The Rite Stuff



Writer-documentarian Greg Palmer’s quote on the back cover perfectly describes this collection of disparate songs about one of humanity’s two immutable life events: "These grief rituals had only two things in common. Food was always served, and everybody I met thought what they do is normal and what everybody else does is weird." Palmer worked on a PBS documentary called Death: The Trip of a Lifetime and wrote the introduction to this latest CD-book from Ellipsis Arts, dedicated to the music of global death rites. Like other Ellipsis projects, the packaging is magnificent. There are scores of brilliant, colorful photos of everything you always wanted to know about death but were afraid to ask. Compiler extraordinaire Michal (Planet Squeezebox, Unblocked) Shapiro has put together a collection which runs the gamut of human funerary practices, including American gospel, an Ashkenazy Jewish cantor, Mexican Day of the Dead festivities, Pakistani qawwali, and even a track featuring the Famadihana of Madagascar. This particular music set — played primarily on flutes and drums — is part of a Malagash ceremony in which the dead are exhumed from their tombs, rewrapped in fresh cloth and, at times, seated at an "exhumation feast" before being reburied.

Another Dancing with the Dead gem is "Vaishava Jan Tou Tene Khaiye," a bajhan (Hindustani devotional song) that was played at Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral. Sanjukta Sen’s emotional pleas are brilliantly matched by moving photos in the book, including a stunning image of Tushar Gandhi pouring the ashes of his great grandfather Mahatma into the Ganges river.

Probably the biggest drawback to the CD is that the music, like the funerary practices, is so varied that it doesn’t make for the best repeat listening. Still, for anyone curious about the subject that faces us all eventually, Dancing with the Dead makes for fascinating reading ... and listening.

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Detroit Metro Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Metro Times Press Club for as little as $5 a month.