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Funeral Music Across Cultures

Getty Images / Stringer / Sean Gardner

Five ways music and dance are used around the world to honor the dead.

The emotional power of music makes it a natural part of funeral ceremonies. We're all familiar with certain cultural traditions, like the bagpipe music common not only in Scottish and Irish funerals but also in U.S. police funerals, a practice that became common when many officers were of recent Irish descent. Now, bagpipes are a standard part of police funerals regardless of the officer's ethnic background.

Many types of music hold a rich and storied connection to funerals. Some may be familiar, but many may not be. Below, explore five ways music and dance are used around the world to honor the dead.


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1. The Jazz Funeral (New Orleans)

These traditional New Orleans funerals tap into the early influence of brass parade bands on jazz. The music begins as a solemn, restrained march that acknowledges and expresses the grief family and friends are feeling for their lost loved one. Then, however, the music quickens and becomes jubilant, inspiring dancing, singing, and improvisation: a joyful celebration of a life well-lived and the promise of heavenly reward that moves through the streets and can attract crowds. At top, James Andrews is pictured playing in a jazz funeral for legendary bass drummer Lionel Batiste.

Jazz funerals have become less common in New Orleans in recent years, but this document of musician Allen Toussaint's 2015 funeral is an excellent example of the form: 

 

2. The Haka (Maori people of New Zealand)

New Zealand's native Maori people have a rich tradition of dance and musical chanting called haka, types of which are used for a variety of occasions. Some hakas are traditionally performed before battles while others may be used to welcome guests or mark significant occasions. The Manawa Wera haka is used for solemn occasions such as funerals. Maori and other New Zealanders continue to perform hakas to this day, often to rally local sports teams as well as to honor the dead at funerals. In a particularly moving example, the students of a boys school perform a haka for a deceased teacher as his hearse approaches:

 

3. Dancing Pallbearers (Ghana)

In Ghana, funerals are extravagant occasions often lasting days and attended by hundreds. One striking tradition that has become established recently is joyful dancing by pallbearers while they carry the casket, accompanied by Ghanaian music. These dancing pallbearers are typically professionals hired for the performance, not the relatives or friends of the deceased.

 

4. The Zapotec Funeral Festival (Oaxaca, Mexico)

For the Zapotec people of Mexico's Oaxaca region, a funeral is an opportunity to truly celebrate the life of the deceased. A traditional Zapotec funeral includes a procession through the streets with incense, mezcal, colorful clothing, and a brass band: a community event not unlike a New Orleans jazz funeral translated into Central American culture. Though this is a sort of festival, it is one with a solemn purpose: to honor the dead. The music remains grounded in that purpose.

 

5. Famadihana or the Turning of the Bones (Madagascar)

Famadihana, a traditional practice of the Malagasy people of Madagascar, may seem shocking to people who associate death with eternal rest. Once every five to seven years, Malagasy families disentomb the bodies of their ancestors. The relatives remove the old shrouds, scent the remains with wine or perfume, and wrap them in new cloth. And then, to utterly jubilant music, the living dance with the corpses through the streets of their town. Famadihana, which means "turning of the bones," is a joyful celebration where crying is discouraged. For some, it is a literal reunion with the dead, a chance to fill them in on family news and to ask for blessings and advice. Others view it just as a way to remember their loved ones and care for their remains. After a party that sometimes lasts for days, the dead are returned to the family crypts to rest in peace — if only for five more years.


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