Tue | Feb 25, 2020

Carolyn Cooper | Funerals dying a natural death?

Published:Sunday | March 11, 2018 | 12:00 AM

If you're not careful, you could end up going to a funeral every single week. That's one of the challenges of becoming a senior citizen and outliving your peers. They keep dying and you feel obliged to attend their funeral. The first mistake is reading the death columns religiously. If you don't, you have the convenient excuse that you didn't know that your classmate from high school had died. In blissful ignorance, you could escape one more funeral.

If you follow the death columns all the time and become burdened with the certainty that someone you do know has died, you have to learn how to discriminate. Not so much against the deceased but in favour of your right to choose! If you don't pay attention, you might even end up with all two funerals one day. You have to decide if you really cared about the deceased to dat; or if this is one of those obligations you should avoid. Just the thought of the lengthy sermon is enough to put you off.




As a society, we are committed to funerals. We have a long tradition of celebrating the life of the deceased with a big funeral. You can't just dead an bury so. You have to get a proper send-off. But since you can't be sure your family will want to bear the cost of the kind of farewell you think you deserve, you better set aside money for your funeral. And you have to have faith that your burial money will actually be spent on your funeral. Not on bling for those left behind!

The Jamaica Burial Scheme Society was established by Andrew Duffus Mowatt in Banbury, Linstead, on February 18, 1901. The issue then wasn't a big funeral. It was much more basic. Before refrigerated mortuaries, the dead had to buried within three days. Poor people were not always able to afford a timely burial. Before long, there were 160 branches of the society across the island, as well as in Costa Rica, Panama and Cuba. Mowatt's society enabled Jamaicans at home and abroad to bury our dead with dignity.




Last Sunday, I attended the final ceremony of a three-day funeral in Ghana. That was most certainly a ritual to travel across the Atlantic to witness! I could clearly see the origins of the elaborate funeral traditions that flourish across the African diaspora, for example, in New Orleans. It was the grand send-off for Nana Asante Frempong, chief, former MP and master weaver. I met him in the 1980s at a conference of the African Studies Association where his majestic Kente cloths were displayed.

I invited Nana to the Marcus Garvey Centenary Conference hosted in 1987 by the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona. He fell in love with Jamaica. Nana was a generous man who readily shared his knowledge. On more than one occasion, he taught Kente weaving at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. And he had to construct the loom as well!

Nana's funeral started on Thursday with his lying in state at his home, Kente Palace, from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m. He was dressed resplendently in a magnificent Kente cloth. And he was bedecked with gold. No rapper or DJ could touch even the hem of Nana's Kente. There was gold on his head, neck, arm, wrist and finger. And gold dust was sprinkled all over. Three ceremonial gold swords were placed on each side of his body. This certainly was not 'wash-over gold'.

Kumasi, the city in which Nana lived, is the capital of the Ashanti Region. The huge deposits of gold there are still being mined. Major products of the region are gold bars, hardwood and copper. On a lighter note, I saw lots of ads for products that guaranteed penis hardening. But of, course, that is not quite the hardwood for which Kumasi is famous.

Hundreds of mourners came to pay their respects. Nana was then transported to his village, Wonoo, where he lay in state briefly. There was a Mass at the Roman Catholic Church. Finally, Nana was buried in the local cemetery.

On Saturday, approximately 2,500 mourners gathered under tents at an outdoor funeral park to greet the family and bring monetary gifts. A goat was offered by one group. There was a parade of chiefs, shaded by ceremonial umbrellas, along with their entourage of drummers, singers and dancers. The paramount chief represented the Asantehene, who was out of the country. And there were lively gun salutes.

On Sunday, the last day of Nana's funeral, there was a Mass at the Roman Catholic Church in Kumasi, followed by another gathering at Kente Palace for which all mourners were dressed in identical black and white cloth. It was a comforting affirmation of community.

I sometimes wonder if funerals will eventually go out of style in Jamaica as they have in the US. We are so follow fashion. After attending Nana's funeral, I'm sure this rite of passage is in our DNA.

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.