Soul Fu­neral

Stabroek News - - REGIONAL NEWS -

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.

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