Have you heard of a Dead Yard Party? I hadn’t till we arrived here in Jamaica where we’re staying with Mildred and Tony Beach, a Winnipeg couple who operate the Morning Glory Bed and Breakfast in Runaway Bay. One evening as we drove home from the tutoring centre where we work with Mildred and Tony each day, my husband Dave noticed a neighbor was roasting a whole goat on a spit over an open fire. “That’s a lot of meat for one family,” Dave remarked.
“It isn’t just for their family,” said Tony. “They’re preparing for their Dead Yard Party.” He told us when someone dies there are parties for many nights leading up to the funeral. Nowadays the parties often only last for a few nights but originally they went on for nine nights. Many people in Jamaica came to the country as African slaves and they believed it would take nine nights for the spirit of the deceased person to travel back to Africa.
These parties are a kind of extended wake where people celebrate the life of the person who has died. Unfortunately the father of three being mourned in our neighborhood was only in his forties and had died due to complications from drug use and AIDS.
Dead Yard Parties include plenty of singing. “ That explains the music I’ve been hearing at night,” I said. “It usually goes on till two or three in the morning.” Food is a key element of the parties with menus of roasted goat, fish, chicken and bammy-a Jamaican flat bread made with cassava. Apparently it isn’t necessary to have known the person who died to attend a Dead Yard Party. Some people’s social life revolves around attending Dead Yard Parties wherever they are held.
Last Thursday was the final night of partying since the funeral was Friday. I woke up at around 6 in the morning on Friday and the party was still going strong. A rousing version of the hymn How Great Thou Art was being sung in swooping fashion no doubt fueled by the amounts of rum consumed during the night. It is the drink of choice at Dead Yard Parties, which are a strange mix of prayers, hymns, popular music, high stakes domino games and dancing. On the final night of the Dead Yard Party the table is set with food, contributed by all who attend, but no one eats till after midnight when the spirit of the dead person is thought to visit the party on their way to their final resting place.
On Friday when we came home after tutoring, we drove by the neighborhood site of the parties. It was filled with people. Men in black suits, shiny shoes, white shirts and ties, little girls in frilly dresses, and women in sequined gowns and high heels wearing plenty of jewelry. Tony and Mildred told us there is usually a reception at the home of the deceased after the church service.
The next day Violet, our housekeeper, who had attended the funeral, said it lasted for many hours as person after person got up to pay tribute to the deceased. There was a lengthy sermon and much hymn singing and then a trip to the cemetery for the burial. As the hearse bore the coffin to the graveyard loud music was broadcast out of the speakers on its rooftop. Traditionally wet cement must cover the coffin once it has been lowered into the grave. Mourners watch as the concrete is mixed and poured.
Every country has its own way of marking the passage from life to death. Observing the rituals surrounding death in a country is a good way to gain a deeper understanding of its culture. It can also help us look at our own funerary practices in a new way.
Other posts about Jamaica…..