Cultural rituals of death


Can a dead person really protect and guide the living? Is it true that the realms of life, death, the future, the present and the past are connected? Can cultural rituals serve as gateways for connecting these realms?

One writer says “by doing things in a culturally defined way ... the dead seem less far away and less forgotten. Death itself becomes more natural and familiar.”

The idea that the life of the departed should be celebrated may be traced to traditional or indigenous views on human existence. For example, the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, is believed to be influenced by ancient Aztec beliefs. Celebration of the departed goes on for days, and their rituals are designed to encourage the spirits to visit the home for one last time before moving to the next realm.

Ancient Egyptians held even more extreme views on death in that they “saw life as temporary and the afterlife as eternal.” Researchers point to the fact that they built their homes with materials that would not last a long time, such as mud-bricks, but constructed their tombs from stone. Egyptian fascination with the after-life could explain their focus on preserving the dead body as a way to ensure smooth passage of the deceased to another realm.

This week, for the funeral of Ifa/Orisa practitioner Baba Erin Folami, Atakosan Adonis the Payai or High Priest of the First Peoples community in Arima, explained their understanding of death. For them, death represents a “transition, or a continuation into the next realm. The departed, once they have crossed over, are now able to empower those of us who are still here.”

This concept of “crossing over” is present in the Bongo dances of the Congo, one of the tribal peoples from Africa. The dance is performed by hopping on one leg as the other leg crosses over it in a pushing movement. The same arm is crossed over the body and pushes, while the other arm is held in the air. The dancer alternates arms and legs. Bongo also involves competition over one’s dexterity with other dance movements; for instance who can bend the lowest or jump the highest. In olden days, in communities across Trinidad and in Tobago also, dancers from different villages would compete as part of the burial ritual. Limbo is another of our wake dances, traditionally performed from the lowest bar to the highest. The order was switched for entertainment purposes, but the original objective was to represent the transition of the spirit from earth to heaven.

Across communities in TT, the celebration of life would also involve food, alcohol (for the spirits, as much as for the participants) and games. Death was thus another means of bringing people together. It represented a celebration of family and an enduring connection to their loved one.

The difference between Western and indigenous belief systems, is the conviction of indigenous peoples that the living, the unborn and the departed are all connected. Traditional belief systems thus do not fear death, but rather embrace it. In the Western world “such death rituals declined during the 18th and 19th centuries. What emerged instead was a greater fear of death and the dead body. Medical advances extended control over death as the management of the dead. Increasingly, death became hidden from public view. No longer familiar, death became threatening and horrific.”

Outward demonstration of grief is a typically non-Western approach to remembering the departed. By contrast, other cultures openly engage in a “form of ritualised weeping accompanied by wailing and shrieking.” A stark example of this contrast is the New Orleans funeral. Although located in the west, this ritual is influenced by African cultural traditions. The first part is sombre; once the burial takes place, the ceremony erupts with lively jazz music.

In TT, the collective wisdom of ancient cultures is there for us. I wonder, if more of us embraced indigenous rather than western interpretations of death, would we value life more? Would it be possible to use these cultural traditions to make living more attractive, and thus reduce the ease with which we take life? In our work with youth traumatised by gun violence, we have seen the positive impact of cultural solutions. As our communities continue to be terrorised by gangs, corruption and lack of leadership, perhaps it is time to embrace the wisdom of indigenous traditions. Perhaps it is time to appeal to other realms towards healing for our beautiful nation.

Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN.


"Cultural rituals of death"

More in this section