What to do when they're dead in...

What to do when they're dead in...


Thursday, June 13, 2019

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Yow, Jamaicans grieve different, enuh!” This was the somewhat annoyed utterance from a radio talk show host in reaction to the newspaper headlines that some Jamaicans were aggrieved that there would not be an open casket viewing for prominent and revered former political leader and Prime Minister Edward Seaga, whose body would lie in state at various points across the island.

“Jamaicans are obsessed with viewing the dead!” he continued, noting how many times in the past, his fellow countrymen had been upset at not being allowed to view a body at the final farewell, no matter how gruesome a passing the person may have endured.

His comments brought back a flood of conversations I have had with my own friends in recent years on the rather morbid subject of the treatment of the deceased and funeral rites, etc. The most recent memory was of a Trinidadian friend who, in the midst of his sorrow at the passing of his father earlier that day, was able to chuckle when I asked about the date of the funeral. It would be very imminent he assured me, “because you know we don't keep the dead long like you all”. I smiled in response, recalling our conversations in the past when we had discussed how Trinidadians were appalled at the sometimes very long gap of time between the death of a Jamaican loved one and the funeral.

While in our Jamaican culture the funeral of a loved one will be scheduled for anywhere between two weeks to a month after the passing (because we absolutely must wait on every distant relative, twice removed by marriage and living in some far-flung corner of the Earth to put their house in order and travel back to the island to pay their last respects), Trinidadians by contrast are mortified (no pun intended!) at the thought of the body getting “stale” during all that time. In their culture, three to four days after the passing is just about acceptable, a week outrageous, and the time lag often observed by Jamaicans, well, absolutely unthinkable!

My first inkling that we Caribbean people didn't all treat with death and the rites and procedures surrounding it in the same way had come a few years earlier when I sat with Barbadian relatives to plan the funeral announcement of my late father. The announcement for the Jamaican newspapers, short and as sweet as an announcement of that nature can be; the announcement for the Barbadian press, well, let's just say it mentioned just about everyone in several generations of the bloodline, save the family pets.

A few years later, attending the funeral of a relative in Barbados, my sister and I were surprised to learn that the family formed a receiving line at the entrance to the church as mourners streamed in for the funeral. We had not previously encountered this practice, accustomed as we were to the Jamaican tradition where, on arrival at the church, the family proceeds straight to their seats at the front of the church, and mourners, if they so wish, can approach them there to express a quick word of sympathy. In the Jamaican case, the receiving line, as it were, usually becomes a large untidy cluster of people around various family members outside of the church at the end of the service.

Thrown in the situation, my sister and I adjusted quickly to the Barbadian protocol. The tradition, we had noticed on previous visits to Barbados, of identifying and “contextualising” yourself when meeting new people was, we realised, as important in death, as it was in life. So we found ourselves automatically doing a quick synopsis of the family tree and our connection to the deceased in response to the quizzical looks we received as we introduced ourselves.

One Caribbean, different cultures

The talk show host's comment also triggered the memory of another discussion; this time with an expat from Europe with whom I had done cross-cultural training as he settled into Jamaica a few months back. He was scheduled to attend the funeral of a relative of one of his Jamaican work colleagues and wanted to know the protocol surrounding the Jamaican ceremony. Having briefed him on appropriate dress, what to expect, and a few do's and don'ts, he recalled attending a funeral while residing in another European country.

Accustomed to the strict protocol and solemnity that surrounded such occasions in his own country, he was somewhat miffed to encounter what he perceived as several don'ts in his host country. The scenario he described was more of a social gathering — with people popping in and out of the church for a chat and a smoke in the churchyard. Even though he was recounting this story years later, I could tell that his sensibilities were almost as equally offended by that casual approach as that of the Trinidadians at the thought of a body getting “stale”.

One Europe, different cultures

Death is a given in any culture, but how we treat with it is not. If you are living in a foreign country and must interact with individuals in the context of a death, or a final farewell, it is wise to do some quick research and consulting as to what is appropriate and expected. Here are a few things to think about:

• Depending on how close you were to the deceased, or to a loved one of the deceased, find out whether it is appropriate to visit the family in the days immediately following the death. If you do visit with them, are you expected to bring anything? In Jamaica, for example, it is perfectly okay to bring some type of food or drink with you, knowing that there will be a constant stream of people passing through.

• If you visit, how long should you stay? Should you bring a card or flowers? If the latter, keep in mind that in some cultures there is a whole code and protocol around flowers as it relates to death (colour, type of flowers, etc)

• If there is a wake, are you expected to attend? If you do attend, what will happen at the wake? (Truthfully, I am yet to attend a Jamaican wake and, from all accounts, I'm missing out on a most culturally rich event!)

• If attending the funeral, how should you dress, and what should you expect? In Jamaica, the expectations of the funeral can vary significantly depending on a number of factors, including how prominent and popular the person was, as well as the denomination of the church. A popular or prominent person will likely have numerous tributes, so already that tells you it will be a long service. The funeral is also likely to be attended by many people, so you may want to get there early to secure a comfortable seat. Some denominations keep it short and sweet, other denominations observe long services with lots of singing and other rituals, so find out a bit about the church and prepare yourself accordingly.

• Is it acceptable to leave before the service ends? In Jamaica it is not uncommon for individuals to slip out before the service ends, particularly if it's a long one. It is understood that people may have busy schedules, or multiple conflicting events, but the gesture of having come even briefly to pay your respects is appreciated.

• Are you expected to go to the graveside?

• Will there be a repast after the service, and are you expected to attend?

• The rituals will also vary depending on religion. For example the final rites may take place in a mosque or a temple or other place of worship with a particular set of traditions and protocols surrounding the ceremony and the laying of the body to rest. If you do not practice, or are not familiar with the religion of the deceased, then you will want to be particularly mindful to ensure that you are respectful of their traditions.

These are only a few tips, but there are multiple other things you should take into consideration to be sure that you make the correct observances and do not offend the bereaved and others at a particularly sensitive time.

As in all things cross-cultural, do not be afraid to ask questions of someone who is in the know and/or from the host culture, and be sure to observe the correct level of respect and understanding in death just as you would in life.

Janet Crick is a cross cultural trainer and consultant who has lived in three continents and visited over 40 countries. She is also the co-founder of Jamaica Culinary Tours. Send comments to the Observer or janais2000@gmail.com.

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