“Boss Lady, I can go to Nassau for a funeral on Saturday?” “Of course Rissy, I am so sorry, was it a close family member?” “No, no one I knew”
Funerals, in the Caribbean, are not just a time for grieving, they are the best show in town, they are grand social events. Funerals are theater, with alternating frenzies of exaltation and fits of tribulation.
New clothes are invested in, musicians are hired, politicians fly in for never ending eulogies and no expense is spared. Which is why they take up the best part of a day. Which is why they are held on a weekend. Which is why Rissy needs to take the day off.
Raymond, a friend and respected member of our local community died recently and unexpectedly. He was young. His funeral was well attended.
David and I arrived early, a crowd had already gathered, not wanting to miss a moment. Badges were handed out, Raymond’s beaming face blazoned upon it. Most of the men wore Raymond tee shirts. The funeral director, sweating in polyester white gloves and black trilby hat grandly showed us to the front. David had been asked to say a few words. We passed the open coffin. Raymond lay peacefully inside, his head on a satin cushion, dressed in his Sunday best. The coffin gleaming, gilt handles shining. Brightly colored plastic wreaths resting at the foot, beside Raymond’s hammer and saw, the signs of his carpentry career.
An electric, five-piece band played, guitar and tambourines beating out.
David and I sat neatly side by side. English and tight lipped. The church filled. Its seams bursting, chairs scraped as extra chairs were brought in and unfolded. Family members arrived. Children were heaved onto laps to make more room. A large lady in a black and white polka dot dress, staggering under her grief, was ushered in beside me. A second lady arrived in the same dress. Oh dear I thought. When a third and fourth followed it dawned on me. Spots were the theme. Funeral ‘theme’s’ is the new trend. Hysterical crying began, the sisters and aunt’s so overcome with sadness would be dragged to their seats by uncles and brothers. Such was the mayhem that shoes were kicked off and lost in the crush, one sister fell to her knee’s sobbing uncontrollably, her body writhing back and forth, up and down, arms failing. Someone tried to lift her, the coffin rocked precariously, the funeral director rushed forward to steady Raymond. The lid was closed, missing shoes found, boxes of Kleenex handed out and the band came to a stop.
The revered took to the microphone and in an impressive shout began the fire-and brimstone service. Preachers, priests, evangelists, pastors and brothers followed. A funeral service in the Caribbean lasts for at least several hours.
People come and people go. Family members leave the church for a little break, children snore on wooden pews, fans whir endlessly over head, the audience participates “Oh yes Loooorddd, take our son and raise him from the dead, ooooh yesss, Loooorrrddyy, Lordy, Lordy” The rock band warms up again and the congregation stand, hips begin to swing, hands clap, children continue to snore. A gospel song, with well-worn words, drifts out to the crowd on the street, a trumpet joins in, more hands clap and the ladies begin to dance. Hallelujah.
I think back to my father’s funeral. A masterpiece of design, carefully crafted by the master himself, before he left us. Held in the charming church we had all been christened in, set in the shadows of a perfect English village. Also over subscribed, the congregation spilt outside into the dusty grave yard. No one made a murmur. No one stampeded the coffin, there were no plastic badges of my father’s face. We softly sang ‘Abide With Me’ The service ran for a clipped hour. Afterwards the crowd quietly walked into a gentle grey drizzle, back to their cars.
Coming out from Raymond’s funeral, into the dazzling hot sun the Junkanoo band stuck up, cymbals clashed, whistle’s blew, tom-tom drums beat, the coffin was laid onto a trailer, cover in coloured crepe paper and tricked up with silver and gold glitter. The traditional procession around town began, dancing polka dots and black suits paraded proudly behind Raymond.
“Up From The Dead He Arose” We sang at the tops of ours voices, as we approached the graveyard.
I had stood there just a year earlier. With Wesley, our foster child. I had watched, powerless, as the body of his mother was lowered into the ground and Wesley screamed and clawed at her coffin. But the band played on ‘Our Kingdom Come, Oh Happy Lord’ And the sun shone and the orange plastic wreaths never wilted. Never faded. Never died.