, and practices that are woven through a people, their land, and their culture. When we take these traditions out of context, we not only miss their deep meanings, we miss the embedded support structures and historical reciprocity that come with those practices.
Cultural context is a spiritual, relational, emotional, and physical ecosystem that holds these traditions in a dynamic embrace, much like a native plant that can only thrive with the flora, fauna, and mycelia around which it was formed. This web that holds precious rituals were often born from a great deal of suffering, learning, experimenting, and practice. That context is generally inseparable from the practice itself.
When we reach for traditions we didn’t inherit or build, with our lives and our loves and our losses and our griefs, they are categorically not ours. And as we take them out of context we run the risk of insulting the folks (and their gods) that have tended those traditions from time out of mind and tended them with the responsibility born of gratitude and wisdom. Holistic responsibility is part of the burden, forged from hard-won experience, that is required to gain access; it is the price of admission. That kind of responsibility is born from knowing what happens when you don’t tend them well. For those of us who haven’t paid our dues, we have not earned the rights to those rites.
Unfortunately, and to add insult to injury, white folks have often commercially benefitted from traditions that aren’t inherently theirs. It’s especially painful to those with intact traditions, often people of color and those with land-based worldviews, when their practices are approached from a superficial or one-dimensional understanding, while the newcomers to the systems receive money, recognition, and other benefits for bringing them to the world. This cluelessness and lack of integrity on the part of white folks has to stop. Just as importantly, we must also repair the damage already done. The recipe for this is simple but not easy–it is sensitivity and attunement.
The healing and repair of centuries of damage by the colonizing forces of our ancestors are at their beginning stages. And as a global community, the exporting and importing of beliefs and practices continues; heck at this point it’s commonplace. Because despite the pain of ongoing ignorance and appropriation, many indigenous and traditional peoples generously continue to share many powerful practices with others. It’s possible that access to these sacred spiritual traditions might be necessary for the emerging consciousness on the planet. Yet it seems important and ACCESSIBLE to be mindful around how we engage with permission, reverence, and attribution when we engage with traditions that are not ours.
Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when encountering cultural traditions from other cultures, whether from a book, a video, or a direct teaching:
I work with a lot of white folks in my death and grief courses. I do my best to honor our longings for authentic and meaningful traditions. Keeping that longing alive is crucial. I also do my best to encourage us to soften our gaze on our previous appropriation because we didn’t know better. But as the great Maya Angelou said ““I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” And I redirect. One of the greatest solutions for the affliction of unconscious appropriation is to look redirect our gaze to our own ancestry. Every single one of us has wisdom traditions in our lineage. We can turn our attention away from so-called “exotic” cultures and towards our own past. We can turn our lens towards the near and far histories that held the gems of our foremothers and forefathers.
For some of us that information feels hard to come by. Having emigrated generations ago, the practices from our birth family can be far away and undocumented. But if we turn over rocks we just might find the bread crumb trail. It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1800’s that Americans began to remove the dead from their homes and export their death tending to a funeral service. That change, as is often the case with sweeping cultural changes, began in big cities. Rural folk, in some cases, kept the dead at home as a practice for another 100 years. Plenty of these death traditions survived pre-industrial America and got mixed with other traditions in the American melting pot. Old world influences were strong well into the mid-20th century.
Because death traditions have been so sacred the world over and also because deaths are often accompanied by such an indelible emotional impact, many families still remember. If we ask around, do some research, look at old photos and letters, and interview our elders, many things can often be revealed. A visit to the homeland of origin seeking traditions can often elicit a treasure trove of information. Sometimes elders from certain ethnic backgrounds offer educational and historical accounts. For example, my friend Jude Lally offers a course on Celtic Keening.
Reclaiming our death traditions does more than give us practices in the tender moments when death touches our lives. It also helps reweave our understanding of our lineage and helps ground us in our bodies, our lives, and our the present moment. As we become a more death literate and death positive culture, we will have access to thousands of accounts of traditions from our particular ethnic and racial backgrounds. And then we can begin sharing and learning with each other on reciprocal grounds. That day is coming. In the meantime, we can keep dreaming into our collective wellspring of evolutionary knowing around how to do death. It’s in our cells and as we listen to our intuition, we will find our way.