Nine Night: Death and Dying in Jamaica

By Burrell, Beranrd | American Visions, October-November 1996 | Go to article overview
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Nine Night: Death and Dying in Jamaica


Burrell, Beranrd, American Visions


Jamaican beliefs about death and dying are a mixture of African and European religious and cultural traditions. In contrast to the United States, where distinct ethnic and cultural identities are vigorously preserved and guarded, in Jamaica identities are more syncretic. For instance, Jewish or Hindu funerals in jamaica display distinctive Jewish or Hindu rituals and customs, but they also embody Jamaican elements that are largely African in their origins. Death rituals, such as the nine night - a ceremony of passage, where people meet to give comfort and support to the relatives of the deceased and to wish the departed a safe journey to life's next stage - are prevalent, as is the strongly held belief that the spirit of the dead can do harm.

Of course, many Afro-Jamaican customs and rituals relating to death and dying, such as night funerals, were outlawed in Jamaica by the colonial rulers. Others were disguised by Afro-Jamaicans and carried on with elements of European influences to appease the colonial rulers and missionaries. In the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, the African images depicting sex and sexuality that adorned graves were outlawed and replaced by European symbols of angels and by lapidary expressions on tombstones.

Other noticeable changes in attitudes to death and dying in Jamaica involve styles of tombstones, materials used in the construction of graves, and the rise of cemeteries. The African custom of burying loved ones in family plots next to homes has been slowly abandoned in favor of designated cemeteries, memorial parks or church graveyards. Materials used in the construction of graves, tombstones and coffins have also been changing since the 1960s, reflecting economic and advances and the fading influences of whit remains of African approaches to burials.

But some things are slow to die, and even today, particularly in Maroon villages and Rastafarian communes, African death rituals and customs flourish in Jamaica. In contrast to European cultures, the response to death and dying in Jamaica is a matter of public interest and debate. News of death or dying tends to spread rapidly, becoming the subject of public sympathy or gossip. When death is the result of a road accident, a police shootout or gang-related violence, people will travel miles to view the corpse before it is removed to a morgue. Such open public scrutiny invariably induces the most lurid and exaggerated comments about the condition of the body.

Until recently, when the law required an official autopsy if the cause of death is not known, people who died in their homes, especially in the rural areas, were kept for no more than three days before burial. Ice would be used to preserve the body, cotton placed in the nostrils to prevent leakage, and a weight placed on the belly to prevent swelling. If the eyes or mouth of the deceased were still open several days after death, it was commonly believed that the deceased was waiting to see the face of a particular relative before being buried. If that person was not available, it was up to the deceased's next of kin to close the eyes and mouth and to pass a reassuring message on from the desired relative.

And until recently, most bodies were prepared for burial by close relatives. Now, although kin still play a role, professional undertakers are given that responsibility, which in many cases involves performing specified rites, such as placing personal possessions of the deceased in the coffin.

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