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Beliefs and Customs surrounding Death

 

Folk customs relating to death play a significant role in the Jamaican culture. This is due mainly to the general belief that there is power in death. Locals believe that the dead possess supernatural powers which can be used to bring about harm if the necessary precautions are not taken and the relevant respect shown.

Most death rituals practised in present day Jamaica are African-derived and date back to the time of slavery. In fact, there are striking similarities between the rituals practiced in Jamaica and those practiced in traditional West Africa. One such similarity is the use of music and musical instruments to accompany rituals. Additionally, fundamental West African beliefs concerning death are very similar to the Afro-Christian beliefs of recent times. West Africans conceive the individual as being made up of three components, the body, the soul and the shadow or duppy. This view is shared by locals, as well, especially those from rural areas. Another shared belief is that the souls of the dead return to the Supreme God and joins the other ancestral spirits. On the other hand, the shadow or duppy wanders for several days after which it must be set to rest in the grave by appropriate rites.

Two of the common practices relating to death that are still observed in present times are the Set Up and the Nine Night. The Set Up is a type of wake where persons ‘set up’ or keep vigil for a certain number of nights, until early morning, usually prior to an important occasion. Traditionally, the Nine Night ceremony was said to be held nine nights after burial. However, lately, the Nine Night is held on the ninth night after the death of the individual. An explanation for the difference in time calculation is that in earlier times, burials in the West Indies took place almost immediately upon death due to the warm climate. Therefore the Nine Night would be held on the ninth night after burial which also coincided with the ninth night after death. However, in recent times, burial takes place any where from ten to thirty days after death, so the Nine Night is observed nine nights after death. The significance of the nine nights is the fact that in local culture, it is believed that the spirit of the dead finally departs from the land of the living on the ninth night after death.

One very interesting point to note about the Nine Night ceremony is the fact that it is uniquely West Indian. Despite some African influences, there are no observed ceremonies in West African culture which share the characteristics of or serve the function of the Nine Night. The purpose of this ceremony is to ensure that the departed is given a proper ‘send-off’ so as to prevent his/her return.

Another area in which similarities exist between Jamaican and West African rituals is the use and/or symbolism of colours. The colour black is symbolic of death in both cultures. It is the colour most used by mourners as it used to express sadness in both cultures and is believed to be a deterrent to spirits. The colour white is the preferred colour for dressing corpses of older persons, probably because it is the colour used to show respect. White is also used to appease the dead and is one of the favourite colours for mourners. The colour red is a powerful one as it is symbolic of blood. It is mainly used to deter evil spirits.

The existing beliefs and customs surrounding death in Jamaica are far more than those mentioned in this article, which speaks to their significance in our culture.

 

References

Baxter, Ivy. The Arts of an Island. New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1970.

Beckwith, Martha Warren. Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaican Folk Life. New York: Negro

Universities Press.

Brathwaite, Edward. Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica. London: New Beacon Books Ltd., 1970.

Brown, Marjorie. “Death Rituals in Jamaica: African Retention or Acculturation – A Synopsis”. In Social

History Project Newsletter. No. 12, Dec. 1985.

Pigou, Elizabeth. “The Afro-Jamaican Response to Death: An Introduction”. In Social History Project

Newsletter. No. 12, Dec. 1985.

Small, Jean. “Colour Symbolism in Afro-Jamaican Death Rituals”.

 


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