Wed | Jan 16, 2019

When a Kumina queen dies

Published:Saturday | December 13, 2014 | 12:00 AMPaul H. Williams
Sister Bernice Henry being placed into her sepulchre on Sunday
Some of Sister Bernice's children cry on her coffin during her funeral on Sunday.
Mourners dance and sing around Sister Bernice Henry's coffin on Sunday.
PHOTOS BY PAUL H WILLIAMS Sister Bernice's sepulchre in her yard at Port Morant, St Thomas.


SISTER BERNICE Henry of Port Morant, St Thomas was known locally and internationally as a Kumina Queen. She performed at many wakes and funerals, among other events. Her expertise in the dance that her African ancestors had passed on to her was exceptional. But, in November, her tired, dancing feet ceased to do the Kumina in this realm, because she made the transition into another.

Her funeral was held on Sunday at Colonel's Cove, in Morant Bay. It was replete with tributes, singing and dancing. People were constantly crying, but also celebrating the life and work of Sister Bernice.

They danced around her coffin, sometimes spinning it, and breaking down on it. But, it was when a gentleman offered a tribute in song that a sort of spiritual pandemonium broke out. Roll, Jordan, Roll was the song he raised, and it was then, it seemed, the reality of Sister Bernice's death hit them as a sledgehammer would.

unspeakable grief

The congregation erupted into a weeping frenzy. The band played, people sang, turning, twirling, jumping, and crying out loud. "Roll, Jordan, roll," and people were rolling on the floor. A slim young man, dressed in black, could not contain himself, nor could he be contained. He even attempted to crawl under the coffin. By this time, his black shirt was off, and his white merino vest was drenched with sweat, and soiled by dust.

Overwhelmed by unspeakable grief, some of Sister Bernice's descendants collapsed on to her partially see-through coffin, crying uncontrollably. The weeping and wailing were gut wrenching. Tears flowed as the River Jordan, and the singing had stopped. But the band played on.

At the end of the service, before the coffin was removed, the Kumina drummers and dancers were back in their element, dancing and circling the coffin, which was eventually removed from the venue, to sound of the drums, back to Port Morant to Sister Bernice's yard, where her black, green and gold sepulchre waited for her.

Back in Port Morant, when the hearse reached the intersection of the main road, and the road that leads to Sister Bernice's yard, the coffin was removed and a march ensued. Along the road, jubilant mourners accompanied Sister Bernice on the very last leg of her earthly journey. In her yard, the coffin was rested for a while.

When it was time for the interment, the coffin was carried three times around a ring under a makeshift tent to the sound of Kumina drums. People made way as it was brought down an incline towards the grave. The sun illuminated the coffin and pall-bearers as they reached the sepulchre, and Sister Bernice's golden burial outfit glowed.

There was more crying as Pastor Flemmings commenced the graveside ritual, but the singing was abandoned as people were too distraught at the sight of the coffin being placed into the sepulchre. One young lady cried "Auntie Bernice!" over and over again. Sweat and tears washed her face.

When the coffin was finally pushed into the tomb, two of Sister Bernice's daughters went into it, lay on the coffin, and cried uncontrollably. It was a frightful sight of pain and sorrow. They could not let Sister Bernice go, and had to be forcibly removed from the hole. After that, the sealing process began. Some relatives stood speechless, looking on as the light of day went out for Sister Bernice forever.

Then there was one commotion as a woman rolled down the incline towards the sepulchre. She was listless and seemed out of this realm. Then she was on her back, with her arms stretched out. Her belly heaved. At one point, she mentioned something inaudible about roast plantain and cornmeal.

On her back, she laid for quite a while. Then suddenly, she moved her head and arms. People raised her upper body and held her while she sat up. They waited for her to revive herself. And when she did, she was good again.

By then the Kumina music had stopped, and many mourners had left. The yard took on a subdued atmosphere. And as night descended upon Sister Bernice's yard, one of her daughters sat on her grave, making sure she didn't spend her first hour in her eternal resting place alone.