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Rights of passage

Published:Sunday | February 21, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Carolyn Cooper, Contributor

WHO HAS the right to decide how public figures are to be buried? That's a question we really have to take seriously now that a whole generation of national icons is passing. What happens when there's a clash between what the deceased wanted and what the public expects?

I don't think we should always respect the wishes of the dead. I know it sounds heretical. You really should have the right to be buried as you choose. But suppose you underestimated just how many people would want to attend your funeral and pay their last respects? You end up creating problems for the executors of your will.

In any case, there's absolutely nothing you can do to ensure that your wishes are honoured. True, in our culture 'duppy have power'. But you would have to be a real badmind duppy to object to being given a grand send-off when you'd said all you wanted was just a little funeral.

I completely understand the righteous anger of 'CAC' who in an impassioned letter to
The Gleaner
published on Saturday, February 13, asked 'the powers that be' some hard-hitting questions about the rites of passage for Professor the Honourable Rex Nettleford. The letter was headlined, 'Rex should have been cremated here'.

"Why is it that in the end a man who excelled, breaking barriers/frontiers and yet remained humble in all his accomplishments was not brought back to us to say our goodbyes? I feel cheated, lost, disillusioned by the powers that be. I am angry because again you've taken from us grass-roots Jamaicans the final tread to greatness. This was truly our black legacy, spanning Jamaica, the Caribbean, the world. This man truly belonged to the massive.

"You have taken our rights to say goodbye in a befitting manner, as only we Jamaicans can to a giant Jamaican. I feel and truly believe that other Jamaicans feel the same, that being cremated after our last farewell would not have robbed his wish for bowing out as he pleased in his style."

Under one roof

Like 'CAC,' I strongly advocated that the funeral service for our Rex should have been held at the National Arena, not the relatively small chapel on the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies. Very, very important people; very important people; specially invited guests and the general public could all have been seated together under one roof.

The university chapel can comfortably hold 350 people. The extended family of the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC) is considerably bigger than that. The decision to honour Rex's wishes and keep the memorial service in the chapel meant that so-called 'ordinary' people were largely excluded.

The very same thing happened with Miss Lou. The Coke Methodist Church was much too small to accommodate all of us who wanted to attend Miss Lou's funeral. It hurt my heart to see the hundreds of people standing in the rain to pay their last respects. I gather that it was Miss Lou's wish to have her funeral service at Coke. But I'm sure she wasn't a happy duppy when she saw the result of her choice. She must have cheered up considerably when, after the official burial, the people took over the park and sent her off with much ceremony.

In Miss Lou's case, the Government's answer to the question of how to resolve the conflict between private rights and public demands was to stage a big nine-night at the arena. Although this African-derived ceremony is still very much alive and well in Jamaican culture, it is no substitute for the formal funeral.

One of the prominent theatre personalities who performed at the nine-night expressed regret that none of them was asked to do anything at the church service. It was as though they were good enough for entertainment but not for the solemn funeral.

Holy war

Under the political leadership of Edward Seaga, the anthropologist, a much better solution to the private/public dilemma had long been discovered: two funerals. A relatively private ceremony according to the wishes of the family; and a public memorial to accommodate the masses. This was the Bob Marley model.

The arrangements for Bob's official funeral were complicated by the ideological clash between the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Belatedly baptised a Christian, Bob appeared to have abandoned Rastafari. His widow, Rita, insisted on an Orthodox funeral. Bob's Twelve Tribes bredren and sistren demanded a Rastafari ceremony. It was holy war.

Seaga had long mastered the art of the political funeral. He understood the science of it as well, both high and low. His brilliant idea to repatriate the remains of Marcus Garvey was pure political genius. Here was a non-black prime minister who was willing to take the risk of alienating the white and brown elite by stirring up trouble.

Dead and buried in the UK, Garvey was harmless. He was not on the national agenda in Jamaica. It was only Rastafari and other 'fringe' groups of black nationalists who venerated him. So he seemed safe from political exploitation. But Seaga must have heard the voice of Burning Spear lamenting the fact that "no one remember old Marcus Garvey".

Bruce should definitely take lessons from Eddie. Rex Nettleford's funeral was a golden opportunity to pull the country together around an iconic figure who knew how to dance across boundaries. Instead we ended up with an elitist funeral that excluded the masses.

Bruce Golding should also take lessons from Portia Simpson Miller. His tepid tribute to Rex was mediocre at best. Coming immediately after Sister P's heartfelt, carefully crafted and eloquently delivered praisesong, Bruce's remarks fell flat. Funerals are political. They test the power of the living and the dead.

Carolyn Cooper is professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Send feedback to: or