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Title:Understanding Death in Cultural Context: A Study of Mexican Children and Their Families
Author(s):Gutierrez, Isabel T.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Rosengren, Karl S.; Miller, Peggy J.
Department / Program:Psychology
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Psychology, Developmental
Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies
Psychology, Cognitive
Abstract:The present study addressed young children's socialization with respect to death in the state of Puebla, Mexico. The goal was to understand parents' and children's perspectives on death within the context of local beliefs and practices. This study was informed by concepts and methods from clinical studies of bereavement, cognitive developmental studies of children's concepts of death, and studies of socialization and development in cultural context. Accordingly, the study drew upon an innovative combination of methods: participant observation in the local scene, ethnographic interviews with parents and children, and standard cognitive development protocols for assessing children's understanding of death.
For the present study, we interviewed 61 pre-school children (mean age = 5.1 years) from the cities of Cholula and Puebla along with their families. The study addressed three sets of questions: (1) What are the local meanings and practices surrounding death (e.g., funeral rituals, celebration for "dia de muertos")? How are children included in these practices?; (2) What are parents' beliefs and practices with respect to death? What are parents' attitudes regarding their children's experiences and involvement in death-related practices? What are parents' views of their children's developing conception of death?; and (3)What are children's perspectives on death as these are related to local meanings and practices? What are children's understandings of death as assessed in traditional cognitive development terms?
Findings regarding rituals related to death demonstrated that children were active participants in all aspects of the annual celebration for "dia de muertos" and in many aspects of wakes and funerals. Reports from parents (88.7%) and children (85.2%) also revealed that most pre-school children had had at least one experience with death (i.e., a pet, a relative or friend). Children's understanding of the sub-concepts of death was also examined taking into consideration children's understanding of the celebration for "dia de muertos" as well as children's death experiences. Older children were more likely than younger children to respond that some humans, pets, or plants can live forever (i.e., universality). In terms of finality, children seemed to understand that life does not end after the physical body dies (humans > animals > plants). Regarding noncorporeal continuation, more than half of the children reported that a special part of the dead aunt (59.0%), dog (59.0%), and plant (54.1%) stayed behind after they died. This is not surprising since 86.9% of children reported that they had witnessed or talked with a dead relative during "dia de muertos".
The overall developmental trend toward believing that some humans, pets, and plants can live forever departs dramatically from findings in the U.S., having its roots in Mexican cultural beliefs and practices. Furthermore, the current research provides new perspectives regarding the study of children and death within the field of developmental psychology. Concerning children's socialization with death, we focused directly on children's involvement in practices related to death and dying (i.e., wakes and funerals, the celebration for "dia de muertos") while assessing parents' beliefs about these rituals (including children's involvement), something that previous research has not done. In terms of cognitive development, this is the first study to incorporate information about the cultural meaning systems surrounding children (i.e., children's understanding of the surrounding practices and beliefs related to death) when looking at their conception of death. From a methodological standpoint, we explored children's developing conception of death by combining data from several perspectives (i.e., ethnographic inquiry, parental reports and children's direct reports); the use of ethnographic inquiry was essential to interpret the patterns that were found regarding children's understanding of death (e.g., universality, finality, noncorporeal continuation) from a traditional cognitive perspective. Overall, the chief methodological contribution of this study is to provide a more comprehensive approach for studying children and death within cultural context.
Issue Date:2009
Description:324 p.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2009.
Other Identifier(s):(UMI)AAI3362915
Date Available in IDEALS:2014-12-17
Date Deposited:2009

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