“And death shall have no dominion”~Dylan Thomas.
One of the beauties of being transplanted from one culture to another at an early age (as I was) is that you learn very early to walk the line between two worlds. And it doesn’t seem strange. Children who learn to speak one language in the home, and one language outside of it, can not only switch back and forth, but they recognize when and where each language is appropriate. For such children, that gift may be a curse. Children of immigrants find themselves with big responsibilities at an early age: translating for officials, dealing with finance matters, health matters and even the police. On the one hand their childhood is cut short, on the other they develop skills that may come in handy in their adult life.
We are all born with the ability to empathize, to mimic emotions, to mirror expressions. You can see it in babies who respond to their parents’ facial grimaces with their own smile, and are then rewarded by more smiles, and soon chuckles of laughter follow. Although toddlers initially are very egocentric and self-centered, you can see them showing sympathy, trying to console another crying child. Unfortunately, in dysfunctional family situations, that instinct can be crushed out and replaced with survival tactics and anger. But most of us grew up seeing loving examples of sharing and giving.
When my mother died two years ago, my two cultures came clashing together in my head and heart. We have all heard of the stiff upper lip of the British. They have the ability to power through emotionally tough times by ‘keeping calm and carrying on’. For the most part, funerals in England are a practical matter, the tidy conclusion of a life’s journey. When my grandmother died, (my father’s mother, and the only grandparent I had grown up knowing), my parents were still living in Jamaica. They felt no compulsion to fly back to Wales for the funeral. They had made an extra trip home to see her the previous summer, ‘when she was still alive’. That was when it mattered. I was in my last stretch of nursing school at the time, and I happily took my first day off (I had never called in sick in three years!) to drive with a few of my siblings to her funeral.
Growing up in Jamaica, and remaining centered in the Jamaican culture in my American life, for me funerals hold a different set of meanings. Anyone who has gone home to Jamaica for a funeral (and believe me, it would be hard to find any Jamaican living abroad who has never been home for a funeral) knows exactly what I mean. To Jamaicans a funeral is the opportunity to demonstrate to the larger community the significance of the person’s life. And it has become a cottage industry in its own right. Quite apart from the funeral homes (who offer packages complete with videography; keepsakes with a photo of your dearly departed; personalized caskets and way more) there are entrepreneurs who assemble their stalls wherever the mourners may gather. The ‘set-up’ or wake used to be a time of family and friends sitting watch over the body, singing ‘Sankey’ hymns and choruses, drinking and eating. Now it is a fully fledged concert with live music and the aforementioned stalls and sellers, with strangers flocking from far to participate and party.
I have attended many Jamaican funerals in this country also. And while they are nowhere near the fantastic affairs put on in Jamaica, they can still be a substantial event, delayed to allow for family and friends arriving from distant countries coming to show respect, to celebrate the life, to share memories. My mother died on Thanksgiving day two years ago. As a teacher, my vacation time coincides with school breaks, so I was not scheduled for vacation until the second week in December. My family in Wales were looking at an earlier date for the funeral. For me (the Jamaican part of my brain and heart) it was inconceivable that I would not go for the funeral. Yes she was already dead and would not know, yes I had seen her the previous Christmas, but I needed to be there. I had no desire to fly over for a few days, was there any way that they could delay until closer to my vacation time?
The compromise was made, and the Jamaicans made it to the funeral. Being a British funeral there was no ‘set-up’, in fact the burial preceded the funeral. There was no ‘viewing’ (my mother hated that Jamaican tradition, to her that was the ultimate invasion of privacy, to stare at a dead person when they were unaware!). There was no hymn-singing at the graveside, but there was rain and plenty of umbrellas! There was no rum and curried goat, but there was plenty of tea and sandwiches and cake at the repast which followed. Oh yes, and my ‘black cake’, that Jamaican Christmas rum-soaked traditional, so there was rum after all!
When we mix the best of two worlds, we bring new traditions into being. When we allow ourselves to appreciate the practices of another culture, it helps us to develop more empathy and understanding. When we challenge ourselves to allow others to ‘do their thing’ without judgment, but with acceptance, we help to spread unity in a divisive world.
Those of us who straddle two or more cultures have become adept at blending, at fitting in, while still holding a place in our hearts for our own beliefs. On this December Friday, as we approach another time of traditions and customs, I hope that your memories of loved ones keep you warm. But I challenge you to experience life through the eyes of someone who does not share your beliefs, I challenge you to try something different!
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!