Dearly Departed - Wakes and Funerals in Barbados and St. Vincent and the Grenadines - Part I by Hakem Smart

Published Wednesday, 10 February 2016
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Research shows that many islands in the Caribbean share similarities with the rituals of death. Funerals and wakes have been traditional after the death of a loved one.   Dating back to the slave era, as a celebration of the life of the dead, so too, the departure of their spirits to the afterlife. To ensure that they rest peacefully, elaborate celebrations were held in their honour. This paper seeks to investigate the traditions of funerals and wakes, their similarities and differences in Barbados and the islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The tradition of wakes was held in high esteem as part of the cultural heritage of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, but not as big a tradition in Barbados. 


A wake can be defined as an informal and unstructured social gathering or vigil, associated with the death of someone and begins on the first night after the death, and traditionally takes place at the house of the deceased.  It is also defined as a viewing as many persons came to view the body of the deceased. The length of the period for the wake varies on the preferences of the family and can last from three to forty days. As the name wake suggests, those taking part in it were expected to stay awake throughout the night until the morning when they returned to their homes before they came again to continue the wake.


From the interviews conducted, it appears that wakes are not as popular in Barbados as they are in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. A wake, in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, is also referred to as a “set-up” however in Barbados, it was simply referred to as a wake. It is an important community or village event with many persons who were usually family or friends gathering at the home of the deceased.


Before the availability of funeral homes, the body of deceased person remained at home for no longer than three days until the funeral, and many persons came to see the body. The first night was usually very solemn as the sadness and grief of the family was usually raw and they were in the height of mourning for their deceased loved one.  People casually sat around, talked and comforted one another, sang special hymns and prayed. In both islands, persons who came to the home usually made contributions of food items such as rice, flour, oils and dried meats which were prepared throughout the nights of the wake. There was also an abundance of other food and beverages including bread, buns, coffee, cocoa, ginger beer and alcohol which was usually in the form of strong rum, to keep celebrants awake throughout the nights of the wake. In some instances, those who could afford, gave money to the family.


The second night of the wake was called Nancy or Anansi Story night where stories were told about the adventures of Brer Anansi, Brer Rat, Compere Lion and the devil. Dramatizations were often used to spice up the stories and make them funnier and more dramatic. This night involved the playing of card games, dominoes and other ring games, especially if there was moonlight.  


“Third Night” as the name suggests, was the third night of the wake and was slightly different from the first two nights. It was believed that the spirit of the dead had reached its final destination. This was usually the night prior to the funeral, which took the form of a prayer meeting with the singing of hymns and prayers being said for the soul of the departed and his surviving family.


On the fourth to eighth night of the wake, the activities were usually identical to those of the previous nights’ activities and involved a combination of singing, prayers, games and story-telling with food and drinks been prepared and served throughout the night.


The first nine nights of the wake were collectively referred to as “Nine Nights” and the final of these nine nights was probably the most important of the first nine nights. There was an abundance of more food and drinks than on the previous nights and more people attended the Nine Nights activities than previous nights.  It was in the form of a larger prayer meeting than was held on the third night, and was referred to as “Praise Night” or simply “Praise.” For this special night, a large tent was erected in the yard of the deceased, with a head table for those who would lead the nights’ proceedings, with chairs and benches to accommodate the attendants. The Spiritual Baptists or Shakers as they are called usually played an important role in the celebration of wakes on the ninth night, with the Pointer leading the activities.  In many cases this was usually repeated on the fortieth night after the death, and in some instances, repeated yearly on the anniversary of the death. The majority of activities during the nights, have decreased considerably in both islands over the years.


In the early days, before there were radio stations there were no public announcements.  In Barbados when someone died the announcement of the death was spread by word of mouth from one villager to another while in St. Vincent and the Grenadines there was usually a male a representative from the village who volunteered to be the “crier”. He walked around and announced the death from door to door and other villages joined in to spread the news. There was also a distinctive ringing of the bells of churches that signaled that someone had died in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. This tolling was very different and distinct from than which announced church services. However, when radio stations became popular in the early 1970s, death announcements became part of public information and this is still the tradition today in both countries. The obituaries provided information about the funeral, when and where it will be taking place and other pertinent details of the proceedings.

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