Chinese Cultural Dimensions of Death, Dying, and Bereavement: Focus Group Findings

Article excerpt

Abstract: The purpose of this qualitative study is to describe Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans' attitudes and practices about death, dying, and bereavement. To this end, three focus groups were conducted with social work graduate students, pastors and religious leaders, and service providers working in the Chinese American community in New York City. The United States is becoming increasingly multicultural, and Chinese Americans are the most rapidly growing Asian American group. Findings from this study revealed that many Chinese attitudes and practices about death and dying are rooted in Asian cultural values such as filial piety, centrality of the family, and emphasis of hierarchy. In addition, strains of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and local folklore are embedded in these death attitudes and practices. Based on themes extrapolated from the focus groups, recommendations are delineated for service providers in order to implement culturally-sensitive bereavement practices.

Key Words: Chinese and death and dying, bereavement, Asian Americans, death attitudes, death rituals

A death attitude is a belief system which is comprised of cognitive, affective, and behavioral components that reflect individuals' attitudes related to death, dying, suicide, bereavement, and euthanasia (Kastenbaum and Aisenberg, 1972). Many assume that death concepts are universal, and therefore, death attitudes and rituals vary minimally throughout the world. However, the experience and expression of grief are shaped by the social context (Rosenblatt, 1988). In Kalish and Reynolds' (1976) study, ethnicity attributed the greatest differences in beliefs about death and not other demographic dimensions such as age, gender, or education. Eisenbruch (1984, pp. 315) argued that descriptions of bereavement practices are often portrayed in a static manner, providing a "frozen picture of a living culture." It is crucial to take these snapshots over a period of time to depict the evolving state of the culture, which can reveal the cultural history of a particular cultural group. This information can be used by service providers to understand the context of their clients grief, symptoms of any atypical grief, and developing interventions that are culturally-sensitive.

The goal of this qualitative research study is to describe Chinese Americans' beliefs and practices regarding death and dying. To this end, focus groups were conducted in order to provide a glimpse into how participants construct a specific experience, how they think, and talk about a particular topic (Hughes & DuMont, 1993). In addition, the first author's grandmother had passed away during the time this study was conducted. Therefore, some of the first author's experiences and observations during her grandmother's funeral and mourning rituals were used to validate focus group findings. Recurrent themes from focus groups and recommendations for culturally-appropriate interventions are highlighted in the article and discussed in a cultural context.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Chinese Americans in the United States

Chinese Americans are the largest Asian American ethnic subgroup in the United States. Since 1950, they have doubled each decade (Mark & Chih, 1982). They comprise 23.8% of Asian Americans in the U.S. population, with the Filipinos following at 20.4% and the Japanese at 12.3% (U.S. Census, 1993). According to the U.S. Census, the largest concentration (43%) of the total Chinese population reside in California, and New York follows at 17% (Jung, 1998), which is where this study was conducted. Waldinger and Tseng (1992) noted that the middle and upper-middle class Chinese from Taiwan tend to immigrate to Los Angeles, while those from the Hong Kong and China's working class tend to immigrate to New York City. In addition, between 1978 and 1980, there was a large influx of Chinese fleeing from Vietnam due to the political and anti-Chinese sentiment in Vietnam (Jung, 1998). …