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BLACK HISTORY MONTH: The dearly departed


HAKEEM SMART

BLACK HISTORY MONTH: The dearly departed

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This month, THE NATION will be bringing a number of articles in celebration of Black History Month, written by students from the Visual And Performing Arts Division of the Barbados Community College. They will appear every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in February.

RESEARCH SHOWS THAT MANY COUNTRIES in the Caribbean share similarities with the rituals of death.

Funerals and wakes have been traditional after the death of a loved one, dating back to the slave era, as a celebration of the life of the dead and departure of their spirits to the afterlife. To ensure that they rested peacefully, elaborate celebrations were held in their honour. This article seeks to investigate the traditions of funerals and wakes, their similarities and differences in Barbados and St Vincent and the Grenadines.

A wake can be defined as an informal and unstructured social gathering or vigil, associated with the death of someone, and begins on the first night after the death, and traditionally takes place at the house of the deceased. It is also defined as a viewing as many persons came to view the deceased’s body.

The length of the period for the wake depends on the preferences of the family and can last from three to 40 days. As the name wake suggests, those taking part in it were expected to stay awake throughout the night until morning when they returned to their homes before they came again to continue it.

From the interviews conducted, it appears that wakes are not as popular in Barbados as they are in St Vincent and the Grenadines where they are also referred to as a “set-up”. It is an important community or village event with many gathering at the home of the deceased.

Before the availability of funeral homes, the body remained at home for no longer than three days until the funeral, and many people came to see it. The first night was usually very solemn as the family was usually in the height of mourning. People casually sat around, talked and comforted one another, sang special hymns and prayed.

In both islands, people who came to the home usually made contributions of food items such as rice, flour, oils and dried meats which were prepared throughout the nights of the wake. There was also an abundance of other food and beverages including bread, buns, coffee, cocoa, ginger beer and alcohol – which was usually in the form of strong rum – to keep celebrants awake throughout the nights of the wake. In some instances, those who could afford gave money to the family.

The second night of the wake was called Nancy or Anansi Story Night where stories were told about the adventures of Brer Anansi, Brer Rat, Compere Lion and the devil. Dramatisations were often used to spice up the stories and make them funnier and more dramatic. This night involved the playing of card games, dominoes and other ring games, especially if there was moonlight. 

“Third Night” was slightly different from the first two. It was believed that the spirit of the dead had reached its final destination. This was usually the night prior to the funeral, which took the form of a prayer meeting with the singing of hymns and prayers being said for the soul of the departed and his surviving family.

At the fourth to eighth nights of the wake, the activities were usually identical to those of the previous nights and involved a combination of singing, prayers, games and storytelling, with food and drinks being prepared and served throughout the night.

The first nine nights of the wake were collectively referred to as “Nine Nights”, with the final one probably the most important.

There was more food and drinks than on the previous nights and more people attended. It was a larger prayer meeting than on the third night, and was referred to as “Praise Night” or simply “Praise”.

For this special night, a large tent was erected in the yard of the deceased, with a head table for those who would lead the night’s proceedings, with chairs and benches to accommodate those attending.

The Spiritual Baptists, or “Shakers” as they are called, usually played an important role in the celebration of wakes on the ninth night, with the Pointer leading the activities. In many cases this was usually repeated on the 40th night after the death, and in some instances, repeated yearly on the anniversary of the death. The majority of activities during the nights have decreased considerably in both islands over the years.

In the early days, before there were radio stations, there were no public announcements. In Barbados when someone died the death was spread by word of mouth from one villager to another, while in St Vincent and the Grenadines there was usually a male, a representative from the village, who volunteered to be the “crier”. He walked around and announced the death from door to door and other villages joined in to spread the news.

There was also a distinctive ringing of the bells of churches that signalled someone had died in St Vincent and the Grenadines. This tolling was very different and distinct from than which announced church services.

However, when radio stations became popular in the early 1970s, death announcements became part of public information and this is still the tradition today in both countries. The obituaries provided information about the funeral, when and where it would be taking place, and other pertinent details of the proceedings.

Part II will appear in the MIDWEEK NATION.

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