How About Live Strippers at Your Funeral? No Joke!

July 18, 2011
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Should you meet your demise in Taiwan, a funerary option open to you is the Electric Flower Car (EFC), a wheeled, neon-lit platform upon which pulchritudinous women strip down to their skivvies for the benefit of audiencesÖboth living and deceased.

We spoke with University of South Carolina anthropologist Marc L. Moskowitz about this practice, which is detailed in his recent documentary Dancing for the Dead: Funeral Strippers in Taiwan. Moskowitz told us about the societal role of EFC entertainers, who often perform their titillating trade in front of the bereaved family and neighborhood passers-by.

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In your experience, how common would you say it is for strippers to entertain at funerals? As Dancing for the Dead pointed out, other entertainers — like singers and musicians — are also hired to perform.

It’s not at all common for urbanites, but in rural settings, most people have seen these performances. Actual full stripping has gone underground because there were laws enacted against full nudity in the mid-Eighties, so that isn’t as popular as it once was. I didn’t see any full stripping — though it is likely that this was in part because they knew I was filming at that time — but almost everyone I spoke with had seen full stripping. Most people in Taiwan categorize both the strippers and the singers as one group — as Electric Flower Car performers — the only people I spoke with who made a clear delineation between strippers and singers were the performers and managers themselves.

On average, how raunchy do these funeral stripteases get? It seemed like some routines were more cabaret/burlesque style, whereas other dances were more salacious.

In general, what I witnessed was two stages of performance. One was in the equivalent of a miniskirt and a dress top that ranged from something you might see average people wearing on their way to a friend’s house to a bit more revealing. The second stage was inevitably bikinis. It’s absolutely true, though, some of the performers emphasized their singing ability whereas others gyrated in fairly risquÈ ways. The third stage, that of full nudity, is something that everyone I spoke with had seen, but since that is now against the law the performers were careful not to do that when I was filming.

What’s the strangest funeral striptease you’ve ever witnessed?

The two most surprising events both happened at celebrations for temple birthdays, not at funerals. On one occasion a performer walked into the audience to rub men’s crotches and on another occasion a performer went into the audience to give men a lap dance, sitting on their laps and pressing the men’s heads into her shaking breasts. I didn’t include either of these scenes in the film because there was no way of doing it without revealing the women’s identities and I didn’t want to get them in trouble with the law.

How did you come to study this particular cultural phenomenon?

My first book was on religion and my second book was on pop music, so in some sense this project combined these two interests. When I decided to make a documentary this seemed like a wonderfully visual practice that would work well in a film. I also became interested because the Chinese press almost always attacked the practice, but no one I spoke with really seemed to care all that much so there was an immediate issue to deal with there.

In the documentary, you mention that EFCs are associated with lower gods. Are there any particular deities that associated with stripping EFCs?

I don’t think there is a specific god that is associated with this practice, but you are absolutely right that it is in the domain of the lower gods. Lower gods are usually ghosts of real people who became gods because people worshipped them. Many of the higher gods were originally real people as well, but it happened centuries ago and these gods are more established. It’s generally thought that higher gods, like Guanyin or Matzu, are more moral but that lower gods have all the vices that real people have, such as gambling and womanizing. If someone wants to pray for things that help others, such as protecting one’s loved ones, one is more likely to ask a higher god for help. If one wants something that isn’t quite so moral, such as help with gambling or prostitution, then one might go to lower gods for this.

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