There are many cultures where the dead are celebrated. Many Guyanese celebrate Halloween, but some may not know the origins. The Celts, who lived in the United Kingdom, would on October 31st celebrate a festival they called Samhain when they believed the ghosts of the dead roamed the Earth. The day marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter, which was viewed as a period of death. It was from that custom that Halloween evolved.
In Malaysia, the Mah Meri tribe celebrate their dead with a day of dancing.
In Ghana, the dead are often buried in ‘fantasy coffins,’ which are made to reflect the passions of the deceased. These coffins have been made in the shape of animals, airplanes, boats and even luxury cars. The practice is done to please the dead, who are believed to live on in the afterlife.
Customarily, in this part of the world death is not celebrated. The majority mourn their dead. Though many believe in the spirits of their ancestors and would honour them with rituals, such as libations, death is most often accompanied by sadness. Others believe that the dead go to heaven or hell, while others believe that there is nothing thereafter and death is truly the end of all existence.
Nevertheless, we do not forget those who have died, especially those who were close to us. Regret may linger because of missed opportunities to tell and show how much they were appreciated. It is therefore imperative that we tell and show people how much we love and care when we have the opportunity.
It is especially torturous when the young die. It was a year ago, for example, when I wrote ‘Letter to Kescia’ for a fellow thespian, Kescia Branche. One year has passed. She was only twenty-two years old and no rejoicing could come from her death because of the circumstances; no day of dancing or fantasy coffin. A year later and many of us remain in a state of disbelief. She joined the long list of Guyanese women who have been murdered. We must remember and speak her name and all their names as often as we can, while we wait for justice and hope that will alleviate some of the pain.
Though there was no celebrating in Kescia’s death, sometimes when people die in this part of the world, there is celebration.
The ‘Soul Funeral’ is accepted by many, while others detest it. It is a funeral tradition that occurs not only in Guyana but in other parts of the Caribbean, such as Jamaica. Also, in places like New Orleans there is a similar funeral tradition called a Jazz Funeral procession. A combination of West African, French and American traditions, the funerals merge mourning and celebration and are led by elaborate marching bands.
At Guyanese Soul Funerals, there could be a one-man band or stereo set atop a truck. The procession could be likened to that of a Mashramani float parade without the floats and costumes. There is usually alcohol consumption and the merry men and women gyrate to the music while the coffin is often carried by pallbearers also moving to the rhythms. In some instances, the coffin is even laid in the middle of the street, while revelers dance around the body.
I was in my teens when I first recall witnessing a Soul Funeral. As much as it was shocking, it was equally entertaining and I longed for the experience again. Not as a participant, for I would never dance or drink in such a fashion after some deceased relative or friend. I longed to experience the Soul Funeral again from the perspective of the spectator because, frankly, I was fascinated by what I had witnessed. And I did manage to witness it again. There were several aspects I found quite ridiculous, of course; in some instances, it would seem that the revelers were more concerned with becoming inebriated and dancing with each other, rather the honouring the life of he or she who lay in the coffin. But of course, I would not judge people for expressing themselves by way of dance or drink. But Soul Funerals can be somewhat of a hindrance to those who are not participants.
Usually in Guyana, the dead are buried or cremated before the sun sets, but Soul Funerals often would result in the dead being buried in the night. There is nothing wrong with that and I have never heard of any Soul Funeral lasting until the midnight hour when it is said that invocation of the dead would sometimes take place. A friend once divulged that she and her relatives went to the burial ground at the midnight hour to summon a relative who had passed and when the apparition reportedly appeared, they all ran. It is a story I will always recall and I’ll laugh because cowards have no business invoking the dead.
While soul funerals provide a spectacle for entertainment and can help to alleviate the grief of mourning relatives, people have complained about the traffic jams that occur because of these funerals. Usually these funerals occur during rush hour, when people are trying to get home after work and it is an inconvenience to have to wait in traffic for men and women to prance and gyrate behind their dead.
There are others who believe it can be disrespectful to the dead – especially if some of the celebrants decide to engage in a fight or quarrel, which can sometimes be another feature of Soul Funerals. But in actual fact, those particular occurrences are not unique to Soul Funerals. At many Guyanese funerals, conflict between grieving relatives and friends occur. There are many instances I am aware of for example where women have fought at the graveside of deceased men; I never saw the wisdom in that, but I suppose when people are hurt and grieving they do not always act sensibly.
Nevertheless, Soul Funerals often reflect the lives of the deceased. Like the fantasy coffin, they really intend to pay homage to the person by reflecting how they would have lived their life. All those who I have known whose lives were celebrated by way of Soul Funeral were of the younger and middle-aged generation.
But is there a place for it in our society? Do the hindrances demand that the practice is cut out? Or should the celebrants find a way to honour their dead that does not hinder the movement of others, although it is just for a time? Perhaps they should.
It causes us to think, though, of our mortality and how we will be remembered when our time comes. Will we be remembered as heroes or humanitarians? Or will people think we were callous? Will our loved ones choose to mourn and/or celebrate?
As long as there is life, there is time to mend and build relationships; there is time to love. We really should not worry too much about the things we cannot change but seek to find our purpose. Life is to be celebrated.