Customs & Traditions: Death

Traditionally, Greek American women are designated responsible for death-related customs. This jurisdiction over death practices is a carry over from Greece where women have historically functioned as the keepers of the home, family, birth, and death. When Greeks immigrated to the United States they retained certain traditions from the homeland, yet simultaneously they adapted and assimilated into the larger American social and cultural context. Thus, Greek American death related traditions have their roots in customs practiced in Greece, but are also the result of continuous practical adaptations to life in the United States.

Following the death of a close family member, for example, women are expected to wear black for up to one year to show respect for the deceased. This year-long mourning observance is considerably shorter than that practiced in rural Greece, however, where women customarily wear black for at least three years. On the other hand, in both countries men need only wear a black arm band for up to forty days following the death of a loved one. Upon the death of a family member, further duties of Greek American women include preparation and distribution of important death-related foods such as kollyva and paximadia, as well as the traditional dinner following a Greek American funeral. In many communities during the early period of the 20th century, Greek American women actually dressed, bathed and prepared the bodies of close relatives for burial. Furthermore, the body was displayed in the home of the deceased prior to the funeral, and female friends and relatives sang ritual mirologia or lamentations. Now, however, body preparations are left to the mortician and ritual laments are rarely sung.

Greek American funeral events take place in specific order and consist of a viewing, funeral at the church, burial, aftermeal, forty day memorial service, and annual memorial services. The entire community is invited to attend the viewing and funeral, while the other successive events primarily include those family and friends closest to the deceased. Furthermore, these events collectively represent a movement from intense mourning within a religious context to the aftermeal's more social atmosphere with lots of fond reminiscing about the deceased.

To perpetuate their communities and their family ties even in death, several Greek American communities have established either their own private cemeteries or purchase Greek sections within larger regional cemeteries. One such cemetery, the Greek Orthodox Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland, contains beautiful marble statues, mini-temple like structures marking large family plots, lengthy Greek inscriptions, and elaborately incised decorative motifs. Such memorials are an obvious departure from the current American trend of flat, bronze marker filled lawn parks.

In addition to the death of a loved one, particular Greek American customs and traditions are associated with the important events of the birth of a child and marriage.