Honor and dancing

In my early years as a funeral director apprentice I was amazed so many times with the rich, beautiful rituals and customs different cultures practiced when honoring their dead. Located in an area where several different cultures lived closely together, I was privileged enough to witness so many rites, and I will never forget the first African funeral I assisted on.

My tasks for this funeral included making sure the “behind the scenes” details were handled, trash, vacuuming, toilet paper refills etc. and I was also in charge of the music during the funeral, hitting the play button at the right time and stop when each song was over. As the family and guests started arriving, I was mesmerized with the beautiful robes with bright colors, heavy fabrics wrapped and adorned with so much care. Almost every person was wearing a head dress of some sort, oranges and yellows in stained glass type patterns. Each person walked with purpose and confidence and grace! I was so enamored with the live people that I do not remember the one in the casket. I was given my marching orders, the written-out details of the program firmly in my hand and the timing of when to be at the back of the chapel to professionally greet and seat the guests before the family was ushered in. Every person came in with a smile and air of peace that was warming and friendly. As the funeral started I entered a separate room located at the back of the chapel, this was the music room and it had a glass window to watch and listen what was happening. The room was covered with equipment and dials, most of which I had no idea what they did and wouldn’t dare touch them anyway. With the buttons I was familiar with, I queued up the music and situated myself in my seat. I was ready. The service began, and I hit my buttons as the program instructed.

As I hit play for the second song in the program, without warning, from the back of the chapel came softly twirling colors of blue and orange and yellow. This was a total surprise to me! I stood up from my chair and blinked my eyes to better see what was happening. These whirling colors were actually dancers! Three women gracefully danced up the isles to the front of the chapel, perfectly in time to the melody I was playing for them. In picture-perfect unison, the dancers’ dresses waved with the fluid movements of their arms and legs. I sat back down and watched with wonder in my little room, grateful for the glass window allowing me to see this. There was a guitar player in the music room with me sitting on a high stool to my left. I heard her chuckle softly, I looked up at her and she graciously explained the dance to me and how it honored the deceased and the family. After that day I always got excited when I knew we would have dancers and would volunteer to play the music for the funeral so that I could watch the beautiful dancers.

When the funeral was over, my next task was to instruct the pall bearers on how to safely carry the casket. I stood in the doorway that led to waiting hearse. I took up my normal posture, what I though was professional, straight-backed, hands together in front of me, looking straight ahead and patiently waiting for all the gentlemen to line up in front of me. One pallbearer, who was standing to my right, decked out in bright yellows, gold and browns looked at me and said, “Why are you so sad?” Shocked at the comment I looked at him confused and then he continued, “This is a happy day, you get to honor someone who has died.” Up to this point, I had never seen it that way. All of the funeral directors I worked with always had the same somber face, not happy, not really sad just blah and I thought I should emulate them being so new to the industry. I learned so much in that one man’s comment and have taken that with me throughout my career.

It is a happy day that I get to honor those who have died. I vowed then and there to serve my families with that same thought in mind, it is an honor! And sometimes there is dancing!

4 thoughts on “Honor and dancing

  1. I love this cultural tradition. What a wonderful way to honor the deceased. The richness of every life is a treasure. It’s a privilege to understand the rites of passage can include a celebration of our return to God. Thank you for this beautiful reminder.

    1. Thank you for that comment. Culture is so important in celebrating a life, they are all amazing!

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About Chelsea Tolman