“Yow, Jamaicans grieve different enuh!” (Jamaicans grieve differently you know).
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 a prominent and revered former political leader 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 2 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 itmentioned 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 persons around various family members outside of the church at the end of the service.
Thrown into 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 “contextualizing” yourself when meeting new persons was, we realized, 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 from persons streaming into the church.
One Caribbean…..different cultural practices.
The Talk Show’s host 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 persons popping in and out of the church for a chat and a smoke in the church yard. 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 cultural practices.
Death is a given in any culture, but how we treat with it is not. In my next blog I will offer some recommendations as to how to treat with some of the protocols surrounding this sensitive subject from a cross-cultural perspective.
Until then, here’s some lighter food for thought from a Jamaican proverb which says:
“Weh nuh dead, nuh call him duppy!”
Literal meaning: “If something is not dead, don’t call it a ghost.”
Translation: “Never underestimate people, even when they are down”. Or more simply, “Where there is life, there is hope!”