Dancing and Death


By: Sabrina Zondervan

Walking steadily with the procession line, I had to furtively resist the urge to swing my hips to the jazz beats blaring out of the tuba, saxophone, and trumpet ahead.  It was only minutes earlier that I was drying my eyes from the reading of a moving poem in the gathering room.  Now, the pallbearers, flagrant in their purple shirts and black hats, danced with the white coffin balanced solely on eight shoulders.  Part of me felt like I was walking in a street parade on Bourbon Avenue, but the familiar Surinamese melodies were a jolting reminder that I was not in New Orleans. I was at the funeral of one of my husband’s uncles. What a sight to see, this funeral; this roller coaster of emotions simultaneously capturing the grief of loss and the celebration of a life well lived.

People process the loss of a loved one in different ways, and in Suriname, a melting pot of cultures, there is no standard funeral ceremony. There also isn’t a single ritual surrounding the death of a loved one in Suriname.  In fact, there are a lot, depending, of course, on the deceased’s religion and culture.  Hindu’s, Javanese Muslims, Indian Muslims, Ethnic Chinese and other ethnic/cultural groups in Suriname often have their own specific funeral and mourning rituals.

The predominant funeral traditions among “African American” people in Suriname (locally known as “Creole”), have resulted from mixing African and European rituals and practices. These death rituals are believed to facilitate a smooth transition from the earthly to the afterlife.

One of the most common traditions among Creoles begins on the evening preceding the funeral, the wake. This is where relatives and acquaintances of the deceased gather, usually at the place where he or she lived, to share memories, sing songs, and ultimately, say goodbye. This meeting is known as the “dede oso”, which means “home of the deceased.”

The funeral itself is another important stage in the Afro-Surinamese death ritual.  Unlike typical American funerals, where mourners wear black, it is customary to wear white or combinations of white and black to Surinamese Creole funerals.  “Where there is death, there must be laughter” is a well-known Surinamese proverb that poetically describes the essence of the deceased’s memorial day. This practice of celebrating the dead person’s life is easily observed in funeral processions where the dead are carried to their grave site by a group of dancing pallbearers.  It is said that the dance steps act as sudden feints to prevent the spirit of the deceased from staying among the living.  The merriment produced by the music and laughter also acts as a social stimulant, temporarily easing the loss felt by those left behind.

Before the unique experience of attending a traditional Surinamese funeral, I hated funerals all together.  Now I don’t mind the grieving as much, remembering that there also is celebration in loss.

Categories: Blog

2 Responses to “Dancing and Death”

  1. […] As a graduate assistant helping with the study abroad program in my former department, one of the favorite things I did was put together and research cultural information about the country the students would be visiting. That is how I came across a practice in Suriname where the family members and friends of the deceased dance as they take the coffin to be buried. The dancing is supposed to fool the devil into thinking it is a party and not a funeral and burial so that it will leave the soul of the person alone – so it was explained to me by one of the locals, but here’s another explanation for it (http://www.surinameinsider.com/dancing-and-death/). […]