Behind The Grieving

Many Jamaican funeral traditions are derived from our African ancestors and in some ways, represent the few ties to our African roots we still have. However, in a time where expensive funeral costs are burdening families with debt long after the mourning period has ended, do we continue these practices to commemorate a loved one’s passing or is it time to seek a more austere solution?

It's common to see a deceased’s family go into debt to ensure that their loved ones have a proper burial. For some prominent funeral homes, a funeral package starts at JMD $420,000 ($4,200 CAD) and covers basic costs including a simple casket, arrangements for a service at the funeral home’s chapel, and burial at the funeral home’s plot.

Upgrades to this package, including hosting the funeral service at the deceased’s family’s church, or burial in a church or family plot, can cost as much $300,000 JMD ($3,000 CAD) above the basic costs. A typical funeral can feature many upgrades: a custom-printed casket, a decorated hearse, several buses rented to transport attendees, a church filled with elaborate floral wreaths and to top it all off, a hand-carved headstone to place atop the grave – and families almost always ask for upgrades.

Photo: 300

Photo: 300

These aren’t the only costs borne by the family. Nine Night celebrations, held at the deceased’s home for nine nights following their death, attract friends, family and neighbours, for whom drinks and light fare are often provided. Rituals for burying the dead dictate that the Nine Night must take place. It is believed that it takes nine days for a dead person’s spirit to travel home to Africa, and the body must be treated in a very specific manner in those nine days, and during burial, to ensure the spirit, or “duppy”, will not haunt the living.

The “setup” or “dead yard”, held at the same venue, on the night before the funeral (and traditionally, the ninth night after passing), is a more elaborate affair. Pigs and goats are slaughtered to provide Jamaican favourites such as curried goat and stew peas, and massive quantities of alcohol, particularly white rum, are brought in to serve the numerous guests who come from far and wide to bring well wishes to the deceased’s family. Over the years, these affairs have become an amalgamated mixture of ritualistic tradition, with religious hymns being sung loudly by guests and contemporary revelry, including a DJ, dancing, and domino-playing.

Once the funeral is over, the family must again entertain guests at their home, in a similar fashion to the previous night. Attendees of the funeral gather at the home, after the burial, to eat, drink, and reminisce on the deceased’s life, and provide company to family, once again, at the family’s expense. Each nightly affair can easily cost anywhere between $50,000-$100,000 JMD ($500-$1,000 CAD).

Though custom dictates that the funeral takes place after the ninth, and largest night, of these gatherings, some Nine Night celebrations go far beyond nine nights to facilitate a later funeral date. Each additional night means another gathering, and added costs. However, this must be done to facilitate family members in the diaspora returning home for the burial.

Close family members residing overseas are expected travel to Jamaica on short notice, in time for the funeral, and come bearing gifts for the family, as all returning residents are expected to do. The costs of traveling to Jamaica from diaspora hubs, such as New York, Toronto and London, can reach as high as $1,200 USD, when booking with less than two weeks’ notice. They also have to consider costs for accommodation and a cash contribution towards the funeral expenses.

Fortunately, the financial burden of these obligations are often lightened by contributions from extended family, friends and neighbours of the deceased. It is customary to offer cash donations of varying amounts to the immediate family, towards funeral expenses. Neighbours and friends also donate in kind: the neighbourhood farmer may donate an animal to be slaughtered and cooked for the Nine Night; a local bar owner may donate alcohol; a sound system may offer their equipment free of charge. While these generous gestures eases the burden on the family, make no mistake someone is bearing the cost of executing these costly traditions. The farmer has lost the $20,000 JMD ($200 CAD) he could have made on the sale of the animal, and so has the bar owner with the drinks he has donated, and the DJ on the sound system.

Photo: 300

Photo: 300

Families and well-wishers aren’t the only ones pouring out cash for funerals. Funeral services are filled with members of the community and beyond from those who knew the deceased well, to some who never met them or had a kind word to say, and those in attendance are showing out.

To say funerals have become a fashionable affair would be understating the obvious. In many rural communities they have become social events. Attendees often use these opportunities as a way to showcase to the extended community that they are doing well, even if they aren't. Just as it has become customary to shop for an outfit to wear to a wedding or party, so has it become an expectation to purchase an outfit for a funeral, particularly if you are a member of the immediate family or close friend of the deceased.

Unlike weddings or parties, however, funerals are not considered optional, and you don’t have much time to plan. Death comes suddenly, and for families to scrounge together the necessary cash, they often resort to dipping into retirement savings, or taking salary advances or loans, which can take them years to pay back.

For those who have lost the breadwinning member of their household, it will be particularly difficult to recover, having to repay this debt, and replace the missing income needed to sustain their livelihood. On the rare occasion that the deceased has life insurance, these funeral costs can be covered almost entirely. However, there will be little remaining to help the family with future expenses, such as replacing the lost income, or servicing the deceased’s debt.

It’s easy to dismiss these costs as par for the course. They are the burden we must bear to honour our loved one’s passing and maintain tradition. But our predecessors did not incur the costs we do now, and many of these traditions we claim to uphold have been eliminated, forgotten or corrupted as they pass on through the ages. These outrageous costs have far more to do with posturing and capitalism than they do ancestral ties. The families often bear the associated costs due to societal expectations, yet many funeral attendees give little value to tradition, opting more to use these somber events as an opportunity to eat, drink and have a good time, with little regard to the family’s plight.

Photo: 300

Photo: 300

Now would be a good time to consider a more frugal alternative. Cremation packages offered by funeral homes cost approximately $135,000 JMD ($1,350 CAD) – a fraction of basic funeral expenses. This choice would eliminate much of the cost for everyone involved, while allowing the family to choose how best to show respect to their loved ones. If tradition prevails and families wish to proceed with a Nine Night celebration and funeral, a few less-costly alternatives—such as a modest casket, a simple service at a funeral home or small church hall, and nightly gatherings focused more on providing support than imbibing—are all simple, but effective ways to minimize cost.

Our loved ones undoubtedly deserve to be well-taken care of upon passing, but it is impractical and downright crippling to encourage families with little means to incur such high costs to do so. While our ties to our ancestral roots are important, we must find a happy medium to honour our motherland, and preserve our pockets.

Photography by 300.