Palliative care advocates a holistic, multiprofessional approach to the care of people with life-threatening disease. In addition to the control of physical symptoms attention should also be paid to psychosocial, cultural and spiritual aspects of the patient's experience of illness. Guidance documents and research evidence reflect the complexity of the patient's journey and the need to regularly assess these areas of need over time. Cultural background can shape how patients respond to life-threatening illness, as can the beliefs held by the patients, whether religious or more broadly spiritual. Research evidence shows the importance of identifying and addressing cultural and spiritual aspects of care held by patients, families and staff. These are often neglected in clinical practice due to the focus on biomedical concerns and staff discomfort in engaging with beliefs and culture. Recent studies have highlighted gaps in the research, and some methodological difficulties and indicate many patients welcome healthcare staff enquiring about the importance of their beliefs and culture. Identifying research priorities is necessary to guide future research and strengthen the evidence base.