DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition
No One Danced At My Mother’s Wake
No one danced at my mother’s wake. Not a single person found the screwdriver that might have removed the front door so that that door could be stretched out in the parlor to let an uncle tap out a jig or a reel as another relative fiddled. No one kept awake all night by her side to usher her spirit on, dancing about the room with her tiny body to help her get to the next world.
It’s not a surprise.
There was no Derry County front door, no parlor, not a stitch of food nor a drop to drink at this sanitized wake in the New England suburbs for this Irish American woman who could never fully embrace nor escape her origins. And anyway, the uncles that might have danced were dead, and no one knew a reel or jig to play.
Twenty years ago my first generation Irish father was put to rest with a river of drink and a delirium of food. After visiting him at the funeral parlor, dozens of us came back to the house to darkly, raucously celebrate our aliveness in the face of the stone cold mystery of death. We didn’t dance but we had a fine party. Warm bodies ranged from pillar to post that cold November night. We drank ourselves silly, ate cold cuts, laughed and cried till stupor overtook us. Before he was put in the ground, the Italian American priest inadvertently added a bit of Joycean humor to the proceedings, concluding the prayers for the dead with this: "And may he rest in peat and lice." Indeed.
This time there was not only no humor, no drink and no dance, but not so much as a local house at which to gather. No one lived near the nursing home that had been my mother’s residence for the last five years. St. Aloysius’ Church wasn’t the family parish, either, not that it would have mattered—except when custom demanded, the Murphys ceased going to church long ago. Father Lesc, the young Eastern European priest who presided over prayers at the funeral home and said mass the next day, could smell that we were apostates. For one thing it was obvious that some of us had married outside the Irish Catholic boundaries, that some children, the children who weren’t baptized, didn’t even know the sign of the cross. When they attempted it, it looked like they were brushing away cobwebs from their faces.
Father Lesc understood, too, that there was little he could do to change those of us who were outsiders, although he could let us feel the purifying heat of his own true faith and hope we burned with guilt. He would also make sure we knew we weren’t welcome to dabble in Catholicism: only those "Catholics in good standing" were invited to communion. Meanwhile, my mother’s soul he would save.
Father Lesc had never met my mother alive, and he made it clear as he looked at his hands distractedly while a brother or a sister-in-law tried to recount something kind about her, that he remained thoroughly uninterested in the particularity of Peg Murphy—not her abundant miseries nor her small fortunes. He let us know that his job was to say mass, which he did with a fervor bordering on fury. As he faced us from the altar he yearned, he said, only to celebrate "this day she had waited her whole life for," the day "when she would meet her savior." He bent over the tabernacle, moving the wafer in the sign of the cross, willing transubstantiation to take place like a grim alchemist willing lead into gold. Had any of us even dared to dance, there would have been no time: Father Lesc raced Peg into the ground as though to propel her more forcefully into heaven.
My mother didn’t believe in heaven; she was as musical as a buzz saw, and dancing wasn’t her calling, but she would have appreciated a party. She was ready for a celebration of some sort. There she lay, hair coiffed, face rouged, dressed in dapper wine dark colors. Her nostrils flared as though to suck in some of the illicit cigarette smoke she still yearned for, or to get a whiff of mischief from her bored grandchildren. I watched her skin settle with the eerie, nearly imperceptible animation of shifting sand, as though ready at any moment to rise from her slumber and demand that we entertain her. I thought she deserved a little liveliness as she waited for the beyond.
But dancing in honor of the dead has fallen on hard times. In fact, looking on the internet, death dance or dance of death now seems more commonly to refer to insecticides and heavy metal bands than the 24 person chain dance from the Middle Ages that acknowledged our place in the mortal parade: "the death dance spray is a cunning mix of insect amphetamine and nerve gas… Not only does it get rid of nasty pests, it also provides some excellent material for home videos."
Before Christianity and modernity thoroughly overtook the pagan world and subdued its mystical practices, dancing was an integral part of funerary rituals across the globe. People not only believed in an immaterial world invisibly but often palpably intermingled with our own, they understood that when words fail us, as they inevitably and often do, especially when someone we care about dies, only music and dance can deeply communicate what the soul needs to say to the spirit of another. Dance and music linked us to the divine. For many of us, they still do.
If we had been able to keep alive the tradition of my ancestors, we would have prepared my mother’s body at home, dressed her in a white gown, keened our hearts out, then remained awake through the night or nights until she was put in the ground. During the "waking" period, we would have sung and danced for one another in a combined effort to ward off sleep, to keep evil spirits at bay, and to send her soul into the next world. We might even have lifted her out of her bed and danced her about the room to lead her there.
Like the jig and the reel at a wake, the African Cakewalk bridged the human and spirit worlds. Greeks and Balkan peoples traditionally ended their death lamentations with dance. In ancient Egypt Muu-Dancers performed alongside funerary processions wearing kilts and reed crowns. The Pomo of Northern California had a ceremony every winter to lament those who had died the year before, embodying the spirits of the dead and reuniting them with the family so they could mourn together. The Japanese still practice the Bon Dance during the festival of Obon or The Festival of Souls each August. The Bon is a circle dance or a dance of several concentric circles (with musicians in the middle in a tower called a vagura), performed in honor of the ancestors to bring about the harmony of people.
In culture after culture, dance threaded itself through life from birth to death. Dance may never again be so important to society as it was to premodern worlds, but that shouldn’t stop me from lighting a candle, calling up my mother, and performing a little jig, wishing her a safe journey.
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