In this lesson, students explore and compare cultural traditions, history and rituals associated with death and dying.
The video clips provided with this lesson are from Homegoings, a film that brings to life the beauty and grace of African-American funerals through the lens of mortician and funeral home owner Isaiah Owens. Owens introduces the rarely seen world of undertaking in the black community, where funeral rites draw on a rich palette of tradition, history and celebration.
One 50-minute class period
- Express views on and beliefs about death and dying
- Identify similarities and differences among death rituals across cultures, religions and/or spiritual practices
- Compare and contrast varied cultural perceptions and approaches toward death and dying
- Relate preferences for death rituals
(Note: all handouts are included in the PDF download)
- Internet access and equipment to show the class online video
- Chart paper and markers
(NOTE: Some students may not be open to talking about death and/or may have recently experienced the death of a loved one. Please be sensitive about their desire to communicate when ready.)
1. Tell students that they are going to have a conversation about death across different cultures. Read the following options and ask students to raise their hands for which option best describes their belief:
- Death is passing on to a new life – it is a spiritual journey
- Death is an end, not the start to an afterlife
- I have a different opinion
- I am undecided
2. Ask students to stand. Tell them they will move around the classroom briefly to chat with a few peers about what they believe death and dying involve. Explain that each will start by having a conversation with one other student, and then every two to three minutes each will find a new partner. The following question will drive student discussion:
- Where does your belief originate? For example, is it religious? Is it connected to your family culture?
3. Tell each student to find a partner and begin chatting. Watch time; signal students to seek new partners after two to three minutes. (NOTE: This task should last fewer than 10 minutes.)
4. Invite students to share what they discovered about their peers' perceptions of death. Record key points on chart paper, asking students to note what seems to be common among the perceptions. Draw attention to cultural perspectives.
5. Briefly describe the film Homegoings. Show Clip 1 (length 5:52), which shows an African-American funeral. Tell students that as they watch the segment, they should imagine themselves in that setting. Have them jot down the particular aspects of the death rituals that are most striking to them, whether it is attire, people's emotions, etc. Invite students to share their thoughts. Do they feel inclined to participate in the rituals?
6. Distribute the Culture of Death and Dying graphic organizer. Instruct students to reflect individually on death rituals, either from their particular cultures or those in which they have participated, those they have witnessed or those of which they are aware, and to complete the relevant sections on the graphic organizer. (NOTE: If students are not fully aware of particular cultural practices—theirs or others'–related to death and dying, they may research specific cultures or spiritual practices. There are several resources connected to this theme in the lesson's Resources section below).
7. Divide students into small groups. Distribute a sheet of chart paper and marker to each group. Instruct group members to share their perspectives and then, as a group, outline the differences and similarities among these points of view. They can simply place these in two different columns or use a Venn diagram. (OPTION: If time permits, have group members shift between groups to add to and/or refine the lists.) Have each group post its list, and ask the other groups to review the lists. Students as a class should compare the lists to identify all of the overlapping elements. Students can then note which of those elements Clip 1 echoes.
8. Students discuss:
- What do all of the cultures, religious practices and spiritual practices that have been discussed value equally when it comes to death rituals?
- Across cultures and religious/spiritual beliefs, why are death rituals as much for the living as for the dead? How must the transition be meaningful for both?
9. Show Clip 2 (length 6:39), which shows Linda Williams-Miller preparing for her funeral at Owens Funeral Home and discussing her rationale for death planning, as well as her views on dying. Ask:
- How do Owens, Williams-Miller and her goddaughter negotiate the discussion of and planning for death? (NOTE: The discussion is open, light, business-oriented and practical. It is a plain-language discussion with some humor and not much sadness.)
- How does Williams-Miller negotiate the reality of dying? How does planning her funeral figure into this emotional negotiation? (NOTE: Williams-Miller recognizes that the end is coming, as she has been ill. Hers is a practical approach. She wants to make sure everything is ready and that her children do not have to figure out funeral details later on. Planning helps her to prepare calmly for her inevitable demise, as well as to accept her end with dignity and comfort.)
- What is your comfort level in discussions about death and dying?
10. Invite students to draw on the film and the classroom conversation about different cultural/religious/spiritual perspectives on death and dying and their personal beliefs about death to envision the most meaningful type of death or transition ritual that would benefit the living and the deceased. Have students share their ideas.
1. Sometimes, a childhood interest turns into a lifelong career, as was the case for Isaiah Owens. In other cases, a specific event or desire leads to a professional calling. Show students Clip 3 (length 2:39), which shows Owens reenacting the "funerals" he created as a child, and have students read "Morticians Talk About What's Tough, and Why It's Almost a Calling" . Ask them to remark briefly on the experiences that Owens and Mike Parke (featured in the article) had that led them to become morticians. Then, engage students in one of the following tasks:
- Students discuss people they know whose life interests or activities resulted in long-term professions in adulthood.
- Students look at their current interests to determine whether those interests might drive their future career choices.
- Students discuss people they know for whom an event or experience was the driving force behind a career choice.
- Students identify and discuss factors that can influence career choice (friends, family, culture, media and so on). Some helpful information:
2. Students delve into the history and current status of the funeral business in African-American communities to explore and discuss its evolution, impact and role. They particularly note the African origins of the homegoing, as well as the racial discrimination that led to the rise of the African-American funeral industry. Show students Clip 4 (length 1:29), in which Owens speaks about African Americans in the funeral business. Background sources include:
- Examining the African American Way of Death and Business
- The History of African-American Funeral Service
- A.G. Gaston: From Log Cabin To Funeral Home Mogul
- Homegoing Funerals: An African-American Funeral Tradition
3. As the film points out, African Americans were pushed in the direction of the funeral business. In the United States, other groups of people have also found themselves in certain types of professions as a result of specific circumstances. Students research and lead presentations on the pros and cons of society "forcing" a specific livelihood on a group of people, or socio-economic conditions allowing a certain group of people to practice a livelihood or a livelihood that becomes an industry fixture within a specific community or population. Sources of information include:
- Chinese Laundries
- • The Kaffenion Connection: How the Greek Diner Evolved
- Irish American History (firefighters/police)
- History of the Emerald Society (firefighters/police)
4. Death can be expensive, from the cost of a casket to the burial expenses. Assign students to explore the various aspects of the "business of dying" to determine whether the business is centered on the consumer or the money, and to identify ethical issues/concerns connected to the funeral industry. Students assume the roles of funeral business owners, small business advocates, consumers and others and debate the role and purpose of the funeral industry within a framework of ethical business. Information sources include:
- Funeral Ethics Organization
- The Funeral: Your Last Chance to Be a Big Spender
- Ethical Issues in Today's Funeral Industry
- Funeral Consumers Information Society
- Death with Dignity National Center
5. The traditional funeral is one option at death. But, there are other types of death rituals to consider that are more personal and sometimes less expensive than standard funerals. Students explore and compare and contrast some of these alternatives, such as home funerals. Sources include:
- Alternatives to the Traditional Funeral
- More Families Are Bringing Funerals Home
- Alternative Funerals
- After Death: 8 Burial Alternatives That Are Going Mainstream
- Alternative Funerals: Thinking Outside the Box
6. Isaiah Owens is a true entrepreneur. Ask students to explore the characteristics and qualities of a successful businessperson: vision, ability to adapt business to economic times, knowledge of the consumer/community need and so on. Then, assign students to create a Top 10 List of Necessary Entrepreneurial Skills and present/share the list in an economics/business course lesson on entrepreneurship. Students might jumpstart this exploration via the PBS program These Kids Mean Business .