BLACK HISTORY MONTH: The dearly departed 2
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 Thursday in February.
IN THE DAYS BEFORE funeral homes were popular, the body of the deceased remained at home after death and the funeral took place within one to three days, as there was no professional way of preserving the body.
It was also believed that the body “rises” on the third day and had to be buried by that time. The body was usually prepared for burial using different herbs and spices, and dressed in a night gown if it was a female, and pajamas if it was a male. From the 1980s the deceased was dressed in their “Sunday best”.
In Barbados before the 1990s coffins were not imported from overseas and were usually made locally. In St Vincent and the Grenadines this was also the case, as coffins were built at the home of the deceased or at a neighbouring furniture shop. Coffins were usually made with breadfruit wood which was easy to work with.
In Barbados as well as in St Vincent and the Grenadines, graves were dug on the morning of the funeral. In St Vincent and the Grenadines, villages usually had a group of men who performed this task. The task of grave digging has remained unchanged in both countries.
Unlike wakes, which are of an informal, unstructured nature, funerals follow a more formal structure with a series of planned activities and vary from religion to religion and also family to family. In St Vincent and the Grenadines funeral services were held at the home of the person if they did not belong to one of the established ecumenical churches, and the burial usually took place at the local cemetery.
The funeral services that were held at the home of the deceased were usually conducted by a Spiritual Baptist Pointer. The service usually consisted of singing, tributes to the dead and messages of comfort for the remaining family. Scriptures are also read throughout the service and the minister usually performs a homily.
In Barbados, as well as St Vincent and the Grenadines, funeral processions were very solemn. Processions were on foot with mourners walking behind the coffin which was being carried by six pall bearers who were usually males, related to the deceased or close friends. Selected hymns were sung and in some instances where the Spiritual Baptists conducted the funeral services, chants were used during the procession to the cemetery.
The body of the dead was usually taken to their home for the final visit as the procession proceeded to the cemetery – if their home was on the route. It is national law that the body of the dead be interred before 6 p.m. Cremation is not as popular as yet.
At the burial site there is usually a short service where hymns are sang and the body is lowered into the ground when a handful of dirt of thrown on the coffin/casket by the minister in charge with a lament of the phrase, “dust to dust, ashes to ashes”. This usually triggers an outburst of crying and wailing from the family of the deceased.
In recent times in St Vincent, the family and friends give assistance in covering the grave along with the grave-diggers and is finally adorned with lots of flowers and candles with a popular song: We Will Crown Him /Her With Roses being sung ending the proceedings. Young children were passed over the coffin or grave three times if the deceased was a close relative. This was believed to prevent the spirit from harming the child in anyway.
Funerals in Barbados occur more frequently in the morning now, however the majority of funerals take place in the afternoon as is the norm in St Vincent and the Grenadines. Morning funerals are very rare but occur if someone is of high profile and the family does not want the funeral to be a community event. Guests are usually invited to morning funerals in St Vincent and the Grenadines.
In Barbados, funerals take on a more solemn nature with little or no funeral processions on the streets. This is not the case in St Vincent and the Grenadines where funeral processions have become a traffic concern as more and more vehicles are on the roads. Processions usually occur at peak traffic hours and many mourners block the road and prevent the free movement of vehicular traffic.
The dress code for mourners in Barbados during the 20th century was strictly black, white or some shade of purple or a combination of colours. This was also the tradition in St Vincent and the Grenadines. Things have changed dramatically in the 21st century where any colour is worn to funerals.
In both countries, the traditions of wakes and funerals have changed over the years. Wakes in particular have lost most of the activities associated with it. There is hardly a gathering at the home of the deceased. In many cases, the family asks for privacy at their time of bereavement, especially after the funeral. Hence, the entire village is hardly involved as it was before.
Funerals have evolved from the sombre occasions to a more celebratory atmosphere. In the last 15 to 20 years funeral processions have taken on a carnival-like atmosphere when bands were introduced to “lively” things up. The National Police Band is usually hired to make the funeral more of a joyous celebration of the life of the deceased. Most people walked behind the funeral procession before the increase of vehicles in the islands. The procession followed a particular order with the hearse, followed by those who walked and the vehicles behind.
In both countries, the types of funeral services still vary according to the individual’s last wishes, the family’s wishes and religious beliefs among other things. Many persons send cards and wreaths to express sympathy. Many persons use the term R.I.P to send condolences to the family of the dead, but in recent years R.I.P has changed from meaning Rest In Peace, to Return If Possible.