Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Island Wakes and Funerals

These are our friends, Dennis and Merlin (pronounced Marilyn). We were privileged to share a very sad event with them this weekend. Merlin's 18 year old grandson was killed in a motorcycle accident on Saturday night when an impatient taxi driver attempted to pass him where he should not have.

As is the custom here, they had the body embalmed and paid someone to prepare him and dress him. Merlin and Dennis paid someone to make a casket and bring it to the home of his parents on Sunday. The grandson's body was also brought home on Sunday, and the wake began. A traditional island wake may last 1-3 nights and the family of the deceased is expected to provide plenty of food and alcoholic beverages for all visitors. It is also customary to hire a band or at least one musician to play very loudly all night. By the time the funeral is over, the family is absolutely exhausted and considerably poorer.

Merlin is very tired of this custom. She said they play their music so loud that you can't hear yourself think much less hold a conversation with someone else. When the musician showed up at her son's house, Merlin sent him packing and told her son that he really couldn't afford to pay him and she certainly wasn't going to. She also spoke her mind on the amount of food and alcohol to be served. She really didn't want any alcohol, but was apparently overruled.

We did not attend the wake, in fact, we didn't even realize that they were already holding it until late in the night when we heard music drifting up the hill from Shane's house and a few times heard loud wailing. We also heard cars coming and going. Sound travels very well at night on this hillside.

The funeral was held on Monday afternoon, again at the parent's home. We attended and had offered to do whatever needed to be done. They asked us to drive some of the guests to the cemetery. We walked down the hill to Shane's house at 3 p.m. The open casket was on the front porch, surrounded by family and the preacher. Elsa, the mother, was at the head of the casket, leaning over her son's body. That alone was heartbreaking to watch. The yard was full of people standing or sitting. Many people were sitting outside their cars in the shade. Shortly after we arrived, Dennis and Merlin arrived and stood in the yard. Dennis was busy taking pictures for Merlin's daughter who lives in Florida and wasn't able to get here. The girls and women were all dressed up, wearing mostly browns or black. The men were dressed mostly in long slacks, although a few were wearing shorts, like Dennis and Don. Some wore long-sleeved dress shirts but no one wore a suit or even a sport coat.

The preacher started right on time and seemed like he was just getting warmed up, preaching on the importance of getting right with God before it's too late, when he suddenly stopped. We learned later that Merlin had told him to only preach 20 minutes, no more. (Dennis and Merlin once attended a funeral where 7 preachers participated, taking turns preaching, and the service lasted 7 hours! They left for awhile in the middle of it, went and got a beer and some lunch, came back and it was still going. Then, at the cemetery, all the preachers had more to say. Merlin wasn't about to let that happen here.) While he was preaching, a cell phone rang and a young lady standing in front of us answered it and had a discreet conversation. A young man who was standing on the porch not 3 or 4 feet from the grieving mother, answered his cell phone and held a conversation during the service! Just like in the States. Good grief!! A young lady read a poem and named all the surviving family members. Someone else read a Psalm and then led the singing of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus". As soon as the singing began, the mother began wailing and screaming. It was gut wrenching. When they attempted to close the casket, her hysteria increased and she refused to let them close the lid. Several women standing around her comforted her, and a young man calmed her down and finally convinced her to let go. She was led from the house and the family followed, giving the young pallbearers room to come up and remove the casket.

Everyone headed for a vehicle, and there were many, so many so that ours was not needed. We rode with Dennis and Merlin in the long, slow procession to the cemetery in Flowers Bay. The cemetery sits just across the road from the sea. On the way to the "boneyard" (as Dennis is fond of saying), they told us about the rush of all the preparations, of hiring men to prepare a tomb. This cemetery is on a hillside, rather steep. The caskets are all placed inside concrete tombs and sealed shut. The tombs are dug partially into the hillside but are mostly above ground, New Orleans style. Some of the tombs are stacked up double, some have been decorated with ceramic tile, some have small tombstones or the names engraved in the tomb. Dennis had all the necessary sand, cement, concrete blocks, etc. on hand, being used in the construction of his latest house, and he delivered these to the cemetery early Monday morning. The tomb builders were paid in rum, which is also traditional, but were encouraged to finish the work before sampling the rum.

When we arrived, being one of the last vehicles to do so, the 2 lane blacktop road was lined with cars and trucks, including the pickup truck which had carried the casket and the larger truck which had carried the uniformed band members in the open bed. (The band members had marched in the Independence Day parade earlier that day.) Many more people were there than had been present at the house. Merlin said a lot of people had come from French Harbor just for the burial. He was a very popular young man. There were so many people already gathered around the tomb that we couldn't get very close, so we stood up higher on the hillside and still were unable to see very well. The wind was blowing so hard that we also had difficulty hearing. There was a big group of singers standing near the tomb who must have sung at least 10 songs, mostly old gospel type songs. Wish we could have heard them better; they were pretty good. A group of young school children came in, still wearing their school uniforms from the parade earlier, and carrying simple plastic wreaths. These were the only flowers I saw. The family seemed to be scattered all around, just as at the funeral. One of Merlin's daughters stayed on the sidewalk just outside the cemetery, holding her sleeping son. Saw a young man talking on his cell phone while leaning on another tomb nearby. A number of people talked throughout the graveside service. The tomb builders began sealing the tomb shut while everyone was still gathered about. The singers had stopped, but began singing again.

Finally, people started drifting away, out to their cars, stopping to talk along the way. Everyone wanted to stop and have a word with Merlin, so our progress was very slow. Then everyone just went home. The family didn't gather for a meal together. Unlike in the States, friends and neighbors do not bring food to the home, nor do the churches provide a funeral meal. Some funerals are held in churches, some at home as this one was. There was no opportunity at the funeral or graveside for us to extend condolences to the parents. Perhaps this is all done at the wake, I do not know. I don't think it is customary to send sympathy cards, in fact, I have never seen any type of greeting card on this island. (My cousin, Robyn, who works for Hallmark won't like hearing that!)

Dennis and Merlin were exhausted, as was the rest of the family, I'm sure, having all been up since the accident Saturday night. And today was a normal work day for everyone, even the grieving parents.


  1. Jeanette,
    Thanks for sharing all the details of how they grieve in Rotan. I understand cultures all over the world do it differently. A loss is a loss no matter where you are though.

    I will try to remember how i got my blog to feed to my multiply account. I looked the other day and couldn't figure it out. I think you do it in the editing your blog section on Multiply, but I'll have to look further. Glad you are connected once again. -maria

  2. that is sad about the cause of his death. I was wondering how he died. What an interesting process they have there. It does seem weird to pay a musician and pay to feed people when you are the grieving family. So, was this Shane's son then? I couldn't figure out whose kid it was.