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Well, whose funeral is it?

Published:Monday | February 22, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Colin Steer, Associate Editor - Opinion

Carolyn Cooper in her provocative article 'Rights of passage' published Sunday, February 21, argues that persons organising official funerals should sometimes override the expressed wishes of the dead, and allow for bigger, grander 'send-offs' befitting the love and admiration with which the 'dearly departed' is held.

Well, yes and no. Professor Cooper's article actually betrays one of the more egregious aspects of contemporary Jamaican life, i.e. overwhelming, crass self-indulgence. For, shorn of the valid arguments of bigger space to accommodate more persons wanting to attend the funeral, etc, the underlying desire really on the part of many would-be mourners is to turn the occasion into a public spectacle, or a concert from which they leave feeling that they have been suitably entertained or, better yet, as one of the persons giving a tribute, whether in spoken word or music - i.e. the ones who 'nice up de place'.

Others just want to bask in reflected glory, as we saw in many of the published tributes to Nettleford. The articles were as much about the writers and, in some cases, even more about themselves and their work than the person to whom, ostensibly, they were paying tribute.

This has become the pattern across the length and breadth of Jamaica, whether the funeral is that of a public figure such as Miss Lou or Rex Nettleford or an 'ordinary person' such as Miss Agatha from Highgate, St Mary. Often, people whose feet have not darkened a church door in decades turn up when their elderly relatives have died with great arrogance, wanting to dictate how 'the service fi go'; how many tributes 'they want'; and the format the funeral should take. That is why some years ago, some characters thought it quite in order to 'tek over de mike' at a funeral and engaged in one of their usual juvenile drivel while the 'bredren dem' did the Bogle dance - much to the consternation of the hapless presiding pastor and deacons. Very little of this has to do with giving due respect to the departed or even recognition of what a funeral is.

'Just one of those things that we do'

In our largely Christian tradition and beliefs, a funeral is often an acknowledgement of the mortality of the recently departed and a committal of their body and spirit back to God. This ritual is often accorded even to people who may not have given much credence to Christian beliefs when they were alive. It is just one of those things that we do.

I am told that, from the moment it became clear that Nettleford was unlikely to come out of his illness alive, public officials and others started circling the 'urn', wanting to turn the occasion into a particular spectacle. Persons close to the late professor insisted that they would honour his wishes, and so it went.

Of course, funerals need not be sombre, sad occasions as a matter of course. In fact, many are quite triumphant as the life and service of the person who has died are celebrated and given due recognition. Indeed, this celebratory aspect is not even dependent on persons at the funeral wearing 'cheerful colours'. I recall as a young reporter, covering the funeral of former finance minister, Eric Bell, at the University of the West Indies Chapel. The humorous anecdotes of Dennis Lalor and the tributes from family and associates made it in reality a 'thanksgiving service'.

So, what then of Cooper's suggestion that funerals are "political"? Again, how we conduct ourselves on occasions such as these says a lot more about us than the deceased. It may either be an occasion of dignified respect for the person who has died, or a wonderful opportunity to advertise our coarsened sensibilities.

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Often, people whose feet have not darkened a church door in decades turn up when their elderly relatives have died with great arrogance, wanting to dictate how 'the service fi go'.