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Gloria Roach Thomas

"It's important that students are comfortable with all walks of life," says Gloria Roach Thomas, a Methodist pastor who teaches mortuary science students.

Cultural compassion

U mortuary science students learn about death across cultures

By Erin Peterson

Published on December 30, 2004

When a loved one passes away, family and friends expect that the funeral will be both respectful and appropriate. The trouble is that those two terms have different meanings across cultures and religions.

Jim Bradshaw, owner and operator of Bradshaw Funeral & Cremation Services, knows more than most on that topic. In the 1970s, when people in the Hmong community first came to him for service, he acknowledges that he wasn't always prepared to help them with their requests. They did not want the bodies of their family members to be embalmed, and they requested 24-hour visitations. Sometimes they asked to serve food or burn spiritual money.

Throughout the process, the company did its best to accommodate their needs. "We've learned a lot over the years," Bradshaw says. "It's a huge challenge [to meet the needs of different cultures] but we're committed to respect the dignity of every person."

It is that sentiment that the University of Minnesota hopes to teach to its mortuary science students. According to Michael LuBrant, director of the mortuary science program, the program seeks to train students who will "serve families in a manner that is not only learned and compassionate, but also relevant to the diverse needs of bereaved persons in contemporary American society."

While some students express surprise at the different rituals that accompany death--whether it's sacrificing a rooster or sprinkling water on the casket--they learn about the significance of these events to each culture and how they fit into a larger view of birth, life, and death.

In addition to the real-world experience that students get through clinical rotations, the program also requires specific classes that address these issues, including Death and Dying Across Cultures and Religions. Gloria Roach Thomas, teaching specialist for the class and pastor at Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church in St. Paul, teaches students about death and grief as it is generally understood by Roman Catholic, Native American, Buddhist, and Jewish traditions, among others. She shares real-life examples from her own experiences and pulls in relevant stories from the daily news. Students also conduct field visits and interview practitioners in the field to round out their academic work.

In addition to learning about the differences in death among cultures, students study the way that their own background influences them. "Many services for people of Scandinavian descent tend to be quiet and the people are more stoic," says Thomas. "But in the African-American community, people sometimes cry out loud and show their emotions."

For someone used to a particular way of expressing grief, such differences can come across as startling, if not frightening. While some students express surprise at the different rituals that accompany death--whether it's sacrificing a rooster or sprinkling water on the casket--they learn about the significance of these events to each culture and how they fit into a larger view of birth, life, and death.

While Thomas encourages her students to be open to traditions outside their own, she says the class can help them know their limits as well. "Students may say that they're nice people, and that's fine. But if someone is up in their face about something, they need to be a non-anxious presence," she says. "It's important that students are comfortable with all walks of life and are skilled enough in order to provide effective, appropriate, and caring professional services."

That sensitivity will prove beneficial in the long run. Bradshaw says the trust he and his colleagues built up with the Hmong community initially has helped him develop a relationship that has lasted for three decades. "Communication brings understanding," he says. "And understanding is what helps us serve people best."

Thomas knows that she can't offer a comprehensive examination of every culture and religion in her class, but she hopes that students will have a basic template to work sensitively and thoughtfully with people when they begin practice in the field. "The more knowledge you have, the more effective you can be," she says. "It's a starting place for offering comfort and having a sense of compassion."

From an article in Pictures of Health, winter 2004.