Tom's Columns

1. My Father's Death/Making a Box
2. Singing the Grief/ My Eulogy for My Father
3. Fixing a Hole/Grieving With Other Men
4. Reverse Anthropology/ Learning about healing from Tribal people
5. Stewarding Children's Grief/ Helping Families Heal Together
6. A Family Ritual for the Year Anniversary
7. When Grief Recedes/ Grief is Like a Cloud
8. Healing Through Our Strength/ Knowing Our Weakness Part 1
9. Healing Through Our Strength/ Knowing Our Weakness Part 2
10. Stress and Grief

A Family Ritual for the Year Anniversary

Reverse Anthropology/ Learning about healing from Tribal people

Tom Golden LCSW

I was listening to an audio tape the other day and heard Michael Meade use the term "reverse anthropology." He spoke of using "reverse anthropology" to find out what we are missing in our own culture. By studying different cultures we can come to some understanding of our own deficits. I can't think of too many areas that are in as much need of this approach as we are with grief in the U.S. We are truly the "primitives" when it comes to having culturally-endorsed rituals to aid people in healing from the chaos of grief.

Chapter Nine of Swallowed by a Snake is dedicated to this idea of "reverse anthropology." A number of different cultures (mostly tribal) are examined with the intent of gaining some practical understanding of the complex rituals these people have developed to heal their grief. The intent is not to mimic their actions but to see how a community of men, women, and children can work together to aid the healing of its members.

This is important to us because we live in a culture (U.S.) which disdains grief. Phillippe Aries said, "The denial of death is openly acknowledged as a significant trait of our culture. The tears of the bereaved have become comparable to the excretions of the diseased." This cultural avoidance of grief leaves people in a state of confusion about whether their experience of grief is "normal." This confused state in turn leaves people in an even greater state of pain. Not only are we hurting, we don't know if we "should be." What a mess.

With these ideas in mind let's have a quick look at a tribal culture from Africa, the Dagura people. (Excerpted from "Swallowed by a Snake " , Tom Golden LCSW,)

The Dagura People

When a death occurs the women of the village begin to grieve. Their grief is somewhat muted, however, until the men have ritually announced the death. This announcement cannot occur until the men have created a "sacred space" for the grief of the village to emerge, and no man is allowed to show signs of grief until after this ritual space has been created. This is done by invoking the aid of the spirits through a private ritual performed only by the men. The invoking of the spirits is partly designed to elicit enough grief from the mourners to allow the dead person to move into the world of the ancestors. The Dagura believe that the soul's journey into the next world is dependent in some ways upon the grief expressed by the mourners. Without adequate grief, the soul is thought to be stuck on this plane of existence and unable to leave the world. They have thus connected their grief with a purpose, that being the birth of the soul of the newly dead. The creation of ritual space, a safe container for the expression of grief, is seen as essential to the birthing of the spirit of the person who died. A part of this creation of sacred space involves throwing ashes around the house of the deceased and the ritual preparation of an actual physical space for the grief ritual. The announcement states that there has been a death, the ritual space is ready, and it is now time to grieve.

The Dagura Grief Ritual

The grief ritual itself is complex and beautiful. The grieving space is divided into different sections. The body of the dead person is dressed ceremonially and seated on a stool in the section called the "shrine." Two women elders are seated next to the body and are charged with the duty to collect the grief that is being expressed and to "load it on" to the dead person to help him or her in the journey toward the ancestors. The shrine is colorfully decorated and contains some of the important possessions of the dead person. There is a boundary around the shrine which symbolically marks the separation between the living and the dead, and outside of the two women tending to the body, no one is allowed to enter the shrine, for to do so would mean entering the realm of the dead.

Between the shrine and the mourners is an empty space that represents chaos. Within this space people are allowed to express any form of grief they want, as long as it is related to their feelings about the death. Crying, dancing, or any expression of emotion is accepted and expected to take place within this space. There are people who are designated as "containers." These people are often relatives who have come from afar. Their job is to insure the safety of the space for the grievers, making sure that no harm comes to those who are actively grieving. The Dagura believe in releasing grief with all its intensity, but they have also developed a system in which the intensity does not exceed the capacity of the mourners. It is like a system of checks and balances. The containers follow the grievers as they mourn and if they stray out of the ritual space, will gently tap them on the shoulder to remind them to come back into the contained space.

On one side of the shrine are the men of the village and on the other side are the women. Each group consists of mourners and containers. The mourners are further divided by the "kotuosob," a small piece of rope tied around the wrist of the griever. The rope designates a person who was particularly close to the deceased, perhaps a family member. This marking alerts all the participants that someone who is wearing the "kotuosob" is what they call a "center of the heat" person, that is, a person who is more likely to be in danger of "grieving himself to death." The Dagura see grief as food for the psyche, necessary to maintain a healthy psychological balance. But they also see its danger--too much grief and a person will "lose their center" and, they believe, can grieve to death. Thus the Dagura designate specific containers to follow closely behind the tagged person and do exactly as they do, including dancing, jumping to the beat of the drum, or pounding the ground. Sometimes when a tagged griever is experiencing a great deal of grief, a group of containers and mourners will form a line behind him or her with each person in the line doing the same action as the primary griever. It is understood that this transmits the feeling of the primary griever into all of those down the line. This type of process is viewed as a form of silent and physical support to the person who is grieving. It is important to point out that among the Dagura the healing of grief is gender specific. That is, no woman will approach a man in trying to help him with his grief, and no man would do the same for a woman. They believe that it takes a man to help release and heal the grief of another man, and a woman to reflect the grief of a woman.


Music plays an integral part of the ritual. The ceremony is accompanied by xylophones and drums and two singers. The xylophones are divided into male and female. The male xylophone follows the mood of the singers and the female xylophone accompanies the male xylophone with a redundant set of notes. The singers are charged with the responsibility of singing (chanting) the life of the dead person. They sing the joy and sorrow of the family history and the events which led up to the death. This spontaneous singing is done in order to emphasize and direct the grief of the community.

Everyone in the community is expected to take part in this ritual. It is held as a solemn responsibility. Anyone who happens to be near the village during the ritual is expected to participate. It is as if death stops life for a while, all other activities coming to a halt. In the words of one singer, "We are trapped in a world in which we are not in control because of the mighty power of death."

In the Dagura culture, and in others around the world, grief is vented at the funeral in a very intensive fashion. The rituals last about three full days. During that time grief is given all the attention of the community, and it flows and flows. It should also be noted that the support for a person's grief does not stop after the funeral. Most indigenous people have post- funeral rituals that provide further opportunity to express grief. Rituals are practiced throughout the year, often marking important dates such as the one-year anniversary of the death. The community expects the grief to continue for some time, and grief can be released after the funeral and at the next funeral, if need be. This can be compared with our own culture where there is usually very little expression of grief during the funeral services, and few, if any, culturally-endorsed occasions for expressing grief thereafter. (Excerpted from "Swallowed by a Snake," Tom Golden LCSW, pgs. 125-26.)

I want to thank those of you who wrote to give comments about this page and the column. It is very helpful for me to hear from you. I hope you take the time to let me know what you think.

The information about the Dagura culture comes from a book by Malidoma Some entitled "Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community", published by Swan Raven, I highly recommend it as a book about "reverse anthropology."

Tom Golden is a professional speaker, author, and psychotherapist whose area of specialization is healing from loss and trauma. You can find out more about Ton's private practice here. Tom gives workshops across the country and in Canada on many aspects of this topic. His workshops are known to be both entertaining and informative. Contact Tom at the addresses below (email or snail mail) for inquiries about speaking or training for your group. You can also order his book Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing on this site or through


Tom Golden LCSW
 P.O. Box 83658
Gaithersburg, Maryland 20883
301 670-1027