“The present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell”
~Zora Neale Hurston.
Jamaica is a land of contradictions. It is however a special place, with unexpected beauty, and a people of unsurpassed talent. You may only get a glimpse of this if you stay securely inside an all-inclusive resort, sneaking out of the gates in an air-conditioned bus to a controlled tourist destination. If, however, you are blessed to have friends and family who live there, you can be sure that you will have an experience which will leave you with bright images flashing at the periphery of your vision, long after you have tearfully left the island.
A funeral is not supposed to be a pleasant occasion. It brings with it a host of mixed emotions and regret. But when you see your American kids immersed in the country culture of their forefathers, coping with raw raw patois of country folks and the icy cruelty of a country bath, you feel a glow of pride. And when you see your American grandkids loving the freedom of a Jamaican yard, running up and down freely in the red dirt of Mocho, while avoiding the goats and chickens and so many dogs, you are thankful that they have the connections to their grandfather, even after he’s gone.
The traditions of old Jamaica live on, although they have been corrupted by capitalistic entrepeneurs. What used to be a gathering of friends, family and community the night before the funeral (the setup, similar to a wake), with ‘refreshments’ and a capella singing of Ira D. Sankey hymns, is now a catered affair, with entertainment (you must have a band). And the bereaved family prepares food and drink for those who come from far and wide, who knows if they even know the name of the deceased! But the twist I hadn’t run into before was the appearance of vendors, cars with goods and stalls which are set up at the gate of the ‘dead house’, the home of the deceased. I was taken aback, but soon realized that this not only took the burden of the family to provide for the visitors, it also was a source of income. Perhaps it would help to feed a family, or send a child to school.
That is an all-night affair for those who can hang. The author quoted above, Zora Neale Hurston, was a Harlem Renaissance writer. She traveled around the South and collected folk tales, striving to preserve the oral history of her people. Many have read her classic (or seen Oprah’s movie version on TV) ‘Their eyes were watching God’ about the trials of post Emancipation black folk living in Florida. She also traveled to the Caribbean, to Jamaica and Haiti to collect oral traditions specific to death. She interviewed many people to capture the quaint and unusual rites associated with burial, and spirits and funerals. She learned about the way bodies were prepared, including the judicious placement of pins and needles in the shoes of the dead, to make sure they did not try to stand up and walk away! The book is entitled ‘Tell my horse’ if you are interested. It is noteworthy not only for the portrayal of the death rites, but also for the peek into Jamaican culture at the time. She was a woman visiting the home of a middle class Jamaican family, the husband could not understand why she was sitting down asking him questions when she could have been in the kitchen fixing his dinner! (no comment!)
My father encountered a funeral tradition up in the hills of Clarendon. I have shared this story before, and not many Jamaicans are aware of it. In some communities, whenever the body of the deceased is transported, it must be carried three steps forward, two steps back. This is another tradition designed to confuse the spirit of the deceased I believe. You know, duppy (Jamaican name for ghosts) are not good at counting, so they get so absorbed in trying to keep up with the numbers that they forget about chasing you! This tradition of inching forward, dropping back, can even be accomplished by the vehicle carrying the coffin, though very annoying for the traffic which builds behind on country roads!
The story my father loved to tell was of the man from Kingston who attended a country funeral where they followed this tradition, though of course he knew nothing of it. He volunteered to be a pall-bearer, and afterwards told my father: “Parson, that man did not want to be buried. Every so we carry him forward, is so he pull we back!” I don’t know if my father enlightened him, or with his little grin, allowed the man to believe in the force of the dead man’s spirit.
In honoring the dead we honor the line from which they are descended, the roots that gave them life. And we see the spirit transported forwards, in the bodies of the grandchildren and great-nephews and nieces. And so it is possible to take comfort in the knowledge that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, that even when forms change, essence lives on. Even after the vessel has disappeared, the message can be transmitted forward. Even when the voice is silenced, the stories can be retold, and laughter can be heard echoing from beyond the grave.
So if you get a chance, participate in a real Jamaican country funeral. Sit up with the family and friends the night before, drink some goat-head soup, stomp your foot with the lively death defying band. Dress in your traditional Sunday best to go to the church on the side of a hill, with a view of verdant hills beyond (flame tipped blue mahoe trees dotting the landscape). Feel the cool breeze touch your skin as clouds gather to bless the burial. Slide down the red mud hillside to catch a glimpse of the coffin as it sneaks into its final resting place. Join the chorus singing mourners as they shed another tear or two. Eat a curried goat dinner before you head back to your first world house, leaving the third world behind you.
My family and I are grateful for all of the love and support shown to us on our trip to Jamaica, we were blessed in so many ways. But the healing began with participating in a time honored Jamaican country-style celebration of life.
Have a fantastic weekend family! We will continue the celebration as we hold a (delayed) Nine Night (another tradition) for Kojo tomorrow night. Make a joyful noise!