Beloved Flower Lover,
A very traditional Jamaican culture or Jamaican custom is the Dead Yard.
When someone passes away in Jamaica, the entire community supports the family. One does not have to know the person who dies to lend support. Support comes from friends of friends and friends of family; even non affiliated persons from the community or neighbouring communities give their support. Giving this support in time of grief has become a Jamaican culture.
In many cultures, bereaved family and friends pay their respects and honour the memory of their lost loved ones in a variety of ceremonies and rituals. In Jamaica, these events are called Nine-Night or more commonly, Dead Yard or Set-up. But unlike a traditional Wake in Europe or North America, a Jamaican Nine-Night is a lively party.
Folk customs relating to death play a significant role in the Jamaican culture. This is due mainly to the general belief that there is power in death. Locals believe that the dead possess powers which can be used to bring about harm if the necessary precautions are not taken and the relevant respect shown.
Most death rituals practised in present day Jamaica are African-derived and date back to the time of slavery. In fact, there are striking similarities between the rituals practiced in Jamaica and those practiced in traditional West Africa.
One such similarity is the use of music and musical instruments to accompany rituals. Additionally, fundamental West African beliefs concerning death are very similar to the Afro-Christian beliefs of recent times.
West Africans conceive the individual as being made up of three components, the body, the soul and the shadow or ‘duppy’. This view is shared by locals, as well, especially those from rural areas. Another shared belief is that the souls of the dead return to the Supreme Creator and joins the other ancestral spirits. On the other hand, the shadow or ‘duppy’ wanders for several days after which it must be set to rest in the grave by appropriate rites.
The practice is steeped in the rich heritage of the population’s African ancestors. In the past, commemoration celebrations were held for nine nights following the death of a loved one (hence the name). On the ninth night, the mattress of the deceased was turned over and the celebration was kicked into high gear in an effort to encourage the spirit of the deceased to move on in to the light. When someone dies, there are rituals which are sometimes performed in the person’s home. The furniture in the deceased’s room is rearranged and the mattress turned over. This is to ensure that the person’s spirit (duppy) will not recognise the room, and therefore won’t want to stay there.
If a person dies at home, someone may sweep behind the body as it is being carried out of the house, so that the spirit will leave along with the body.
When a husband dies, the widow will often sleep in red underwear, or tie a red string or tape measure around her waist. These are believed to ward off the dead man’s duppy, which may want to trouble the widow (in a husbandly way) in her sleep.
Before a grave is dug, it is necessary for the diggers to have white rum on hand to pour a libation to the earth spirits before ground is broken.
Children are told never to point at graves, as this will cause your fingers to fall off, or other bad things to happen. If you forget, your only hope is to bite each finger really hard. (I’m grateful my fingers didn’t scar easily.)
The funeral service is held during the tenth day. While all the trappings of past ceremonies remain, nowadays, a Nine-Night is only held on the night before the funeral.
Celebrations typically start at 8 pm and continue well into the night. Persons, whether or not they were acquainted with the deceased, come out to join the celebrations. A table is laid out with food and drink, none of which should be touched before midnight. Legend has it that the spirit of the deceased should have the chance to eat, drink, enjoy the festivities, and hear the wishes of loved ones before passing on to the next plane at the Witching Hour.
At this time, celebrations reach fever pitch as a last hoorah, if you will, for the travelling soul and the spirits of the family’s ancestors are called upon to guide and The first night of the dead yard at the home of the deceased, a gathering of supporters come to show their sorrow and comfort the family. A game of dominoes and a few flasks or rum might mark the commencement of the night’s ritual.
Usually the game of dominoes and drinking of rum escalates into playing of music and eventually the main event, Kumina.
Drumming, primarily an African tradition or African custom which slaves used to communicate with each other from plantation to plantation is now a big part of the Jamaican culture. Playing of drums dated back to the early 1300 in Africa. In Jamaica the slaves who could not to see each other to talk, used the drums to send messages and news. The Plantation owners thought they were having their own kind of fun. When slavery became less conformed drumming was allowed for African celebrations.
Post slavery drumming for weddings and childbirth gave way to the announcement of the passing of a loved one. Thus the birth of Kumina, the music of the dead.
Over ninety percent of all deceased in the island of Jamaica have a Kumina band during the period between the passing and burial to play the drums.
Playing the drums is not a simple who wants to play or just hitting to find rhythm. Nearly all Kumina drummers are of Maroon decent. There has to be something in the blood, a calling from the ancestors. Kumina playing is a gift from the spirits, not just anyone can touch the drums.
During the dead yard, the ground where the drummers play has to be prepared spiritually, by sprinkling of white rum, or the blood of a white fowl (chicken) or the blood of a goat to welcome the newest arrival to the afterlife.
Nine-Nights typically incorporate numerous elements that combine Christian and African practices. These include:
Tasty food-Delectable Goat
What celebration would be complete without delicious good food! While Jamaica is known for its excellent cuisine, only specific dishes are served at a Nine-Night. It’s unusual to find the world renowned Jamaican Jerk at a traditional Dead Yard; instead, there will be heaping portions of goat and pork, with a few servings of chicken.
On the day of the Wake, the fattest ram (goat) is slaughtered (Jamaicans never eat the doe) and the meat and bones are cooked in a curry stew which is served over a bed of plain rice. The animal’s head, feet, and testicles (yes, testicles) are used to make a tasty soup known as Mannish Water, which is believed to enhance a man’s sexual prowess.
No Rum, No Nine-Night
The character Jack Sparrow in the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean, spent most of his time asking, “Where’s the rum?” Rum is so intricately intertwined with the tradition, that having a Nine-Night without rum is like having a funeral without a deceased person. Every household on the island has at least one bottle of White Over proof Rum.
The potent liquor is used for every conceivable purpose, from curing aliments to spicing up cocktails, and at a Nine-Night, white rum is distributed to fuel weary patrons and appease the roaming spirits of loved ones. White Rum is poured on the ground by close friends and family members to honour the memory of the dead during Libation rituals and the liquor also gives liquid courage to frisky old men trying to woo young ladies!
Life in the face of death dancing: The Dinki-Mini dance and Gerreh
Dinki-Mini is a dance which is Congolese in origin and features upbeat music peppered with sexual overtones. It’s not meant to be raunchy, but rather, Dinki-Mini symbolizes the creation of Life during a time meant to celebrate Death. In a sense, the suggestive moves and rhythmic drumming are meant to show that Death is powerless in the face of Life…
The singer calling for a ‘Driver’ isn’t doing so because he needs to leave the party. He is performing what’s called the Gerreh. According to tradition, his suggestive song is a way to request the help of his singers and the spirits to defeat Death by creating Life. His job is to make seemingly innocent words, provocative, and the singers are always ready to answer his calls. Dancing on bamboo poles is also another extension of the Gerreh.
The Kumina dancing
Kumina is another African tradition that is practiced during a Nine-Night, but it isn’t laced with overt sexuality like Dinki-Mini. There is no Gerreh or bamboo poles, and dancing during a Kunima performance is frown upon according to local legend.
Kumina is focused on the spiritual aspects of Death. There is a lot of conventions surrounding the practice. Kumina is only performed during a Wake and is believed to be a means of inviting the spirits of the family’s ancestors to help guide their loved one to the afterlife.
Singing a Sankey at a Nine-Night: “Nuh Sankey nuh sing so!”
Since many African traditions were forbidden on plantations, slaves would incorporate Christian elements to keep owners in the dark about their activities. As such, the tradition of singing Christian hymns to African rhythms has been passed down through the ages and is an integral part of a typical Nine-Night celebration.
In 1872, American gospel singer, Ira D. Sankey, with the help of evangelist Dwight L. Moody, composed a hymn book containing a collection of songs that have become the cornerstone of many Nine-Night celebrations today. The last portion of the Nine-Night video features a number of Sankey’s hymns, as well as others from various origins. In the past, these songs were performed by a band of professional funeral singers, who were hired with rewards of food and drink for their services. These traditional singers have given way to professional gospel bands.
Sankey’s songs have become such an integral part of Jamaican culture, that even the local dialect makes reference to them. The term, “Nuh Sankey nuh sing so” means that you are twisting the truth, telling an outrageous lie, or you are rebelling against an unacceptable situation.
“I heard that the sky is pink and that Government will ban all taxes, forever.”
“Liar! Nuh Sankey nuh sing so!”
Another part of this Jamaican culture for the dead yard is using the Duppy Band which is the alternative to the Kumina. There are some Jamaicans who are scared of the Kumina or they are Christians who want to keep away from the Paganism that Kumina portray so they use the Duppy Band instead. The Duppy Band consists of a guitarist, drummer, keyboard, maracas, tambourines and the lead singer. The sound is quite like the Kumina except for the other instruments in the band, like the guitar and keyboard.
Duppy in Jamaica means ‘ghost’ or ‘dead’. Duppy Band means Dead people Band or a Band that plays music for the dead.
Traditional Dead Yard Food and Drink
Not only did people from all around gathered to listen and dance to the very addictive sounds of the Drums or the Band but they also gather for the food that they knew would be served free of cost.
Traditionally it was fried fish and fried dumplings or slices of bread and a good cup of hot chocolate made from freshly parched chocolates. The cocoa is picked and the seeds removed and put to dry in the sun for a couple of days. The cocoa is then parched in hot stones or in a large kettle. The roasted seeds are then pounded in a large Mortar and Pestle and rolled into balls. When the balls are dry they are grated to make the hot chocolate. Coconut milk, sugar and nutmegs are used to flavour this drink.
For the strong of heart a good mug of freshly made coffee was preferred. The coffee would be locally grown by a farmer, friend or family. The beans would be put in the sun to dry for a couple of days then roasted in a large kettle then ground to a powder. The difference between the cocoa and coffee is the cocoa has quite a lot of fat so it gets pasty when pounded.
The Jamaican made rum, J. Wray & Nephew White Over proof Rum is and has always been the primary spirit of choice. This is drunk with a little water or for the more adventurous, some ice cubes with Pepsi or Coco-cola.
The modern generation has their own ideas about what the dead yard should be about and it has become a reason to meet and have fun. I have been invited on a date to the Dead Yard a couple of times.
The food has changed somewhat to sandwiches made of corned beef, tuna or cheese. A cup of soup made from goat meat, chicken, chicken feet or fish might be offered, depending on the family’s preferences.
There is no chocolate or coffee, but juice instead. The rum might be free but all other liquor is now sold for profit
Two of the common practices relating to death that are still observed in present times are the Set Up and the Nine Night. The Set Up is a type of wake where persons ‘set up’ or keep vigil for a certain number of nights, until early morning, usually prior to an important occasion. Traditionally, the Nine Night ceremony was said to be held nine nights after burial. However, lately, the Nine Night is held on the ninth night after the death of the individual.
An explanation for the difference in time calculation is that in earlier times, burials in the West Indies took place almost immediately upon death due to the warm climate. Therefore the Nine Night would be held on the ninth night after burial which also coincided with the ninth night after death. However, in recent times, burial takes place any where from ten to thirty days after death, so the Nine Night is observed nine nights after death. The significance of the nine nights is the fact that in local culture, it is believed that the spirit of the dead finally departs from the land of the living on the ninth night after death.
One very interesting point to note about the Nine Night ceremony is the fact that it is uniquely West Indian. Despite some African influences, there are no observed ceremonies in West African culture which share the characteristics of or serve the function of the Nine Night. The purpose of this ceremony is to ensure that the departed is given a proper ‘send-off’ so as to prevent his/her return.
Another area in which similarities exist between Jamaican and West African rituals is the use and/or symbolism of colours. The colour black is symbolic of death in both cultures. It is the colour most used by mourners as it used to express sadness in both cultures and is believed to be a deterrent to spirits. The colour white is the preferred colour for dressing corpses of older persons, probably because it is the colour used to show respect. White is also used to appease the dead and is one of the favourite colours for mourners. The colour red is a powerful one as it is symbolic of blood. It is mainly used to deter evil spirits.
Death rituals like those related to labour and delivery were not banned during slavery and so they served as a means of cultural preservation. Unlike birth rituals, however, although death rituals have also largely been replaced by Western conventions, some traditions remain strong.
In addition, as with the birth of a child, death and burial are still ways of bringing family and friends together. Indeed today the use of new embalming technologies allows many funerals/wakes to be delayed until all family members can arrive on the island. These events can range from small to extremely large as they are also used to showcase the financial and social status of the deceased and his/her family.
Today, Jamaican death rituals mix African and European cultural practices with Christianity. Christian hymns and references to the spirit’s journey to heaven are intertwined with African rituals aimed at placating the dead spirit.
Symbols of death include moths or birds flying into the sickroom or house where the dying person lies and birds singing late in the night. Red and white floral arrangements are also considered tokens of death’s arrival. Many death rituals transcend race and class and are derived from African customs. These include ensuring that the corpse is taken from the house feet first, stopping the clocks, covering mirrors in the house, wearing black, white or purple and rearranging the furniture so that the ghost will not find the place familiar if it returns.
Another African custom, still practised in some parts of Jamaica, is the passing of a young child over the dead person three times to prevent the spirit from causing any harm to them.
The cause of death was of great interest to those left behind and traditionally some corpses were given knives, razors or money with orders to avenge a death believed to have been caused by witchcraft.
The corpse might also have been given a horsewhip either a spirit to ride or kill the killer, or a broom tied in white cloth to sweep the yard clean. Other beliefs include the corpse getting heavier if standing before a door where a debt was owed, or if the dead was due to be buried in a place he/she did not want to go, as well as the coffin forcing the pallbearers to stop before the house of the killer and refusing to move at all.
It was important that the rituals were followed in a particular order so as not to offend the dead and ensure the spirit’s safe journey back to God. In African belief the self has three components – the body, the spirit and the shadow or duppy. Once the body is dead and the spirit began his/her journey to God, the duppy or shadow could live on and wreak havoc for the living if not given due respect.
Long ago, it was believed that the spirit would return to Africa and therefore sometimes messages were sent to loved ones in activities that occurred during the nine-day period which gave the living the time to ensure that the spirit understood that it should depart from its home.
Technically, the nine night is the period of mourning after death that culminates in ceremonies involving food and dancing on the ninth night. Following Christian custom, the soul’s ascent to Heaven is emphasised while African traditions call for more emphasis to be placed on placating the spirit of the dead person. Religious ceremonies tend to be staged first so as to ensure that the dead understands that it is time to leave his/her old home. If this is not done the spirit is said to haunt the living
During the 17th and 18th centuries, burials occurred the same day for the day after due to the tropical climate and the fear of disease. During that time, however, it was rare for ministers to perform funerals. The plantation owner would say a few words over the body or simply read excerpts from the Bible. Large stone markers as well as tombs and church monuments record the lives of plantation owners while few markers exist for those of poor whites, indentured servants or slaves.
Although slave cemeteries must have existed, the markers would most likely have been plants such as crotons and the coffee rose which symbolise everlasting life since they survive droughts. Peas and beans were also planted in the family plots to tie the duppies to the grave and prevent it from wandering around to haunt the living. No slave cemeteries have yet been found in Jamaica.
Through the years, shells were used to mark the graves of poorer Jamaicans until those who could afford it could erect a tomb. This is why in some cases memorials for the dead were held up to a month following the actual death.
For those Jamaicans who practise kumina, the tombing of a loved one occurred one year following his/her death and involved a significant rite. In general, however, certain protocols were followed for burial. When digging graves, for example, rum was poured into the ground to ask permission from the earth spirit. Graves were dug east to west and the body placed to face sunrise. Mourners would often take some dirt and with their backs turned to the grave throw it between their legs to prevent the dead from following them home. In addition, the deceased’s personal belongings were also placed on the grave to pacify the dead person’s spirit and prevent it from leaving the grave. These items were often broken in order to prevent more deaths in the family.
The dead yard is a vital part of the Jamaican culture. You don’t have to use a kumina or duppy bands to have a dead yard. You can gather and play reggae or gospel music so long as you have some sort of gathering.
So let us answer the other question, flowers or not at the funeral and through the nine night dead yard?
What do you think?
This fact sheet was complied from many sources: see below
Baxter, Ivy. The Arts of an Island. New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1970.
Beckwith, Martha Warren. Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaican Folk Life. New York: Negro
Brathwaite, Edward. Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica. London: New Beacon Books Ltd., 1970.
Brown, Marjorie. “Death Rituals in Jamaica: African Retention or Acculturation – A Synopsis”. In Social
History Project Newsletter. No. 12, Dec. 1985.
Pigou, Elizabeth. “The Afro-Jamaican Response to Death: An Introduction”. In Social History Project
Newsletter. No. 12, Dec. 1985.
Small, Jean. “Colour Symbolism in Afro-Jamaican Death Rituals”.
Senior, O. (2003), The Encyclopedia of the Jamaican Heritage, Kingston: Twin Guinep Publishers.