Jamaica’s Funeral Culture: What’s Not to Love?

January 26th, 2018

This was the funeral of an alleged gang leader. It was particularly high profile and jumped straight to the headlines, because it took place soon after a State of Public Emergency had been declared for St. James; and this was in St. James. Tragically, one man was killed and five other participants were injured. The scene was chaotic; the police seemed to have been caught off guard.

In the fetid atmosphere of criminality, distrust and fear that we have created around us, this was another confirmation of our collective paranoia. Of course, fear creates more fear; it is contagious.

This was not the first “shoot up at a funeral” scenario in recent times. Last December, gunmen opened fire at the funeral of a young vendor, who had been stabbed to death during an argument in downtown Kingston. Incidentally, the shooting immediately tainted the deceased as a criminal, an accusation that his sister strongly denied. On that occasion, three were killed and three injured.

Older Jamaican ladies like to wear hats at funerals. Black and white is always a popular colour combination.

Older Jamaican ladies like to wear hats at funerals. Black and white is always a popular colour combination. Dressing up for a funeral is a naturally Jamaican thing to do.

However, I wondered about some reactions to the incident in Quarry, St. James, which that blood was spilled on the ground. I saw on social media, and heard on the radio, highly disapproving comments about the funeral itself. It was “no expense spared.” The deceased was placed in a white coffin, with “windows” in it, through which one could perceive his whole body, dressed in an immaculate white suit. All the attendees were wearing white, some with pictures of the dead man on T shirts. Somehow, this was reprehensible – such a display of vulgarity, at the funeral of a “bad man”!

The windowed casket on wheels, drawn by a car, in Quarry.

The windowed casket on wheels, drawn by a car, in Quarry.

Yes, it was a “bling” funeral. So what?

Jamaicans have a strong funeral culture. There is no denying this. Funerals are celebrated with more fervour, emotion – and style – than the average wedding. It matters not who the deceased is. Or, perhaps it does.

And funerals, whether uptown or downtown, city or country, have certain elements in common. Jamaican funerals are generally lengthy; there is a fairly long prelude, where congregants assemble, perhaps view the body if the casket is open. During the service, there is a point where the pace slows, and the final prayer seems far away in the distance. I have often felt, when attending funerals, that people really were reluctant to leave as they said goodbye to their loved one. This I can understand, fully. There has to be music, too: singing (by whomever wishes to sing, including family members, friends, mourners). Most importantly, people dress up for funerals.

Allow people to grieve. It matters not what they wear, or how they express themselves.

Allow people to grieve. It matters not what they wear, or how they express themselves.

In short, people don’t like a shabby funeral; they will spend as much as they can afford, obviously, but in general they put their best foot forward and try to give their loved one a good send-off. Whether that person was a sweet old lady or a less than virtuous young man; whether that person died violently, or peacefully in his/her bed, one must put on a good show.

What I am trying to say is this. The real reason why some Jamaicans were so highly disapproving seemed to have nothing to do with the fact that a murder took place there. It was that the funeral procession itself was in such poor taste. Tut, tut! That open coffin! The white suit! The glorification of yet another murdered gangster (alleged)! Those people should have been ashamed of him, and buried him quietly. After all, he was just another young man from the “ghetto.”

Perhaps, after all, the judgmental comments were based on the fact that these were not your well-heeled Jamaicans (who equally dress up “to the nines” for funerals). Another recent high profile funeral comes to mind: that of the admired journalist Ian Boyne, which lasted several hours. Mr. Boyne’s bereaved daughter wore a long black dress embroidered with photographs of her father. Was this any less “over the top” than the average inner-city funeral?

The sister of murder victim Romaine Whyte, 30, whose funeral was marred by a shooting last year, mourns his passing. Another young man is dead. (Photo: Jamaica Star)

The sister of murder victim Romaine Whyte, 30, whose funeral was marred by a shooting last year, mourns his passing. Another young man is dead. (Photo: Jamaica Star)

She was mourning, in their own way, as everyone should be allowed to. A funeral is, after all, a ritual farewell, a celebration of a life that has ended. For a sadly growing number of Jamaicans living in less prosperous communities that life is often, in the words of Thomas Hobbes:

“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

All the more reason, perhaps, for an elaborate farewell, to make up for the brevity of that life.

Yes, Jamaicans love funerals. So, let us allow people to express themselves exactly as they wish to, on such occasions – whoever is lying in the coffin. Grief is universal, and at such times we are all reminded of our mortality; especially, perhaps, many of the young men in Quarry, St. James, in their white T shirts.

 

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4 Responses to “Jamaica’s Funeral Culture: What’s Not to Love?”

  1. Gary Nelson says:

    Killing people is in fashion now. So sad.

  2. EmmaLewis says:

    So, where do we go from here?

  3. Namie says:

    Funeral culture and murder culture goes hand in hand.

  4. EmmaLewis says:

    Well, I can’t agree with you there.