The Caribbean has a rich supernatural tradition which few writers have explored in their books, Nalo Hopkinson and Marlon James being among the notable exeptions. My upcoming release, Jessamine, features a ghost and makes references to a few supernatural practices or beliefs so I thought I'd do an occassional series on some of the more common ones. Today, I'm taking a look at practices and beliefs surrounding the dead.
As a child growing up, I often heard about ghosts or Jumbees from family and friends but I don't think anybody took these stories too seriously. Not in the light of day, anyway. At my elementary school, for example, I had to walk through an Anglican graveyard to get to school but I don't recall ever being afraid. Playtime was often spent playing tag as close to the graves as we could get away with before teachers noticed. Jumbees were the ghosts of the dead but there wasn't anything to fear from them during the day. At night, though, many people, particularly those in remote areas, closed all their windows and doors to keep the Jumbees out.
A hundred years ago, blacks in the Caribbean used to regularly put food and drink on graves so the dead wouldn't go hungry but, as time went on and the influence of Christian missionaries strengthened, this practice, like many others that hearkened back to Africa, faded away.
Some practices survive, however. In Jamaica and a few other Caribbean islands, the tradition of Nine Nights (or now Seven Nights) also known as Dead Yard or Set Up, is not just a chance for survivors to celebrate the life of the departed and eat a lot of good food. It's also the way to give them a proper send-off so they won't stick around. Basically, it's a wake which is held every night from the time the person dies until the ninth night. People sing hymns, pray and talk about the deceased. Lots of food and drink are shared out and, as you can see from the video below, a good time is had by all. I imagine the kind of Set Up a dead person has depends on what they were like or on who their survivors are - the first picture suggests a very different Set Up from the one filmed in the video.
After the ninth night, the dead person's mattress may be turned to the wall to signify to the spirit that it's time to move on.
I found this image on the web at Corbis Images.
Hmm, looks like fun, doesn't it?