Dining, Dancing & Moving
In Right Next to the Dead
Compared to other species, humans are surprisingly coy about death and the dying. To cover up our fear of what may lie beyond, we came up with all sorts of theories and possibilities, beliefs and rituals. Whether they resemble what happens once you die, we’ll never know.
What’s for sure is that most of what we do about the dead, we do it with introspection, almost as a way to put in a good word on our own behalf. Mostly, that is. For guess how they go about it in India, the Philippines, Madagascar, and Spain. Hint: hardly anyone cries.
In fact, if there’s something in common about those theories and rituals, is that they may be as old as the very own business of death and dying. A lot of what we know today about those related or branched out of the human family throughout the ages, we found it in their burial sites.
The way we’ve been laying to rest both loved ones and avowed foes has informed our evolution as social beings, and our respect to that moment of reckoning we must all face. Since arguably no one has come back to tell us what’s on the other side, we do what we can to show that we care all the same.
But let’s not get too consumed with the myriad of ways and reasons we may dispatch each other to the great beyond, and focus instead on four odd traditions of doing it so. Who knows? Perhaps between now and then, you may find yourself getting ready for the Big Sleep amidst the sounds and colors of one of them.
A PARADE OF COFFINS
Have you had any near death experiences lately? In Galicia, Spain, they have an annual feast to celebrate your coming back, and boy, are they happy you made it. In fact, so cheerful they are that, every July 29, they actually parade the miraculous survivors on coffins throughout the town, with chants to thank heavens for your luck.
What may have been a pagan ritual in ancient times, it’s now called the Fiesta de Santa Marta de Ribarteme, the Catholic Church’s patron saint of resurrection. While the celebration is unusual, the Vatican’s role in it isn’t: after all, the church’s grown so effectively globally through the centuries, because it often adapted local rites into its own doctrine.
THE TURNING OF THE BONES
In Madagascar, twisting the nob of gore a bit further down, the family of the dead changes their clothes and dance with them every seven years or so, in a display of contrition towards their ancestors. The Famadihana, though, is an occasion for joy, when live music is played, and the children are introduced to their long gone relatives.
Or their corpses, to be perfectly blunt. Being the kind of ritual whose description may not do justice to its full extent, we may not dwell on answering questions too creepy to even consider. But despite the prominent role assigned to the dead during the feast, for the Malagasy who still follow this 300-year plus tradition it’s all about assuring good fortune for the living.
DINING WITH THE DEAD
In Ahmedabad, India, the entrepreneurial spirit prevailed, and the New Lucky restaurant sits right on top of an old cemetery. Business is good, according to owner Krishan Kutti Nair who, along with the growing clientele, seems to take pride in serving people in the middle of a graveyard.
The graves, who local historians believe belong to relatives of a 16th century Sufi saint, are painted in fresh green, and just to be sure, they’re not being desecrated: every morning, they get to be cleaned and decorated with flowers. Lest not we forget that this is India, they’re actually considered lucky charms, hence the restaurant’s name.
THE CEMETERY DWELLERS
Another Southeast Asian nation with a similar take on the dead’s final resting place is the Philippines. The biggest cemetery in Manilla, for example, is home to some 10,000 (living) souls. Instead of silence and pomp, what you’d find is people living in empty mausoleums, food shops and karaoke bars next to graves, and the bustling noises of any village of that size.
Many residents even find occasional employment, carrying coffins and assisting on burials, all conveniently located next to where they live. Such poverty-dictated pragmatism in living arrangements may be just what keeps at bay the strong pull of mysticism and religion in one of the most impoverished and populous regions of the Earth.
ONE SHOT AT GETTING IT RIGHT
Still, the resilience and will to live, the sense of communion and faith in the future that the people in these stories display, will never cease to amaze spoiled trolls like us. For all our sense of entitlement, when we call half of our fellow citizens lazy just for being poor, we’re not just being callous: we’re revealing the depth of our ignorance and fear about our own mortality.
For at the end of the day, it may be irrelevant what lies beyond the curtain; death has a way of leveling everyone, rich or poor, just like the way we’re all born into this world does. Between these two events, however, lies everything we’ll ever learn and everything we’ll ever need to be remembered or forgotten.
For most of us, there’s just one bullet in the chamber, and maybe no more than one chance to pull the trigger. We may point, we may aim, we may spend years just practicing. Some will grow very good at it, some won’t even care about it. But if we miss that moment, most of us won’t have another chance.
As that proverbial epitaph goes,
Remember friend as you walk by
as you are now so once was I.
As I am now you will surely be.
Prepare thyself to follow me.
* Getting There
* Dead Can Dance
* Ways to Go