Columns

What a way to go

LANCE NEITA

Sunday, June 08, 2014    

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A news report on Wednesday, June 4, in this newspaper had minister of labour and social security Derrick Kellier lamenting that funeral grants are eating so much into his rehabilitation support fund for vulnerable Jamaicans that he will have to seek a special budgetary provision from the finance ministry this year to tackle the problem.

As if that noise wasn't enough to wake the dead, we then read that Dr Ken Baugh, Opposition spokesman on health, suggested that the country contemplates more cremation of bodies as an alternative to burial, "because it is less dangerous to health and much cheaper".

Dr Baugh admitted that cremation was not culturally accepted among most Jamaicans, but then went on to postulate that "we have to consider making it acceptable, and maybe the MPs (members of parliament) can start the process by indicating their willingness to be cremated when they die, as it might give leadership to a decision like that being taken".

Now, Dr Baugh is one of the most respected parliamentarians in Jamaica, so I expected the next paragraph to add, or explain, that the good doctor spoke in jest, and had the House cracking up at his suggestion.

But the story ends there, and while I am sure that Dr Baugh was speaking tongue-in-cheek, we are left to think that the members took him seriously and are even now giving active consideration to the idea.

Well, rest in peace and blow me over. If our parliamentarians are to offer their remains as a selfless act of leadership in this manner, then what a way to go! Cremation may yet make it to the political platform as a sort of grandstanding strategy where candidates compete with each other as cultural change agents and on the basis of who will go first.

With their natural flair for publicity, we may even be invited to a public cremation or two in order to make a point.

Dr Baugh assumes that cremation is not popular among Jamaicans, but it is a growing practice and one leading mortician estimates that one in three persons express a preference for cremation, The overwhelming factor is money, as cremation can cost between $80,000 and $100,000, while a traditional service with burial can be anywhere between $250,000 and $350,000.

But Jamaicans love a good funeral, and that includes the wake and the singing, preparation of the body, the viewing, the service, and the final moments and haunting farewell around the graveside.

What we call a good funeral means, for many, a huge crowd, a large number of cars, an equally large quantity of food, and copious amounts of drinks.

My eyes were opened a few years ago when I attended a burial at a well-known cemetery. While the family members grieved, others displayed their sense of loss in the most extraordinary ways. For example, the vast and well-laid-out lawns seemed to have become a catwalk for the most daring and bizarre displays of fashion.

Vendors of ice cream, soft drinks, liquor, biscuits, and even curried goat and jerked chicken roamed the grounds peddling their wares without the slightest regard for the gravity of the occasion.

Funerals in Jamaica are a prized social event and Jamaicans will not allow cremation and the abrupt end to the activities as signalled by the departure of the hearse back to the funeral home for the flames, to prevail over the traditional rites of body burial.

The culture alluded to by Dr Baugh is rooted in a strong African-European custom which shepherds the body from the deathbed to the grave.

Implicit in all the ritual and ceremony is a determination to ward off evil spirits from interfering with the journey being taken by the departed one to his/her place of rest, and, at the same time, ensure that the duppy of the deceased is not encouraged to hang around and be a source of mischief for the bereaved family.

So, for example, when someone dies, it is a given that the furniture in the room will be re-arranged and positioned so that the duppy will not recognise the room.

Mirrors in a 'dead yard' house are immediately covered to ensure that the reflection of those alive are not captured and used by the departing ghost for any ulterior purpose.

In the old-time days before the popularity of professional funeral homes, there was always a local self-professed mortician in the village who would immediately repair to the 'dead yard' at the tolling of the bell to take up duties. In my village we called him Sam Isaacs, and he would stay locked in the room with the deceased for the two or three days before the funeral, opening the door only to let in slabs of ice to preserve the body, or to allow close family, usually no more than two males, who would do the final washing of the body.

If the deceased was a man, it was an earlier practice to cut out or sew up all the pockets in the burial suit in case the ghost came back with stones to throw at the house and make mischief.

Then, as the body leaves the home, the youngest child is passed over the casket to ensure protection, the room is swept out thoroughly and the body is taken out feet first, for the simple reason that if taken out the other way it will return to the room in later times.

Meanwhile, the grave-digging calls for other special rituals, most important the sprinkling and then the drinking of white rum. The exercise is accompanied by singing and grunting in harmony with the swing of the pickaxe and shovel, and what starts out as a sober operation can easily end up as a merry exercise.

The white rum is shared with any spirits that may be hovering around the grave to whom the leader will "ask pardon, but move outta me way".

The wake, the nine-night, the set-up or the singing, takes centre stage the night before the burial. Young people attending a singing nowadays are not aware that they are participating in ceremonies and customs with honoured African and European backgrounds.

It was the belief of African slaves that a dead person took nine days to rest, and so the ninth night of mourning, or the night before the funeral, is a grand occasion for a proper send-off. To many, this is the sweetest part of the rites as it comes with free food, liquor, dominoes, story telling, riddles, coffee, fried fish and hard dough bread.

The singing of the sankeys is led by a 'tracker' who belts out the lines for the crowd to follow in various chords of harmony, some wailing that "From night come me no get no coffee, me a go tear down the booth and go home".

Again, I was surprised a few years ago to find that sound systems, live bands and dancing have taken over from the tracker and the traditional set-up has become party time.

Fortunately, casual behaviour and flippancy are not the norm. Our churches insist on the highest standards of dignity and reverence. For the most part, the church service itself has been left sanctified and genuine mourners get a chance to worship, reflect, and give thanks for the life celebrated.

For Christians, it is a time to draw on the inner strength nourished by faith and hope in the resurrected Christ.

Both Mr Kellier, Dr Baugh, and members of the House, will be stuck for a long time to come with requests to help bury, and not cremate, the dead. Funerals, from the deathbed to the grave, are a way of life in this country.

Members of parliament can rest in peace; cremation is an example they will not have to set. Just keep in mind this epitaph which a politician left on his tombstone:

"Remember man, as you walk by

As you are now, so once was I

As I am now, so shall you be

Remember this, and follow me"

Whereupon some wit tags on an extra note;

"To follow you I'll not consent

Until I know which way you went."

Lance Neita is a public relations and communications specialist. Comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com

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