Wednesday, July 7, 2010

My Grandfather's funeral

I shed several tears when my Grandfather on my Mother’s side died. However, it was not because I missed him dearly, but rather from the stiff slap I received from my Grandmother that landed squarely on my jaw as my Grandfather’s body was being laid in the ground. My cousin Ken and I had seen it fit to run around the grave site, dodging in and out of mourners and family members gathered to pay their last respect. My Grandmother after several warnings to stop running and be still, stepped one foot back and with the stealth of a ninja cocked her hand back and swung it forward striking my jaw. Her follow through caught Ken square on his forehead at which time she quickly recoiled her arm - and still holding her Bible in the other hand - returned to her forward facing position as if nothing had just occurred.

The strike stunned me and pain shot through my jaw to the top of my head. I had decelerated my trot in an instant. Tears welled up in my eyes and as it reached its maximum staying capacity started pouring down my cheek. I finally stood still.

The death of my Grandfather introduced me to the ritual of burying a loved one in Trinidad.

First there was the wake that we attended in a small house on Seau Deau Road across the street from an open air bar. The brightly orange colored building bore the scars of years of neglect, wear, and tear. The paint on its facade was chipping and the routine noon gathering of patrons seemed to care less about the looks of the drinking establishment and more about the temperature of their beer.

The wake lasted three days – day and night. People who knew my Grandfather traveled from afar to pray with the family and offer their condolences to my Grandmother.

The wake was a festive occasion. My Grandmother and other family members cooked food, bought liquor, and fixed up the two room wooden shack that stood a few feet from the busy two lane narrow street that cut through Maraval village. The same street used by taxis and jeeps to transport people back and forth from Port of Spain to Paramin village located deep in the Northern range. A wooden bench next to the front door often had two men sitting on it, smoking cigarettes, drinking Carib beer, and commenting on passersby. Music from the bar’s juke box blared well into the night with songs by Roberta Flack, The Carpenters, The Four Tops, and many more U.S. groups.  And much to the distaste of my Grandmother, the music often would drown out the prayers given to secure safe passage into the afterlife for my Grandfather.

We had lots of food. There was fish broth, pelau, provisions, callalou, and various vegetables. There were lots to drink as well – rum, whisky, and Carib. Some people who visited the humble abode were unfamiliar to me. But they exhibited no hesitation or unfamiliarity with eating as much as one could devour. As I would come to know years later, there are some people who frequent wakes just for the food and liquor. The food and drink were consumed with expediency like vittles disappearing in front of a ravenous mob. Both men and women lost their inhibitions and spoke volumes of my Grandfather’s life as the night passed and empty liquor and beer bottles became more visible. I knew more about my Grandfather than I did when he was alive by the time I walked into the church on the day of the funeral.

The Maraval RC church where I served as an altar boy was filled with mourners paying their last respects to my Grandfather. The church was three-quarters filled with people. My Grandmother along with my sister and I sat in the front pew of the church. My Grandmother did not shed one tear as she sat three feet from her now dead husband. At the conclusion of the mass, my uncles rose to their feet, took the wooden casket, and carried it to the entrance of the church to begin its long procession to Calvary Hill behind the church where the burial ground was located.

It was a fairly long walk up a dirt path approximately 200 yards. My cousin Ken and I had started playing prior to the funeral and continued as the procession made its way up the hill to the burial plot.

The long trail of mourners reached the plot and people circled the hole in the ground trying to secure good footing on the soft brown crumpling soil. Two men dressed in pants and dingy colored white tee shirts stood over the plot with shovels in hand. By the looks of their clothes, they had just completed digging the hole. Two thick ropes were laid across the hole and held by two men on each end. The casket was laid over the ropes and slowly lowered into the ground as the men holding the ropes loosened their grip. The ropes were tossed into the ground and over the casket as it reached the bottom. The priest said some prayers as people started picking up dirt and throwing it on the casket below. The men with the shovels bent at the waste and started to pick up dirt with their shovels and tossed it on the casket.

Ken and I had started running around the plot playing tag. We were more interested in enjoying each other’s company than standing in the hot sun watching dirt being poured into the ground and listening to mourners bawl. It was on one of those passes behind my Grandmother, Ken in hot pursuit behind me, that I saw my Grandmother’s hand come forward but it was too late to dodge the blow. Like an insect being annihilated in mid-air, my jaw caught the full brunt of the swing while Ken received a glancing blow to the forehead. The fun was over. I stood their crying silently, watched as people made the sign of the cross, sloughed off the main group, turned, and slowly walked back down Calvary hill. My Grandmother gently grabbed my hand and started walking down the hill as the last dirt was poured and the two men started patting the top of the grave site with the back of their shovels.

For the next seven nights, family came over to our house to pray, eat, and drink. Women at first separated themselves from the men and said some prayers on their own. Then they joined the men and continued the prayers for what seemed like hours but was closer to sixty minutes. The seven-day prayer vigil continued every night without fail and was accompanied with a lot of family bonding. My sister and I were made to pray every second looking forward to the moment it ended.

To this day that is how funerals are carried out among the majority of African Roman Catholics in Trinidad and Tobago. When my Grandmother died some years ago, the ritual repeated itself at the wake on the hills of Mazzilli, the funeral service at the Maraval RC Church, at the burial plot next to my Grandfather on Calvary Hill, and the seven-day prayer vigil at my Aunt’s house. Last year, I attended my Grandmother’s (on my father’s side) funeral and participated in prayer on the last day of the seven-day pray vigil. In contrast to my youthful exuberance to play during solemn ceremonies, I cherished the time I spent with my relatives in Paramin last year, bowed my head in deep prayer, celebrated the life of my Grandmother, and wished the moment not to end.

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