Borrowing Rituals From Other Cultures: Appropriate Or Appropriation?

Clients ask me all the time, “Is borrowing death rituals from other cultures or religions appropriate?” The short answer is yes.

In an increasingly globalized world, our lives interconnect in unimaginable ways. As a result, we have the opportunity to learn from and appreciate the diverse traditions that enrich our global community. One area where this cultural exchange often occurs is in the realm of rituals surrounding death and dying.

While some may view adopting these practices as appropriation, I believe that respectfully incorporating them provides solace and support during times of need.

You don’t have to be Irish to want a wake. Taking a week to mourn benefits a lot of families, not just Jewish ones. Let’s explore why it’s acceptable and even beneficial to “borrow” from other rituals when looking for comfort.

Universality of Grief

Grief is a universal human experience. Regardless of our cultural or religious backgrounds, we all face the pain of losing loved ones. My clients often need rituals and traditions that provide structure and meaning to their grief.

Recognizing that grief transcends cultural boundaries, it is natural for us to turn to the practices of other cultures when searching for comfort and understanding.

Cultural Exchange

One of the most beautiful aspects of embracing another’s ritual is the opportunity for cultural exchange and understanding. Engaging with different rituals fosters empathy and respect for those who practice them. This exchange leads us to a deeper appreciation of the diversity of human experiences and promotes unity.

Respecting the Intent

When I incorporate death rituals from other religions into my private practice, I do so with the utmost respect for their significance. By learning about the meaning behind these rituals and respecting their intent, I honor the traditions and the people who hold them dear. This respectful approach is crucial. We must ensure that borrowing rituals from other cultures doesn’t lead to misappropriation but comfort instead.

Personal Meaning and Adaptation

Rituals are often deeply rooted in history and spirituality. However, this does not mean individuals cannot adapt them to suit their beliefs and preferences. When incorporating elements from other cultures, individuals often personalize these practices to align with their values and beliefs.

This adaptability allows for the creation of meaningful and unique rituals that work for more people.

Building Bridges of Support

Incorporating different rituals also builds bridges of support within our communities. When my clients engage in these practices alongside their neighbors, it fosters a sense of connection and solidarity. By embracing diversity in death rituals, we create an environment where individuals from various backgrounds find solace and support together.

Lean In With Curiosity

I am innately curious about other cultures, religions, philosophies, and rituals. I’ve read the Stoic philosophers, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bhagavad Gita, The Book of Mormon, most of the Bible, and just about every portion of the Torah.

I’ve attended ceremonies at Bahai Gardens, Catholic churches, Jewish synagogues, psychedelic communities, Muslim mosques, and temples for Hare Krishnas, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhists.

I visit as a learner rather than as a seeker. I’m called to learn about human experiences beyond my own. This knowledge makes me a better teacher, a better human being, and a better death doula.

Serving others is more rewarding when I understand them. This knowledge also gives me a more diverse bank from which to borrow when clients ask for coping mechanisms, rituals, and ways of looking at death that make sense to them.

“Small Moves, Ellie.”

Remember that scene in the movie “Contact” where Ellie, played by Jodie Foster, arrives at the other end of the wormhole? She finds herself on a beach and in the arms of her beloved father, who had died years earlier.

She knows, on an intellectual level, that it isn’t real.

“That’s my scientist,” says her “father.”

Ellie realizes that the beings or entities in “Contact” recreated the image of her father from memories and the scene itself from her childhood drawing of a beach near Pensacola.

“We thought this might make things easier for you,” he says.

And it does.

We’re more open to messages of truth when they come from a familiar place or people we trust.

Listen, I’m certainly dismayed by the division and harm done to us by religion. The world’s major religions are and have been throughout history, run by men more interested in power and money than good works.

But if religion is good for anything it’s bringing positive messages to people. Inspiring them to love one another. Where people live, and when, determines how they get those positive messages.

For a baby girl born in a small town outside Scranton, Pennsylvania in the 1940s, she may receive this message in a Catholic church.

If that same baby girl was born in a small town outside Kyoto, Japan, she would receive that message in a Zen Buddhist Temple.

That same message might be revealed through a peyote ceremony for Indigenous people living on a reservation near Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Jews from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Hindus from New Delhi. Tutsis from Burundi, the Inuit from Canada, and Presbyterians from Northern Europe. Every major culture or faith tradition brings a similar message:

  • We are all connected.
  • Love one another.
  • Treat our brothers and sisters as we would like to be treated.

The rest is commentary, now go and study.

Unfortunately, many of my clients don’t feel aligned with the religion of their childhood or the culture of their family. They have a hard time hearing positive messages above all the negativity or trauma. They can’t find the solace around them, so they seek it out elsewhere. Perhaps by borrowing rituals from other cultures or traditions to which they do not belong.

Isn’t that OK?

Don’t they, too, deserve peace?

Any Port in a Storm

I encourage clients to let go of attachments and be receptive to whatever is supposed to happen. If someone isn’t inclined to attend a church service, they might be open to meditation. That’s how the universal truth of love and connection can still be revealed to them.

Another person might not ever feel comfortable consuming psilocybin. But he can receive peace and grace while praying in a quiet church once a week.

The messenger isn’t important. The Blessed Mother, Buddha, Brahma, or Ayahuasca. It’s the message they bring of love and connection that matters.

Faith Traditions Have Always Borrowed From One Another

Most religions have borrowed from other cultures over the centuries. This demonstrates how the exchange of ideas and practices enriches religious traditions and fosters a deeper sense of meaning among different faiths.

The Catholic Rosary and Buddhism

The Catholic Rosary, a significant devotional practice, consists of a string of beads used for prayer. The concept of prayer beads, however, predates Christianity and began with Buddhism. Buddhists have used prayer beads (mala) for centuries to count repetitions of mantras or prayers.

This Buddhist ritual traveled along trade routes and through cultural exchanges, eventually inspiring the development of the Catholic Rosary.

Christmas Trees, Wreaths, and Easter Eggs

Many Christmas traditions, including the use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and even the giving of gifts, have roots in ancient pagan celebrations. For example, the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which occurred in December, involved the decoration of homes with greenery and gift-giving. Early Christians, seeking to celebrate the birth of Jesus, adopted and adapted these customs, imbuing them with new Christian symbolism.

Similarly, the tradition of decorating Easter eggs predates Christianity and has origins in various cultures. Eggs have symbolized fertility, rebirth, and renewal in many ancient societies. Early Christians incorporated this symbolism into their celebration of Easter, which marks the resurrection of Jesus, opening it up to more people. Coloring and exchanging eggs during Easter has since become a widespread Christian tradition.

I could go on and on.

These examples illustrate how religions have borrowed elements from one another, adapting and integrating them into their practices. Rather than viewing these as appropriation, they can be seen as a testament to the adaptability and creativity of different communities.

They demonstrate that traditions are not static but evolve, incorporating elements that resonate with the spiritual and cultural needs of their communities. This process of borrowing rituals and adapting them from other cultures has enriched religious practices and fostered a sense of interconnectedness among different faiths.

If cultures can do this, leading to a richer world, so can individuals.

In and At The End

At the end of life, respectfully borrowing rituals from other cultures or religions is entirely acceptable and even commendable. The universality of death and grief, the opportunity for cultural exchange and understanding, the importance of respecting the intent, the ability to personalize rituals, and the potential to build bridges of support all highlight the positive aspects of this practice.

By doing this, we find comfort, connection, and meaning in times of need while promoting a more inclusive and empathetic world. In our shared experiences of the dying process, let us celebrate the beauty of diversity and the human capacity to find solace in the traditions of others.

Contact me anytime at Anitya Doula Services for support.

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