If you happen to be a real-life Indiana girl the music video for “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was something of a novelty. Forget dirty dancing, dead dancing suddenly became a sexy date idea, at least for Tom Petty. Then again stranger things have happened in Indiana.
Actually, dancing with the dead and its many visual forms have been around since plague gripped the Middle Ages. This genre of art depicted the horrifying realities of being surrounded by the dead and came to be called dans macabre. Today it’s an actual burial rite still practiced in Madagascar known as famadihana.
Dans macabre fits also into the category of momento mori, which you can read about in my other blogpost here. Imagine that everyone you loved was plague-stricken or could be taken away at any moment due to starvation or war. That was pretty much the scene in 14th and 15th century Europe.
Even before the Middle Ages skeletons were a common motif. This skeleton with jugs adorned a cistern at the famous House of the Faun in Pompeii , built during 2nd century bc. In order to cope with the bleakness people took to art. Debate surrounds the particulars of how dans macabre became such a public sight but most scholars agree that the murals painted at Cimetière des Saints-Innocents in Paris between 1424–25 launched the imagery to fame. (Credit)
Above is a rendering of the murals found along the churchyard ossuary (i.e. storage facilities filled with bones). The murals were destroyed in 1669. I’ve also written about this churchyard here. These panels were celebrated in Paris and likely kicked off the morbid illustrations that spread throughout Europe.
(From La Danse macabre written in 1486. Credit)
Dans macabre is powerful because it forces the onlooker to think about death as a person and perceive it as an active force. It’s also a useful religious tool reminding god-fearing souls to repent. More than anything I think dans macabre is a way to be darkly humourous about death. Many of the images involve dancing skeletons and clergy or wealthy lords. This functioned as a form of political satire reminding upper classes that death keeps us all inextricably linked. Unfortunately, most murals that adorned public places like churches have been lost to time. But there’s a ton surviving in print. This amazing book called Simolachri, Historie, e Figure de la Morte holds a bunch of peculiar illustrations collected from original manuscripts published in Germany, 1538:
Here is a skeleton playing xylophone for a hobbling old woman while death dances behind her. Other famous images include Michael Wolgemut’s woodcuts found in Historia mundi, 1493:
There’s something so perfect about dancing and death. In it we find a sense of poetic justice or triumphing over the sadness of dying. It’s reasonable to consider that for some cultures this has become more than images on a page.
The celebration above is called famadihana, a funerary tradition of the Malagasy people in Madagascar. Known as the turning of the bones, people dig up bodies of their ancestors every 5 to 7 years from the family crypt and redress them in fresh cloth. Entire families take turns dancing with corpses around the tomb to live music.
To begin the dearly departed’s burial garments are removed, the bodies dusted and re-dressed in fresh silk. Family members then dance until sunset at which point the remains are returned to their graves but placed upside-down to symbolize the cycle of life and death.
While the ceremony is dwindling in popularity due to costs of exhuming and re-interring loved ones, many have been undeterred. In fact, this practice recently made headlines because of public health concerns involving contact with corpses and a rapidly developing new plague. According to the article those who participate in the ritual have been reluctant to desist because they feel it is an intrinsic part of their way of life. It’s clear from watching this first-hand experience of the celebration that famadihana is an important part of the grieving process for those who know nothing else than dancing away their sorrow while clutching someone’s bones.
Maybe Tom Petty was onto something after all…
(credit video stills)