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Jamaican Funeral Traditions and Customs
How We Mourn Our Loved Ones

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funeral_homes_in_mandeville_lyns.pngJamaican Funeral Traditions and Customs

By Venesha Johnson | Associate Writer

In Jamaica, we will find a reason to celebrate just about anything, even death! From the time our loved ones pass to the day of their burial, we have many activities and events to truly celebrate the life they lived alongside our relatives, friends and acquaintances. Our culture and customs dictate it. So, let’s get into some of our Jamaican funeral traditions and customs whenever we lose a loved one.

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Candlelight

It all starts with the candlelight event. This takes place 3 days or exactly 1 week after a person dies and is a much more “chill” event compared to a “dead yard” (we’ll get into what this is soon, don’t worry). The family members, friends and members of the community usually come together to light and place candles lining both corners of the street, leading to the home of the person who died. Candlelight nights vary, sometimes it is just a few persons lighting candles and sometimes it can turn into an entire party with music and food.

Grave Digging

Leave it up to us Jamaicans, to turn something as simple as digging a grave into a major event. Unlike solitary burials, here, the entire community gathers to make the final resting place. The day is anything but sombre; it's a lively affair with music, food, and drinks marking the occasion. Even passersby join in. As a matter of fact, on some occasions, the celebration runs so wild that the actual digging of the grave is completed the next day.

Nine Night and Dead Yard

After the grave digging the next major event is the nine night. Held on the ninth night after death, it's a joyful tribute to the departed soul. Think of it as a wake but with our Jamaican twist. Depending on where on the island you are, nine nights can be a bit different. Some persons stick to the old tradition of having a nine-night on the ninth night after death, others have a nightly week-long celebration leading up to the day of the funeral.

Some persons only keep a Dead Yard on the eve of the funeral. Whichever way you choose to do it, it is essentially the same; a night or nights, filled with music, food, dancing and lots of alcohol.

Funeral Service

After the nine-night and dead yard, the funeral is next. This may be the only time that you see family members outrightly mourn. Services are usually held at the church the loved one attended or the “home church” of the family. Family members and friends share stories and fond memories of their time spent with the person who passed, the pastor preaches and lively songs are sung. It’s a day focused on celebrating the life lost and offering support and comfort to those in mourning.

Burial Site

Following the church service, the burial usually takes place immediately after. Something that might be uncommon where you are from, is for each family to have their family plot in their backyards. Cemeteries are used as well, but you will most often find Jamaicans burning their loved ones close to their home or on family-owned property designated as the family plot.

The graveside has its own unspoken rules as well. The family will bring the casket to the graveside where the loved ones will get a chance to say goodbye. This is usually the most difficult part because of the finality of it all.

Customarily, the pastor will say a final prayer and songs like “Bye and Bye When the Morning Comes” by Hank Jones and Thad Jones, “Some Sweet Day” by Zap Pow and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” by George Banton are song by everyone while the body is lowered. Family members will even add some of their loved ones' favourite things inside their graves, commonly money, jewellery and alcohol. Once the grave is covered, various bouquets and wreaths are added to the graveside. Once done, everyone returns to the family home for the repass.

The tears are forgotten for a while and food and drinks are served yet again. Curried goat and mannish water are must-haves at a funeral in Jamaica.

Sadly, it is often through the death of a loved one that family and friends who haven’t seen each other in years, have a chance to reunite and these moments are not taken for granted. Drinks are had, fond memories of the deceased loved one are shared and pictures are taken to solidify the memory.

Most times this leads far into the night and, in some cases, to the wee hours of the following day.

Those are just the basics. But Jamaicans are very superstitious people as well and many believe in an afterlife and duppy, even today. So many other rituals also take place. These are just a few:

  1. On the day the person dies, you will see the persons with whom they lived, in red or black clothes, often worn on the wrong side. Also, a tape measure is placed on the doors of the house.
  2. As night falls on the ninth day, the furniture is rearranged, mirrors covered, and mattresses flipped—a symbolic gesture to confuse the spirit and ease its transition.
  3. Others believe that the dead are raised and will return home in spirit after the third day, so they ensure they get rid of all personal possessions from their home before the third day, so the spirit will not return.
  4. To avoid the living being “reflected onto the dead”, all of the mirrors in the "dead" room must be covered. This keeps the living from becoming hopeless. According to some, the room must remain unaltered for nine nights with a bowl of water and the lights on. It's necessary to empty the water every morning.
  5. To prevent the “duppy” from following you home when you leave a wake, just touch the person leaving with you; do not declare it. Duppies walk in a straight line, so you should also walk backwards and turn around three times.
  6. The burial should be dug by an odd number of men or one guy. The digger ought to sip some rum after making his initial excavation. The corpse must be buried facing the sun with the burial dug from east to west. To stop the spirit from following them home, the diggers must fill the grave while standing with their backs to it and hurling dirt in backwards between their legs.

So you see, in Jamaica, the death of a loved one is a celebration of life and a time to come together and lend support to each other. While condolences are nice, the best way to show your respect is by participating in a few of the events. Declining to attend is seen as a sign of disrespect and is frowned upon.

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References & Sources For Jamaican Funeral Traditions and Customs

  1. (No date) Jamaica Gleaner : Pieces of the past: Out of many cultures:: Deadly superstitions. Available at: https://old.jamaica-gleaner.com/pages/history/index.html (Accessed: 15 May 2024).
  2. 9 Jamaican funeral traditions to better understand the culture. (2024) A Jamaica Experience. Available at: https://ajamaicaexperience.com/jamaican-funeral-traditions/ (Accessed: 15 May 2024).
  3. Jamaican funerals: Traditions, Customs & Etiquette: Cake Blog (2024) Cake. Available at: https://www.joincake.com/blog/jamaican-funeral/ (Accessed: 15 May 2024).
  4. May, T. (2023) The Jamaican funeral: A unique blend of traditions, LoveToKnow. Available at: https://www.lovetoknow.com/life/grief-loss/jamaican-funeral-unique-blend-traditions (Accessed: 15 May 2024).
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