Death and the Afro-Caribbean peoples

Life, birth and death are phenomena with particular significance in most ‘traditional’ cultures. They are often seen as happenings of mystery and hold for peoples in such cultures an aura of unexplainability and very often circumspection. Modern technological culture has greatly challenged the traditional views held in these areas. The entertainment and serious media have played a very important role here. The growth and popularity of science fiction has contributed further to the move away from the sanctity and mysticism these particular issues held and still hold for many of us. Today our young are exposed through science fiction and increasingly scientific exploration and research to life being achieved without due recourse to union between man and woman. At the same time death takes on the guise of immediate disappearance through processes of molecular disintegration with the familiar cry ‘exterminate exterminate’. This is in contrast to the traditions where death is treated as sacrosanct and a ritualised burial is accorded whatever the circumstances. In modern film and literature the use of laser guns and other such instruments of death do not make it necessary to bury the dead. The impression is therefore given that there is no pain or suffering in death and questions are thus raised about the value of life itself. This portrayal does not only challenge our traditional attitude to death, life and birth. It also challenges the philosophy upon which we have based how we come to conceptualise the reasons for birth, life and death.

Since I arrived in Britain many years ago as a young man from Trinidad it has always amazed me at the distant and unimpassioned way in which death is treated. The grief of the families immediately concerned did not seem to be similarly outwardly displayed as I had been accustomed. It seemed distant in the way that a funeral cortege invariably consisted of very very few people following in cars. It appeared to me to be somewhat of a mechanical end to a life which undoubtedly would have been full of human contact.

In this paper I want to look at death as a cultural phenomenon in the Caribbean community. Currently its attitude to death, although not totally changed, has to some extent been affected by migration from traditional West Indian rural communities to a technological society. Despite this outward manifestation of change there are still remaining vestiges and aspects of traditional West Indian culture surviving among the British Caribbean community

While preparing this paper I consulted a dear old friend who is also West Indian. He expressed the opinion that even in the Caribbean today, particularly where some technological changes are taking place, the attitude to death has in some ways changed from what it was when he was a boy and when I grew up in my village in Trinidad. He based this hypothesis on the expansion of the technologies involved in the treatment of the dead. These would include refrigeration which would make it possible to prolong the period between death and eventual burial. Additionally, embalming which would make it possible to retain the body of the departed one in a near natural, though lifeless, state for an indeterminable period. However, the purpose of this paper is not really to discuss what changes are taking place with regard to the treatment of death at the moment; instead it is to look at some of the traditional cultural ceremonies involved in death within the West Indian communities. Additionally, those cultural traditions will be related to the changes that have been forced on the West Indian community here in Britain because of their changed cultural circumstances.

Firstly, death and religion are closely related. All cultures have tended to evolve processes of religious rituals when getting rid of the dead. Additionally all religions have particular philosophies that underlie how their advocates conceptualise and treat death and the dead. In nearly all religions death is not seen as the absolute end of life. There appears to be a broad consensus that there is some further activity which occurs after death.

The Christian church consists of many sub-groups. The sub-groups look at what happens after death in different ways. Among most groups there is the belief that depending on the life or quality of life lived by the individual, life after death or such activities after death would involve further spiritual life in either ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’. Among members of the Catholic church the belief is that not only do we have both heaven and hell but there is also an additional area whereby an indecision of one’s placement would involve being ‘in limbo’. Other Christian groups that follow the Bible more strictly talk about the great ‘resurrection’ and the ultimate ‘eternal life’. Other religious and cultural groups also have philosophies which in different ways adhere to the principle of life after death. In some religio-cultural philosophies, life is a continuous cycle and death is only an interruption of life as portrayed in that particular form. It would go on to be materialised in another form. This is known as the process of reincarnation. Therefore many different groups in different ways believe that death is not the end of life but brings about the release of the spirit or soul from the body. For them death is merely that moment when the spirit passes to the next life of the spirit world.

In traditional Africa death formed an important aspect of their culture and religion. Those who were left behind were supposed to pay homage to the departed ancestors. The spirits of those departed were considered to be alive and constant among the living relatives. They were considered to be a continuing guidance to the rest of those who were alive and for this reason it was important that a departed ancestor was to be kept in sustenance. They were ritually fed and clothed. A communication from the living was maintained to keep them informed of what was happening in the family. They were never to be annoyed because this brought bad luck.

A majority of the people in the Caribbean are from an African background. They were introduced into the Caribbean as slaves primarily to maintain the sugarcane plantations. More recently East Indians were brought as indentured servants mainly to Trinidad and Guyana. The slaves were forcibly kept from retaining their culture and religion. Retaining their cultural ceremonies thus became a very secretive activity. At the same time elements among the Europeans suggested that they should be ‘subjected’ to Christianity. Over the years totally new syncretic cultures emerged, based on that of their masters and those aspects of African culture they were able to retain. Consequently a total African culture and religion were not completely retained. Despite the desperate attempt to denude them of their African heritage, many cultural and religious aspects of Africa were retained, at best in a recognisable African form and at worse as a totally new Afro-Christian amalgam. In religion this can probably best be demonstrated by the combination of Christian and African rituals that are found in places like Brazil with its Macumba, Trinidad with its Shango, and Haiti with its Voodoo. In many of these areas the ceremonies of burial also take on a mixture of Christian and African rituals.

In traditional Afro-Caribbean communities a very high premium is placed on age and the extended family/clan. Wisdom is closely associated with ageing as in African cultures. Death is also generally associated with age as well. It is not surprising therefore that death is treated with the dignity that is reserved for the aged. The old in such societies always have a place of supreme respect and reverence. Two factors are consequential from this particular observation as far as the Afro-Caribbean is concerned. Firstly, it is apparent to many Afro-Caribbeans in Britain and others from similarly inclined cultures that the same respect and reverence is not paid to the aged. Secondly, and following on from this, it is also apparent that death is not treated in the same way. There is apparently a mechanical distancing from death; it appears to be forgotten and has no part to play in the wider culture.

The inhibitions which so often surround death in Britain can appear strange to the Afro-Caribbean person who has been brought up in a tradition of family and community involvement in death and bereavement. In the Caribbean the family will wish to participate as much as possible in caring for the dying and the community will offer every possible support in the bereavement.

On the first night of the death a wake is held. This consists of an all night vigil involving members of the family and the community. There are special traditional activities which are done at wakes. The type of activities undertaken are determined by the social class of the bereaved family. The range of activities includes traditional games, wailing, hymn singing, prayers, dancing and drum beating. These activities take place in the house where the deceased is ‘laid to rest’.

Pound hand is one of the traditional games played at wakes. This game is normally not encouraged to be played elsewhere since it is believed to be concerned with death and if played can induce death. It is played with about nine stones. Limbo is one of the dances which is popular at wakes. It is generally an impromptu activity. A pole is held horizontally under which the dancer has to manoeuvre on the feet with the body arched backwards. The pole for dance may be a broomstick, or piece of thin bamboo or any other suitable pole that can be found in the vicinity of the place where the wake is held. The accompanying music is provided by knocking tin cans, pieces of bamboo or any available item that could be improvised as an instrument. Singing also accompanies the rhythms produced from the improvised instruments. In very traditional rural wakes a drum is used. In addition to the limbo there is also the Bungo dance. These particular aspects of the wake are vestiges of a former African religious heritage.

Earlier, on the day of the wake, the body of the deceased is washed and prepared by the family. She/he is then dressed in his/her best clothing and laid out on the bed. During the wake, friends and relatives file past the bed to have a last look at the departed person before the burial takes place during the following day. In many cases some personal possessions are destroyed after the funeral.

The religious and cultural aspects of death are very sensitive ones. In the Caribbean despite the lack of post-slavery religious homogeneity many elements of African culture are common throughout the area. The West Indian community in Britain is unable to retain these more traditional rituals appertaining to death as carried out in some parts of the Caribbean. However, there are still those values and attitudes retained in which the community extends all possible support to the bereaved family. It was pointed out in a recent report that the funeral arrangements of West Indian families expressed the Afro-Caribbean attitude to death and the need to involve the whole community. ‘The funeral is sometimes held on a Saturday so the maximum number can attend.’ The report went on to say ‘this may sometimes cause a problem and can need negotiation by the undertakers’.

Following the wake the corpse is buried. The funeral is seen as a farewell, almost a thanksgiving service because a loved one is ‘going home’. On some occasions relatives and friends will speak at the graveside; often relatives and friends will want to fill in the grave themselves. Public and often hysterical weeping may be observed. The funeral for the Afro-Caribbean people is a time at which all friends, neighbours, associates within an area would come together and support the final interment of the dead person. It therefore consists of an enormous procession of people who follow behind the hearse. In the Caribbean this procession is generally on foot. In addition to the foot procession there may be vehicles following as well. Like in other Christian funerals flowers bedeck the coffin and members of the procession walk along with their contributions of wreaths to the dead person. At the grave these wreaths would be placed by the various contributors. After the funeral relatives and friends will continue to support the bereaved. This community support will continue for some time afterwards. It may be such that an entire village may mourn the departure of the member of that community. For nine nights following the death prayers are said and on the ninth night a feast is held. This feast takes a very similar format to the wake. At the Nine Nights there will be singing, dancing, drinking and eating.

For the West Indian community in Britain death is still a rare occurrence. This is mainly due to the disproportionate number of young people in the community. However, as the years roll on many more of the community who came in the 50’s will suffer a higher mortality rate. Therefore death will increasinly become a significant occurrence in the West Indian community. It is hoped however that some aspects of the traditional Afro-Caribbean attitudes to death will be retained by the community. For most Europeans, although death is the only thing that one could be sure of, it is still grossly divorced from life and the living. For the black community this has not been the case in the Caribbean. Therefore it is envisaged that the dignity accorded the dead in the Caribbean will be retained within this new society where West Indians now find themselves.

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