Thu | Jan 18, 2018

Daniel Thwaites | Dead tired of burial bling!

Published:Sunday | March 26, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Expensive chariots are common fare at funerals in Jamaica, even among poor families.

I picked up the newspaper this Friday morning and saw a splendid story titled 'Stop wasting money on expensive burials'. It began:

"Chief executive officer of COK Sodality Co-operative Credit Union Limited, Ambassador Aloun Assamba, wants Jamaicans to stop wasting money on lavish burials for family members and relatives and, instead, channel their hard-earned savings into improving the education of their children and quality of life for themselves."

Lawd! Good luck with that! Aloun is going up against an entrenched and well-developed system with this appeal. I don't think it has much chance of success, but as a believer in lost causes, and for whatever little it's worth, I want to get in on begging for a cultural review.

Perhaps the mandarins up at the university can formulate a think tank or something like that. We need them to go beyond the ordinary thing of telling us how deeply significant and historical all these funeral rituals are, but to also advocate for modification of this culture.

After all, culture is not static, and as in everything else, some practices are superior to others. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that our practice of throwing vast sums of money at funerals isn't a sensible, sustainable, or particularly useful social custom.

Of course, having been a practising politician, Ambassador Assamba would have known about the cost of funerals very intimately from another perspective. Even dignified and proud people who would otherwise refuse to come cap in hand retire their reserve and bring out the begging bowl when the social pressure to arrange a lavish funeral for a loved one falls upon them.

The story continued: "Ambassador Assamba also disclosed that her stance against expensive burials was informed by her tenure as member of parliament for South East St Ann, which proved to be quite a learning experience. 'People used to come to me to bury their family, and then I would say to them, 'But why you spending all a dat money fi somebody who dead already'?"

By the way, I want to be clear that I'm in support of all the social preparation and elaborate preparation for mourning in the community when a loved one dies. It builds community. My friends tell me that in St Mary and St Ann, grave-digging is a developed ceremony all on its own. And, of course, there's the nine-night, of which so much has been written.

Thankfully, the nine-nights are nowadays being telescoped into one night, so the commitment has become less burdensome. I mean, nine-nights is a big commitment, probably more than even the average romantic relationship in these times.


Another positive development is the emergence of professional mourners. I am told that there are womenfolk who will turn up at the assigned time and weep mildly for a fee. For an enhanced fee, they can whimper loudly. If you step up de money, you can get sustained cow-bawling. At the top level, you can buy rolling in the dirt and dropping in the open grave, but being a religious and superstitious people, that is going to cost a pretty penny.

The time commitments of these funerals can really become overwhelming, and I know of older people who complain about this. The fact is that if you have had a reasonably active social life, you could well spend your latter years just attending funerals and the attendant ceremonies. So we have to scale it back so that people can get back to some living in between the constant merry-go-round of funerals.

While we're on this topic, I may as well raise an issue that bothers me even more than the excessive funeral expenses. This is the business of the innumerable and interminable 'tributes' that have become part of our funeral culture.

It isn't uncommon for funerals now to have upwards of two or three dozen tributes. Think about that! And if they declare the floor 'open', prepare to be there a while.

Typically, there are a few tributes from the family in Jamaica, a few more from the family overseas, another couple from the close friends, a bunch from the recent work colleagues, a smattering from the past work colleagues, a sprinkling of tributes from the old primary-school peers, one or two from high school, a bucketful from the college years, a dozen or so from church brothers and sisters, and last, but not least, a tribute or two from the drunk guy who just happened to be passing by. It's out of control.

I'm told - seriously - that there are sometimes tributes from people who didn't know the person, but who take the microphone to speak about how nice the deceased must have been.


Anyone receiving three dozen tributes I can only assume was the president of the United States of America, founder of some earth-shattering movement, or a multibillionaire who systematically donated millions to three dozen separate worthwhile causes. Otherwise, what in Heaven's name could you possibly have done that was so great that you need to lauded by more than 30 different people? And yet this is happening routinely.

I imagine it is one of the most difficult things in life to accept our relative unimportance. And even though our friends, families, and supporters conspire to convince us otherwise, in our heart of hearts, we must know that this is so. But it is something that ought to be accepted and perhaps even embraced with philosophical detachment.

Consider that archaeologists have just unearthed a massive statue of Ancient Egypt's Ramses II, the same one memorialised in Percy Shelley's poem Ozymandias, who says: "Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!" His monuments have turned to dust. And I'm thinking that, although he ruled a vast kingdom for nearly seven decades, I doubt he had three dozen tributes.

And while the tributes roll on, the humble congregant who started the day wanting to pay respects finds himself in the pew suffering and realising that he didn't like the person THAT much to undergo this sort of torture.

Tributes are the secret dread of politicians, most of whom aren't wealthy enough to skip funerals. They live more in terror of their constituents' death than their own because of the rack-like pains they have to endure at the ceremonies.

I know of a few cunning politicos whose standard excuse, tendered immediately at the first hint of a funeral invitation, is that there's a conflicting funeral on the same day at the same time.

The working theory is that although you will NOT be forgiven for missing a funeral for mundane things like working, eating, or reminding your children that they have a parent, you will get sympathy if you just 'pass through' on the way to another funeral.

If we can't change the interminable tributes, how about this? We might want to begin funerals earlier if they are going to last so long. That way, if the service begins at, say, 4 a.m., there can be a break for a solid breakfast. Of if we're burying someone 'important', there could be a breakfast break, then back to funeraling with a stop-off at lunch. Anything. Something has to give.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to