Rainbows of mourning

This is a video of people dancing with a recently deceased baby and it tells us something profound about the psychology of grief and mourning.

Despite a common stereotype, death of a loved one can provoke some of the most culturally diverse forms of emotion and social ritual.

The video is rare footage of the Chigualo ceremony, a mourning ritual for children aged less than seven-years-old who have just passed away from the Afrocolombian community of the Pacific coast of Colombia.

Unfortunately, there is almost nothing written about the ceremony available online in English but the Spanish language Wikipedia has good page about it.

The belief behind the ceremony is that when young children die they become angels and go straight to heaven. Therefore, these deaths are not an occasion for sadness, as many might assume, but a cause for a goodbye celebration.

You can see in the video that the Chigualo involves upbeat rhythms, singing, games and dancing – including passing the dead baby between people at the ceremony.

This may seem shocking or disrespectful to people accustomed to sadness and distress-based mourning, but in its own community it is the single most respectful way of saying goodbye to a recently blessed angel.

Psychology has a stereotype problem with grief and mourning. Over and over again false assumptions are repeated, not even valid in Western cultures, that there are certain ‘stages’ to grief, that people will reliably react in certain ways with certain key emotions – sadness, anger, resignation and so on.

This leads to both a professional pathologising of grieving people including endless variations on ‘the person hasn’t accepted their loss’, ‘they haven’t elaborated their grief’ and ‘they’re in denial’ applied to anyone who doesn’t mourn within the expected boundaries.

Moreover, it leads to a cultural blindness about how other societies feel and understand the loss of others with the implicit assumption that the experience of grief is somehow universal.

Any other reaction except extended sadness is considered to be a way of ‘masking’ supposedly inevitable pain. ‘Underneath’, it is assumed, everyone must feel the same as ‘us’.

This is despite the fact that we have a huge array of anthropological work on the vast variation in grief and mourning throughout the world.

The Akan have elaborate rituals that punctuate the year to keep the memory of dead alive. The Achuar prohibit any attempts to remember or memoralise the deceased.

The Ganda prohibit sexual activity during mourning, the Cubeo have sexual activity as part of the mourning ceremony.

A Dogon funeral is designed to ensure that spirits of the dead leave the community, an Igbo funeral that they stay.

Although death is perhaps the only experience guaranteed to be universal, our reaction to it is one of the most diverse. Consequently, respect comes in many forms.

Link to video of Chigualo ceremony.

16 thoughts on “Rainbows of mourning”

  1. Great post! I was directed here by a Google + post by Ed Yong, and will be adding this blog to my bookmarks.

    An enlightening moment for me on cultural attributes of dealing with death came when trying to explain “flowers by wire” to a Maasai friend: “Let me get this straight Gaythia, your Aunt just died, your cousin is mourning, and so you are going to arrange to send a bouquet of flowers so your cousin can set them on the table and sit there and watch them die also?”

    I didn’t care for his “never speak of the dead again” concept either.

    But your concluding sentence is best: “Consequently, respect comes in many forms.” We should learn to respect and honor these differences.

    Although, I have to admit I am re-thinking flowers by wire.

  2. This ignorance of diversity in grief reactions becomes a legal problem when police assume that someone’s show of grief isn’t “normal” and therefore indicates the individual may have killed the deceased. Televised comments by police make it clear that they are confident in their ability to determine whether someone is showing real (i.e. “appropriate”) signs of grief at the death of a family member or friend, and that they base their determination of guilt on this assessment.

    Crying too much or too little, dressing “inappropriately,” virtually any activity in the aftermath of a violent death (going out to eat, eating too much, drinking alcohol or abstaining, going about normal activities or staying isolated at home) can be interpreted as proof of guilt.

    And police are not trained to look at the null hypothesis–they easily become fixated on a single suspect and begin trying to prove he/she is guilty.

  3. I admit my first reaction to that video was one of emotional repulsion, having attended a funeral for an infant cousin of mine a couple weeks ago. This says quite a bit about the way I was raised – and I imagine that it’s possible that these Colombians might actually be repulsed by a somber, grief-filled ceremony for a dead child.

    I have been doing research on the cultural shaping of our perception and it’s been quite interesting. Culture and religion actually shape the way we perceive objects at the attentional level. So when it comes to the response to grief, no doubt there will be major differences from culture to culture. This is all quite fascinating to me.

  4. Our, or rather, my biggest problem is knowing that I don’t know what other people think or how they are interpreting me or my actions… I’ve just learned to be open-minded and go with the flow when in other people’s company… it’s been a terrible mistake on my part to think that everybody thinks and understands things just like I do… it was a real eye-opener to discover through communication how “the other peoples of the earth” understand things and how really diverse and different we are from one another, even within our very own families… so I just have learned to accept myself, firstly, with my “mistakes”, and others and LIVE AND LET LIVE, or whichever “the “we” of the moment” believe… It seems to be a tactic of survival to “when in Rome, do as the Romans…” Thanks once again for a great site… Really, I do love to read about the other real people out there beyond my pc…

  5. The problem with pop-psych is that it’s pop-psych. The “five stages” work was originally to help describe and understand what might be seen as “inappropriate” responses, _NOT_ to create a *new* set of appropriate and inappropriate responses. I’m sure Kessler and Kübler-Ross are just as irritated by people’s misuse as you are.


    Sorry, I’m just a bit of a fan, as having the “five stages” helped me survive a lot of mourning over the years.

  6. 6 years and 4 months (today) of grieving the death of my only child, my adult son…..
    I’ve concluded that what others think of me is none of my business.
    This works best for me.

  7. I for one, am sick of being locked into the Western mindset prision of how I am “suppose to” do and experience everything. Screw the uber-educated “experts’ and the revenue streams they depend upon for their oh so comfortable lifestyles. They have us all trapped in this grotesque 21st century nightmare.

  8. At first, I thought they were dancing with a doll-and that’s what I hoped when it looks like the *head* falls off 25 seconds into the video. Maybe it was a head bow? (I hope it was the head bow…)

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