Dancing on Graves

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 30

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As I write this, Japan is in the grip of Rugby fever; by the time you read this, there is a good chance that Japan will have advanced to the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup.  It’s been a hell of a ride so far.  Japan has put itself at the center of world sports (again) and (again) has shown that they are excellent hosts.  So much so that the consensus among the international community has been that it would be great to see Japan take the whole shebang, even if that costs <my> country the championship.  In short, there has been a lot of fellowship and love of sport even among nominal rivals that is, frankly, heartening to see.

But I’m not here to talk about that.

Instead, I’m going to make a one-eighty and talk about an idiom that’s been on my mind for a while:  to dance on someone’s grave.  I’m not sure where I first heard it, but I remember being young enough that I had to ask what it meant.  The answer was simple:  to be very happy that someone has died.  So, imagine that.  Your most bitterly hated enemy has kicked the bucket.  Your reaction is not to express sympathy or remorse.  Instead, you saunter down to the graveyard, cackle madly at the grave misfortune* they have suffered, and dance a jig, possibly while shouting insults into the earth below you.

But let’s back up.  I don’t have clear memories of anyone actually using the idiom so nakedly.  What I do have (in the dusty attic that is my memory) are two different songs that reference the idiom without using the idiom, and, as we all know by now, I’m a sucker for that sort of thing.

Without a Trace by Soul Asylum:

I tried to dance at a funeral

New Orleans-style

I joined the Grave Dancers Union

I had to file

Tramp the Dirt Down by Elvis Costello:

That's when they finally put you in the ground

I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down

It should go without saying that these are very, very different songs and the way they reference dancing on graves is likewise very different.  Starting with the latter, Costello’s song is a flat out attack on former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  Suffice it to say, the character or perspective of the song sees Thatcher in a less than positive light.  Laying out the political actions and subsequent results of Thatcher’s tenure, the narrator then states the above refrain as a final gesture of contempt and loathing.  It is how the phrase “dance on your grave” was meant to be used and I include it here to show how severe it can be.

In direct contrast, Soul Asylum’s song treats grave dancing as a joke, just one more thing the singer has attempted and yet failed to do.  In New Orleans, funeral processions are often somewhat joyous (without actually being happy) affairs and mourners often dance along the route to the cemetery so they can send the deceased off with style.  The image then, of wanting to participate, but needing to first show a union card falls in line with the rest of the song’s lyrics -

try to do the right thing, play it straight

the right thing changes from state to state

to show how there is never a right answer.  Everything is always in flux and no matter how you try, you’ll never get it right.  Happy thoughts (/sarcasm/), but nothing to do with being happy that an enemy has died.

It was actually hearing the song “Without a Trace” by chance on a Spotify playlist that put me in mind of this idiom; I’ve been thinking about the phrase a lot this past week as I’ve been watching the rugby matches.  I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of people throughout my life and as much as I can say as I haven’t like all of them, I don’t really think I’ll be dancing on any graves either.  And, with any luck, no one will dance on mine.

*Sorry, not sorry.

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It’s hard to pin down an exact definition because the phrase itself is so malleable. Search “dance on your grave” or “dance on his grave” or “dance on one’s grave” and you’ll get different results. However, all definitions agree on two things: Someone is dead, and someone else is happy about it. Nuances arise in whether the speaker is happy that the other person is no longer around, or happy because the other person has fallen or been disgraced somehow in their death.

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Notable Events of 1992:

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The 7 Song Playlist: Running

Going back through some old mixtapes, I was a little disturbed to realize how many songs were about running away. Here are seven of the most enduring ones:

Next time: Grave spinning. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.