Wednesday, 18 March 2009

On Death

One huge difference between the western way of seeing things and the west indian way of seeing things is the attitude to death. It fascinates me how death, which is treated with euphemisms and silence and delicacy back home, is embraced so noisily here.

A neighbour of ours died on Sunday morning and within hours the whole community was aware of it and chatting about it - the fact that deaths are announced on the radio helps to spread the news! This particular neighbour was notable as she wanted Bertie to marry her granddaughter and used to call him her grandson in law. I often wondered if she was put out when I arrived on the scene!!!

As with many people here, one of her two children was in France so they waited for his return to hold the Veillee (wake). This happened last night and boy was it the social occasion of the month! The street was packed out with cars, Bertie popped in and said that there were groups and groups of people (including many of his family) sitting around chatting and eating - and laughing and joking! See what I mean about a light-hearted approach to death...! Even if you only know the person's brother-in-law or granddaughter or something, there is still a good chance that you will attend out of respect for your friend. It does seem easier for people to attend such events here - unlike at home, life is very quiet and little happens in the evenings (or even the days!) so there is not a full calendar to juggle with in order to fit such an unexpected occasion in.

The family has to provide refreshments and just about anyone can come along so there is quite a feast on hand. Plenty of rum too. Hence plenty of men who like their tipple (especially free) attend the occasion. I have heard on several occasions that there is more cheer and laughter at a wake than a party!

A traditional dish for a wake is soupe de pattes - I thought this meant pasta (pates) but actually it meant beef feet! Not feet, what do we call them? There might also be music, and the wake can carry on well into the early hours - Bertie's sister was an early bird getting in at 1am. It is a great chance to catch up on people you haven't seen for a while. The coffin is in the house and people are supposed to go in and pay their respects, and the food is in a marquee type place outside. Mamie said that on this occasion they had singing and prayers too, but I imagine that depends on how involved in the church the person's family is.

Then the funeral was this afternoon. We went for a final walk by the sea with mum and as we were coming back up to the house we could hear trumpets so I asked Bertie's niece if it was the Carnival. She explained it wasn't, but was in fact the musicians accompanying the coffin to the church. (Not all families choose to have musicians but apparently this lady loved to dance - so they played tango music.) All the people attending (and there were a lot, judging by the number of cars outside again) met outside the house, generally dressed in black and white (though my mother-in-law told me any colour goes, except red she added with a bit of horror at the thought!) and followed the coffin. After a short service they went to the cemetry and then I suspect that there will be more food back at the house after.

The Catholic tradition then involves a week of prayers each evening, which is attended (usually) by good ladies from the church (presumably the lack of rum available reduces its attraction significantly) as well as mass for the person. And the grand finale is another party on the 9th day, again with plentiful refreshments and rum, and a large number of attendees. There is then yet another mass and party on the 40th day All of which sounds rather exhausting! Mamie said that when Bertie's brother died, she was indeed tired out by all the proceedings.

There are also lots of traditions and superstitions tied up with death here, which I would love to know the root of. As with Gwada myths, was there some reason and logic initially to these? I have heard that the body has to leave the house feet first; a parent isn't allowed to follow the hearse to the church if her child has died or she will lose another (I checked with Bertie's Mum and neither she or Papy went to their son's funeral for this reason); it is not good to visit someone after a funeral, and so on.

I have discussed with friends on many occasions the whys and wherefores of the different attitude to death here - is it perhaps to do with the strong Catholic background of the island, that means people are much more comfortable with the idea of the afterlife? Is it the strong community atmosphere (people are far more in contact with death here than we are)? Or just the generally more laid-back, accepting attitude to most things that there seems to be here?

In any case, it seems to me a good thing that a death can bring people together in such a way and that an elderly person dies in the comfort of their home, surrounded by family and friends, and that their life is celebrated by many from the community, rather than being alone, perhaps in a nursing home, their past life unappreciated and their passing barely noticed.

Note: This all relates to the Catholic tradition of celebrating death - the evangelical churches will undoubtedly have a very different way of doing things, but as Catholics are in the vast majority, these traditions are very much a part of life here.

1 comment:

mum said...

do you mean paws or even hoofs?