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In the United States and Canada, even secular funeral practices are fairly conservative. Most North American families hire a funeral director to handle the remains, memorial and paperwork related to the death.
While grief is universal, the ways in which different cultures and (communities within those cultures) mourn vary widely. Did you know that in Taiwan and some parts of rural China, families hire exotic dancers to give their loved ones a memorable final-send off? Honoring the dead can range from subdued and mournful to rowdy and fun—and anything in between.
When someone dies, those closest to the deceased person are usually subdued and inconsolable. This is not always the most desirable mood to strike at a funeral in China.
Because the country is overpopulated, especially in cities, moving about in public is often hot, noisy and overwhelming. Chinese people consider this jangle of vibrant city life to be a positive source of excitement. The combination of commotion, crowding and buzz is known as renao in Chinese culture.
Renao is a desirable communal mood for social gatherings, and hosts often try to create this atmosphere of excitement. In China the concept of renao plays into many types of gatherings—including funerals. This practice occurs in rural areas of China, but most often in Taiwan.
In Taiwan, the family of the dead person will sit on the hearse, sobbing, as it drives through traffic to its destination. The vehicle will usually include a large image of the deceased person in the window, so onlookers can see that it is a funeral procession. This is a common practice in most funerals.
However, these processions evolved in the 1980s to include loud music, dancing, singing, funeral performance troupes and the atmosphere of a party. This practice gives the deceased person one final celebration.
Professional mourning in Taiwan has traditionally involved hiring female actors to cry and wail at a funeral to increase the tragedy of the memorial for other guests. In the 1980s, renao at funerals started to include exotic dancing, though this practice has always been somewhat controversial.
Funeral strippers (almost always women) are typically hired by friends of the deceased to create an atmosphere of renao for guests. There are several reasons to do this. Some believe that throwing a large party is a good way to give the deceased person a good last hurrah. Others believe that dancers will distract unwanted spirits while the funeral is progress. Another theory is that stripping and merriment encourages celebration of fertility and reproduction.
In the procession, dancers will perform atop electric flower cars that flank the hearse, and sobbing family members. People nearby will know a funeral procession is coming by the loud music and hubbub.
Gangsters may hire exotic dancers to perform at a funeral as a way of flaunting the power and respect of a high-ranking member who has passed. In 2017, Former Chiayi County Council Speaker Tung Hsiang's funeral involved a procession of colorful Jeeps, with 50 pole dancers performing atop each one. The deceased man's son said he had a dream in which his father said he wanted his funeral to be "hilarious" which was the impetus for the wild procession.
Though this practice is not unheard of in China today, funeral strippers are not that common anymore. The Chinese government discourages (and sometimes punishes) citizens who engage in funeral stripping, considering it to be distasteful. In Taiwan, the practice is more accepted (especially in rural or suburban areas) as long as it does not involve full nudity. Funeral stripping is not a very common practice today, and appears to be dying out. Still, this is a unique take on 'celebration of life' and represents a style of mourning that rejects pure solemnity.
Having dancers who strip naked is rare, and can be judged harshly by those in attendance, particularly when children are present.
Funeral stripping is not the only way that people make use of hired help to hype up a funeral. In fact, professional mourning has been around for thousands of years. Learn about professional mourning in our next article Professional Mourning: Why Some Families Hire Strangers to Cry.
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