Just as I was finishing up a blog post on one of the more unusual ‘sexy death’ rituals – strippers at funerals – a couple of stories appeared in the news. In mainland China, officials from the Ministry of Culture released a statement concerning the burgeoning trend of exotic dancers employed to gyrate and strip at grave sites, particularly in rural communities. On the mainland it’s a relatively new ritual, having first been noted in 2006. More recently a funeral in Hebei (below) attracted attention when images of a scantily clad dancer were shared on the internet.
It’s a practice that’s been established in Taiwan since the 1980s, the rationale being that larger gatherings of mourners at funerals indicate wealth, status and popularity and create the necessary elements of Rè Naò (heat & noise). In effect the strippers act as carrots dangled in front of people to encourage them to attend, and as cheerleaders to keep their spirits up once there.
As well as dancing at the graveside, strippers may perform on neon-lit vehicles called Electric Flower Carts or EFCs. These modified trucks act as moving, musical stages for their routines, encouraging the mourners’ vehicles to follow in a parody of the traditional Western funeral procession which ordinarily crawls at a snails pace behind the Lead Funeral Director. They act as a kind of sexy Pied Piper.
So what’s the problem with what one article calls these “lascivious last rites” and another called a “grave offense”? The Ministry of Culture believe it “corrupts the social atmosphere” and is “polluting cultural life”, particularly since it’s replacing the previous graveside entertainment: opera singers. But in many Eastern countries, paying respect to the dead with more ‘earthly’ gifts such as food and money is not uncommon, so perhaps these dancers are just an extension of those ‘earthly’ pleasures: an attempt to unite the flesh and the spirit in grief? Their presence is also said to appease wandering spirits.
But there’s also a class issue that isn’t unique to strippers at funerals, and is more to do with interaction with the dead at large. At the 2014 Encountering Corpses conference, PhD student Sam McCormick, discussed the use of post-mortem ashes to create paintings, jewellery, tattoos, and even – in one case – a teapot. She called these ashes creations “performances of continuous nearness”. However, comments she received calling the practice ‘vulgar’ tended to be from those considering themselves at a higher rung on society’s ladder. She noted there is definitely a class divide when it comes to this type of memorialisation. These sentiments are echoed by the detractors of the stripper practice who say urbanites don’t see “this sort of thing in cities” and that it’s harmful to public morality. In Taiwan, the practice occurs more in the South which is associated with the working class and less education and is, in essence, considered provincial.
I know enough about death customs worldwide to say that what works for one nation doesn’t work for another but that’s the same for everything in life. I’m not going to pass comment on how someone interacts with death – I’m just glad that they do.