Chapter 2: Respecting and responding to cultural practice and traditions

Honouring cultural practice

My culture says
Dr. Carrie Bourassa explains the importance of family and community for most Indigenous people. (3:22)Video transcript
Dr. Carrie Bourassa explains the role of Elders at end of life. (3:22)Video transcript
Rosella Kinoshameg shares Indigenous teachings on listening with the eyes, ears and heart. (3:22)Video transcript
Shahina Siddiqui shares a Muslim perspective that life and death are determined by God. (3:22)Video transcript
Hodan Nalayeh lists some religious practices that are important in the Somali culture. (3:22)Video transcript
Pastor Efrem explains how grief is expressed in his culture. (3:22)Video transcript
The paramedic says
Nick reflects on respecting cultural needs. (3:22)Video transcript

Each culture has specific practices or rituals that relate to their beliefs and values. However, don’t assume that all families within a specific culture will approach serious illness, dying, or death in the same way. Keep an open mind and remember that in some cultures how a person is treated in death, and how the body is handled after death, are believed to impact the afterlife.

Arriving at the home 

Be respectful when intruding on rituals or ceremonies occurring in the home or room when you arrive. There may be an Indigenous Elder or a religious leader offering prayers at the time of death. Unless the need for intervention is urgent, care should be taken in disrupting rituals or practices. Consult with the patient or a family member about the appropriate timing for intervention. Where possible, notify the family of your expected arrival time to help avoid serious conflicts.

While these may be foreign experiences to you, remember that they’re sacred ceremonies that shouldn’t be disrupted if at all possible.

Rituals and ceremonies

Most patients and families will not expect you to know what their beliefs and practices are. Respectfully ask them what is most important to them at this time. Consider how to work with them to find ways to honour any traditions and rituals.


Conversation Prompts

What do I need to know to ensure your cultural and spiritual needs are met? 

What traditions or rituals need to be honoured?

Objects and symbols

Be mindful and respectful of icons, objects or symbols in the room. In some Indigenous cultures, windows are opened at the time of death, allowing the soul to travel freely to the spirit world. Similarly, there may be incense, a candle burning at the patient’s bedside or sacred stones, feathers or other objects at the bedside. Examples from  other cultures include a Koran or sacred text, a Buddhist statue or image, a crucifix or rosary. Before you touch, move, interrupt or change anything in the room – ask.

Seek clarification

When a cultural need or practice isn’t clear, ask for an explanation. Most families will interpret this as a sign that you’re sensitive to their needs.


Conversation Prompts

Can you help me understand what you mean by that?   

Can you explain the significance of…. to me?

For additional information, see Care of the body and Examples of cultural, religious, and spiritual needs later in this module. 

See also:Care Ontario offers free online Aboriginal Relationship and Cultural Competency shares perspectives of people from 11 cultures speaking about serious illness, dying and grief.