Funerals in Jamaica

by Richard Leary, C.P.

Richard Leary, C.P.This is my 20th year in Jamaica, West Indies. During that time I have conducted or attended a variety of funerals for people of all classes and all ages. In Jamaica, funerals are social events of supreme importance. In small villages they even replace the Sunday worship service. The people, dressed in their best, turn out to pay their respects to the deceased and to comfort the bereaved.

Embalming is not a common practice, but the body is refrigerated if a hospital morgue or funeral parlor is near. Otherwise, the burial takes place the day after death, before the body begins to spoil in the tropical climate.

Some churches have their own cemetery, as do some towns, but the majority of rural people have their family graves in their front or back yard.

Wakes like those common in the States at funeral homes are unknown here. Occasionally, the body is brought to the church for an hour or so before the service so the remains can be viewed.

A church service is customary, but at times only a graveside ceremony takes place. After the committal prayers, the coffin is lowered into the ground, wreaths and bouquets are placed on top of it, and the workmen proceed to fill up the grave with dirt or to seal it over with concrete slabs.

During this time, hymns and choruses are sung continually, and it is not polite to leave before the last shovel of dirt is tossed or the last hymn is finished.

Many customs surrounding funerals are based upon the belief that the dead have great power and may return to haunt the living. Much of the folklore concerning death and burial probably derived from ancient African ancestors and are continued out of fear and anxiety. For the dead not to return and haunt family members, they must all say goodbye to the corpse. Each child of the family must be lifted and passed over the coffin while its name is recited.


Many Jamaicans believe that when a person dies the body goes to the ground, the soul to God, and the spirit, known as the "duppy," stays in the area for awhile, or sometimes permanently. Some are convinced that duppies haunt the living and that the "obeah" people, using sorcery and magic ritual, can cause great harm. Those who are troubled by duppies sometimes have recourse to obeah people to free them. And when they are not successful, they may in turn send the victim to the Catholic priest.

The priest reasons with them, prays over and blesses them and their home with holy water. He teaches them to use the Sign of the Cross to dispel evil, for by the Cross, Jesus conquered the kingdom of Satan. Those who come to the priest for blessing often experience the most bizarre and frightening phenomena, and are utterly terrified by the "duppy obsession." Whatever the cause, -- auto-suggestion, highly excitable imagination or the work of evil spirits, the victims are usually comforted, strengthened and healed by the ministry of the priest.


For several nights after the burial, members of the family and friends assemble for "set-ups." The "nine night" is the final "set-up," or religious, social gathering. Held on the ninth night after the burial, the spirit of the deceased is bade farewell and sent on its way. Games are played, refreshments are served, stories are told, prayers are recited, and hymns accompanied by drums are sung. The song leader knows the hymns by heart and "tracks" the words by calling out a line which the people repeat.

The singing continues through the night until daylight, and the lovely harmony of many voices takes on a poignant quality as it echoes over the plains and hills.

The Story of George

Funerals are marvelous learning experiences. Here are some that have taught me valuable lessons:

forget-me-nots blossomsGeorge Webb was an unforgettable, saintly old man. He had been a "Salvationist" before becoming a Catholic, and he always wore his old Salvation Army cap, a symbol of his concern for his neighbor's salvation. On Sundays he would make the six-mile trip to Sacred Heart church in Christiana, and after Mass would visit Spaldings Hospital to pray with and comfort the sick and lonely. His was a life of praise, kindness, loving service and evangelization.

He became extremely ill with cancer and we had to move him in excruciating pain to the Mandeville Infirmary. When he died, I received a phone call telling me that he was going to be buried in a pauper's grave. But his seemingly hopeless wish was to be buried beside his mother in a tiny hamlet called "Village."

I hired a truck to carry his body back home. A carpenter from our church built his coffin, neighbors dug the grave and a large crowd came to pay their respects. At his burial I read St. Luke's account of the old man Simeon who recognized the Infant Jesus in the Temple, held him in his arms and was then glad to leave this sad world.

After I preached briefly, I asked George's old friend, Vincent, to speak. He delivered a gem of a eulogy. He mentioned George's gentleness and kindness, his concern for the sick and the poor, his love for the Mass and for children, his courage and patience in suffering.

Prayers were said, banana leaves were placed over the polished wooden coffin and the red clay was thrown on top. Dogs, goats and chickens stood respectfully at attention. Children gazed with fascinated eyes at the ritual. Flowers were placed lovingly on the mound. Slowly, then, the crowd withdrew from the tiny, roadside cemetery. I saw no tears. Everyone seemed to sense that this was indeed a joyful day. Old George's body rested beside his mother's. Another saint had gone marching in.

Pansy and Maria

The deaths of two children who had been patients at the local hospital affected me deeply. Their coffins were paid for from a special church collection.

forget-me-not blossomPansy was a charming ten-year-old with a strange disease called "Steven-Johnson Syndrome." She had been released from the hospital, but apparently her medication at home was not administered properly. She was rushed back to the hospital, where her condition could not be handled. She died in a helicopter while being transported to a Kingston hospital.

I had given her her first doll, which she named "Carol." Her funeral was held in her school auditorium since the church could not hold the large crowd. Her mother, sister and cousin sang a plaintive, touching ballad -- "Come Home, Come Home, It's Supper Time." She was buried in the back yard of her hillside home, overlooking the little village of Aenon Town. Breadfruit trees stand like tall sentinels beside her grave.

forget-me-not blossomMaria, the other child, suffered greatly from asthma, but she died of heart failure caused by malnutrition. Just before she died she told her mother that she saw two angels approaching her. She cried out, "The gate is open wide and I can see my beautiful home!"

Her small body was laid out on her tiny bed in a cubicle next to her mother's bed. When I arrived with food, I met her sisters in search of a piece of soap for bathing Maria. We buried her beside her Daddy's grave in a field in front of her house, as young girls sang over and over the catchy resurrection chorus: "No Grace Gonna Hold This Body Down."

More Learning Experiences

forget-me-not blossomLaura Spence, our oldest church member, fell and broke her hip and died peacefully after a brief stay in a nursing home. She was 105 years old. Until two months before her death she prepared her 83-year-old son's breakfast every morning. On her birthday, Sister Kathleen and I brought Bishop Boyle to visit her. She was delighted and brought out a cake and a bottle of wine to celebrate.

forget-me-not blossomDiana Peart, a lovable and promising 12-year-old, had just passed her exam to enter high school. She attended her older sister's graduation from our school and on the way home was killed by a drunken driver. The funeral lasted three hours on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, amid lengthy sermons, remembrances, and the songs and tears of her classmates.

forget-me-not blossomSteve Tomlinson, 18 years old, was shot and killed by police after a store robbery. I buried him in a pelting rain in front of the family home, as his distraught mother wailed and lamented "My son is dead! My son is dead!"


forget-me-not blossomOwen Knight died at the town Infirmary, known as "The Alms House." He was buried without a marker in the rocky field behind the building. Usually there are no mourners at these sad, lonely farewells, except for a few patients and staff. The body is wrapped in a sheet, placed in a crude, wooden box, deposited in a shallow three-foot hole, and covered with dirt and limestone. But on this occasion, a former employer and his wife arrived unexpectedly to pay tribute and to place a pot of flowers on the small dirt mound.

When no family or friends are present, I am called to officiate at a brief graveside ceremony. I am always moved by the tragedy of the event. How devastating for a human being to die without a home, without loved ones to mourn, without anyone to remember who you are, whose lives you touched, what you did with your life!

I'm making an effort to clean up the acres of land, overgrown with weeds and bush, littered with garbage and debris that conceal the countless mounds where the bones of unidentified people rest. We have made white crosses to mark the few whose graves we know.

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