Many people consider funerals to be inherently somber occasions. To them, the idea of dancing after a loved one’s passing seems inappropriate, or at the very least uncommon.
This is understandable. If you’ve grown up in a culture that treats funerals as purely sad affairs, it makes sense that your initial reaction to the idea of a funeral dance might be one of confusion.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- 1. The Haka
- 2. Dinki Mini
- 3. The Jazz Funeral
- 4. Famadihana
- 5. Dancing Pallbearers
- 6. Ancient Egyptian Dances at Funerals
- 7. Ata Manobo wakes
- 8. Kuarup ritual
- 9. African funeral dances
- 10. Day of the Dead dances
However, it’s important to remember that many cultures exist throughout the world, and each culture has its own death rituals.
Many cultures from various corners of the globe dance at funerals in one form or another. The following are a few particularly noteworthy examples.
1. The Haka
The haka is a dance among the Maori people of New Zealand. It began as a war dance, involving stomping feet, slapping bodies together, and other such aggressive movements.
The Maori no longer exclusively perform the haka as a war dance. Instead, they now perform the haka as part of a variety of rituals and occasions. Along with funerals, they might perform the haka during birthdays, weddings, etc. The haka is also a frequent element of sports matches, with opposing teams using the dance as a means to ceremonially intimidate the opposing side.
2. Dinki Mini
Some Jamaicans perform the dinki mini dance after someone’s death. The dance is part of a larger ceremony, the nine-night observances.
In some Jamaican communities, after a member of the community dies, friends, family, and other community members will gather in a yard and essentially throw a party in honor of the deceased for nine nights. Starting on the second day and ending on the ninth, the dinki mini dance is often a common way the mourners celebrate a life.
This example also highlights an important point: Not all cultures treat death as overwhelmingly tragic. They may even participate in celebrations of death that contrast significantly with the mournful funeral practices of other cultures.
3. The Jazz Funeral
Most people in the United States might assume that cultures whose members may dance at a funeral must exist solely in other parts of the world. In reality, you don’t have to leave the US to find funeral dancing rituals.
Consider the jazz funeral. This ritual involves transporting the casket from the church to the cemetery with a brass band accompanying the procession. When the procession begins, the band may play a dirge. However, the music quickly becomes celebratory, and those participating in the funeral almost always dance.
Famadihana is not merely a dancing ritual. The famadihana is a death ritual among certain ethnic groups in Madagascar that may be among the most unique on this list.
Starting around five to seven years after a death, members of certain tribes will remove the remains of the deceased, often removing multiple family members at one time. Surviving loved ones will typically remove the original burial garments to replace them with fresh new garments.
Both loved ones and other guests participating in the ritual will then engage with the remains of the deceased as if they were still living. They will talk to them, celebrate around them as if they were any other guests, and, yes, some will dance with them.
This practice reflects certain core spiritual beliefs of Madagascar's various ethnic groups and tribes. They believe that individuals do not fully cross over to the next stage of existence until their bones have fully decomposed. Thus, they still treat them as living beings until they believe decomposition is complete.
5. Dancing Pallbearers
The dancing pallbearers do not represent a single culture or tradition. Instead, they are a group of Ghanian pallbearers that attracted international attention when a 1917 BBC documentary covered how they help mourners add a bit of celebration and joy to what could otherwise be an upsetting experience.
That’s actually the goal of the dancing pallbearers. The leader of the group is Benjamin Aidoo, who began working as a pallbearer in 2003 when he was still a high school student.
Aidoo quickly realized that traditional funerals could sometimes prevent those in attendance from celebrating the deceased's life. He thought that if pallbearers danced alongside the coffin, some might find the experience less challenging to endure.
Aidoo also noticed that some people at funerals would become so upset that they might faint. This would sometimes result in injury. He reasoned that dancing pallbearers would give them something else to focus on, making it less likely that they would be harmed.
His idea resonated with enough people that he and his dancing pallbearers have turned their services into a full-fledged business. Mourners throughout the area can now hire the dancing pallbearers to attend funerals of their loved ones.
This only proves that the idea of dancing at a funeral may not be nearly as strange as it sounds to those who have never experienced it. On the contrary, it’s clear that many find the idea quite appealing.
6. Ancient Egyptian Dances at Funerals
Evidence suggests that dancing might have also been part of certain ancient Egyptian death rituals. Much of the evidence that would help scholars fully understand the nature of these dances is lost or too severely eroded/damaged for experts to have a thorough and clear picture of what these dances consisted of.
However, researchers are certain they still have enough evidence to be confident in their belief that dancing was a key element in the rituals after specific individuals' deaths during various periods of history.
Much of the evidence scholars have consists of paintings and reliefs on tombs that appear to describe the dancers' movements. They believe a traditional Egyptian funeral dance consisted of these five components:
- A dance representing the deceased traveling with the sun god east to west through the sky
- A dance symbolizing the deceased’s arrival in the west
- A dance for the rebirth of the deceased, as well as their washing as a new baby
- A dance representing a ritual that would animate the newborn
- A dance representing the entombment of the mummy
Again, scholars still have a number of questions about these dances at funerals, but they do have sufficient evidence to be certain they were components of at least some Egyptian funerals.
7. Ata Manobo wakes
The Ata Manobo people are a tribal group in certain areas of the Philippines. According to one description of a traditional Ata Manobo wake involving a husband mourning the loss of his wife, the husband may lie down beside his wife’s body for a period of time while family members and friends sit nearby.
It is apparently not uncommon for some in attendance to dance or play music. According to the accounts of various sources, the goal when dancing is to prevent both the husband and others in attendance from giving in to despair or grief.
8. Kuarup ritual
Little information about the full details of the Kuarup ritual is currently available. The Yawalapiti people of Brazil’s Xingu indigenous reservation place significant importance on the ritual and do not share much information about it with outsiders.
However, in 2021 a Reuters photographer did receive permission to document aspects of the ritual, which the Yawalapiti perform when a tribe’s chief passes away. In this instance, the photographer was documenting the Kuarup ritual as the tribe performed it to honor a chief who died of COVID-19.
The photographer found that Kuarup involves such rituals as placing painted tree trunks in the center of the village to honor the dead, men painting their bodies and marching through the village, and, of course, some dancing.
9. African funeral dances
Various peoples throughout parts of Africa perform funeral dances. The dodi or mutu dances are mourning dances of the Kenga people of Chad. They may perform these dances on the day of a deceased person’s burial.
In some areas of West Africa, the Yoruba people sometimes perform funeral dances during which they wear garments and other items that serve to make them resemble the deceased. Death rituals among the Lugbara people and Angas people also tend to include dancing.
10. Day of the Dead dances
In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is an annual festival of sorts during which families pay their respects to those who have died. During the celebration, many families head to cemeteries to visit the graves of loved ones who have passed on.
These are not necessarily upsetting or unhappy visits. Many families have picnics at the cemetery and may even dance to mariachi bands.
These dances don’t officially qualify as funeral dances, as families perform them during the Day of the Dead, and not exactly during the initial funeral rituals. However, they earn a spot on this list due to the manner in which Day of the Dead celebrations can almost serve as extended funerals. They remind participants that showing respect to the dead is not something that ends once the official funeral is over.
Celebrating Life & Death With Dance
A quick review of funeral dances from around the world clearly demonstrates how learning about rituals surrounding death in different cultures can provide one with a more thorough understanding of many other cultures in general. The way a culture treats the subject of death can tell us a lot about that culture’s values, beliefs, and much more.
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- “Haka.” 100% Pure New Zealand, New Zealand Tourism, 2022. Newzealand.com.
- “Funeral Dances: Long Tradition.” Encyclopedia.com, Encyclopedia.com, 2022. Encyclopedia.com.
- “Jazz Funeral.” New Orleans, NewOrleans.com, 2022. Neworleans.com.
- Mair, Chazz. “Secondhand Sorrow: The Gift of Nine Night.” The Order of the Good Death.” The Order of the Good Death, 29 July 2021, Orderofthegooddeath.com.
- Marcelino, Ueslei, “Rare access captures dance and feasts of Amazonian chief’s funeral.” Reuters: The Wider Image, Thomson Reuters, 1 November 2021, Widerimage.reuters.com.
- Munnik, Jo and Katy Scott. “In Famadihana, Madagascar, a sacred ritual unearths the dead.” CNN Travel, Cable News Network, 27 March 2017, Cnn.com.
- Sullivan Helen. “'Why should you cry?' Ghana's dancing pallbearers find new fame during Covid-19.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited, 13 May 2020, Theguardian.com.
- “Tribal Burial Traditions in Mindanao.” Pime Phillippine, Pime Phillippines, 1 Saturday 2003, Pimephilippines.wordpress.com.
- “Día de Muertos: how to celebrate Mexico's Day of the Dead.” Lonely Planet, Lonely Planet, 15 October 2021. Lonelyplanet.com.