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The Jamaican Funeral: A Unique Blend of Traditions

Tom May
Old man during a Jamaican funeral

In Jamaica, the funeral ceremony brings together the entire community. Rather than a somber service following the pattern of a traditional wake, the Jamaican funeral celebrates the deceased through Nine Night. The tradition blends African and European Christian cultures together to build community, to honor the deceased while supporting the family, and to bring comfort and peace to those mourning. The customs are fascinating.

Grave Digging

The first step in the Jamaican funeral custom is often a grave digging. Members of the community pitch in to help dig the grave. After the hole is secured, it is lined with concrete bricks. The grave is typically dug in the family yard. Anyone who hears of the digging stops what they are doing and lends a hand. Participating in a grave digging appropriately pays respect to the deceased and the family. Grave diggings are held during the day. Music, food and drink mark the occasion. The events draws the community together and celebrates life. Even visitors to the community are invited to participate.

The Jamaican Funeral Nine Night

The next step in the Jamaican funeral process has several parts. The celebration of the one passed away is a festive occasion known as Nine Night. The event is also known as Dead Yard or Set-up. The celebration takes place on the ninth night after the death and is expressed with food, white rum, music, dancing and sharing stories. The ninth night was chosen because tradition held that it took nine nights for the spirit of the slave to make its way back home to Africa to find peace.

Religious Ceremony

Before the Nine Night festivities, a short religious ceremony is held. Often the community gathers in the home of the deceased for the religious service. Some communities are large enough to enjoy the presence of a church building, so the service can be held there. Funerals are the most formal event that takes place in a church building. Bands and live music accompany the procession. Prayers and hymns are offered on behalf of the deceased, letting the spirit know that it is time to leave the earth. Although not always the case, today most in Jamaica believe all souls go to heaven.

Tradition

On the ninth night after death, the day before the actual funeral, family and friends gather for a celebration. The events of the evening start around 8:00pm and the festivities last all night long. Like many funeral traditions held in homes, the furniture of the home is rearranged. Here are a handful of the traditional activities.

  • Furniture in the house is rearranged. The tradition rests on the belief that rearranging things keeps the spirit - also called the duppy - from recognizing things. The mattress in the bedroom of the deceased is flipped over so the duppy is not tempted to crawl into bed. Mirrors are covered so the duppy cannot see itself or others. The belief concerns the spirit's desire to stay rather than go on to the afterlife, and a comfortable, familiar home would provide too much of a temptation to settle in.
  • During the evening, several dances will be held, celebrating the creation of life and the life of the deceased. Stories about the lost loved one will be shared. The music played often has meaning for the family, or carries strong cultural meaning. The first dance is called "Dinki-Mini" and invites deceased ancestor's duppies to join in.
  • A table with food and drinks invites the duppy to join in the festivities. It is believed that the duppy will sit down at the table, eat and drink, and enjoy the stories that are being shared. No one can sit or eat at this table until after midnight, the special hour when the duppy has left for the afterlife.
  • When the family removes the body from the home, they carry the body out feet first. For good luck, they sweep the rooms behind the body as it is carried outside. The process releases negative energies and symbolically cleans the house.
  • Another common tradition is to pass an infant or young child over the body in the casket several times. This stops the duppy from causing any harm to the child or the family. Most of the traditions concern the belief that the soul needs to escape the confines of the body.
  • Family and friends will place rum, food, money, and trinkets in the casket of the deceased to help them get to the afterlife. In the event the death was a tragic event, knives and other weapons in the casket allow for the duppy to seek revenge.

Food and Send-Off

The occasion of a spirit leaving the earth deserves a proper send-off. Common to most cultures, food brings a community together. The Nine Night feast will often enjoy goat soup, cooked green bananas, white rice and several other traditional Jamaican food. In addition to the food, the alcohol is constantly flowing. A favorite libation is the smooth white rum. During this party, the family pays proper respect to the dead, so the ghost does not haunt the community indefinitely.

Flowers

The use of flowers permeates the funeral experience in Jamaica. Flowers adorn the home and the casket of the loved one. Common flowers include roses, lilies and orchids. Color plays a more significant role than the type of flower. The colors of red and white are symbolic representations of death in Jamaica.

White Carnations sit on a cedar coffin

Music

Music sets the stage for the Nine Night celebration. Extravagant festivities feature live music. Even smaller, more intimate gatherings include a professional disc jockey to orchestrate the recorded music. With hymns and dirges absent from the play-list, Reggae and island music from Bob Marley and Desmond Dekker & The Aces set the pace.

Dress

Family and friends dress in their best clothing for a Jamaican funeral. Black clothing dominates both the religious service and the burial for both family and friends. The Nine Nights festivities have no formal color code, but conservative, dark attire dominates the fashion. Children wear white to symbolize their purity and innocence.

Offering Condolences

The proper way to offer condolences in Jamaica is to participate in the festivities. Declining to attend or participate shows disrespect. The occasions are large, often open to the entire community. Even the death of a homeless individual will find the streets lined with candles and filled with citizens of the community.

Woman Igniting Candles On Street At Night

Burial and Wake Yards

Following the Nine Night evening, the family commutes the body to the church and the land for burial. Musicians join the parade beginning again the sounds of the funeral. Along the pathway, community members come to the street to accompany the procession. The journey and burial end with another festive celebration. Food and drink vendors often arrive to encourage the party to continue.

Celebration and Tradition

Jamaica has a rich history featuring the traditions and culture of centuries. Jamaican funerals pay homage to the heritage and respect the death through a celebration of life. Every step in the process develops meaning and provides comfort for the grieving.

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The Jamaican Funeral: A Unique Blend of Traditions