Sunday, May 1, 2016

Death in Dominica

One of the best parts about serving in the Peace Corps is the opportunity to observe a different culture than my own. This is true even for sad events, such as a death in our village. Last Sunday, a woman died (may she rest in peace), but it gave me the chance to respectfully compare the similarities and differences in how death is handled here.

In order to protect the privacy of the deceased, I won't go in-depth on some issues, but instead will try to give you a few anecdotal observations. Be aware that this is merely my reporting on one single death, and is not meant to be a comprehensive study of how things are always done here. Hopefully, there won't be any more deaths in my village, because I don't want to become an expert on this topic. Heck, I do not even consider myself an expert on the death culture of America!

The body was removed from the house last Sunday and taken to one of two mortuaries on the island. On Wednesday evening, I was invited to the home of the deceased for a prayer meeting. Once family and friends had arrived, those who could fit inside gathered within the deceased's bedroom, while the rest of us huddled near the bedroom door and the surrounding area of the house. One of the respected women from the church led the gathering.

I'm still new to this whole Catholic religion, but I assume that she was reading from “the book of prayers.” It was punctuated with lots of short group prayers that the others knew by heart, as well as scripture readings and hymn singing. Upon completion of this somber ceremony, everyone shared cake and drinks before departing down the hill.

The funeral itself was held on Friday afternoon at our modest Catholic church. With no funeral home in this tiny village, the visitation and viewing was held prior to the funeral service. The open casket was located at the front door of the church, so that everyone passed by on their way into the service.

The funeral mass was similar to what I've witnessed in the United States, albeit longer than most because it included communion. The absence of air conditioning and the sound of the omnipresent village roosters crowing just outside were noticeably different than a typical American funeral. It was somewhat similar to a standard Sunday service here, and included a collection to defray the funeral costs. Family members and friends were given a special badge to wear for the service (mine is shown below).

Following the funeral service, the casket was transported a few miles to the Catholic cemetery in the larger town nearby. Attendees shared rides so that everyone who wanted to go could get to the graveside service. I would like to point out that I was encouraged by family members to take some pictures at the graveside service. This is something I have never done before—but then again, with cell phone cameras ever present these days, such picture-taking may be commonplace in America now.
The old cemetery is on a hillside with a nice view of the Atlantic, as shown above. Two men from the village had been hired to dig the grave, and had started working at 5:30 Friday morning to dig the deep hole in the steep, hardened ground before the sun got too hot. It took them nearly six hours to dig the deep rectangular pit. It was located along the edge of the cemetery, bordering an adjacent, undeveloped bushy area. The plot was on a slope, so one end required more digging than the other end.
At the graveside, the priest said some final words and then threw the first handful of dirt on the casket lid before it was lowered into the grave (pictured above—if you look close, you can see dirt on the lid as it descends). Hymns were sung, including many that were familiar to me, such as “How Great Thou Art,” “Blessed Assurance,” and “It is Well with my Soul.” In the photo below, you can see the corner of the grave pit beside the man in the left foreground with the blue, maroon, and white striped shirt and blue hat. To his right (with the grave between them) is a woman with a black and white dress. Above her head and to the right, you can see the priest standing above the grave in his white robe and purple stole.
The crowd lingered as the surrounding piles of displaced dirt were shoveled in, until the hole was filled-in completely. Then flower arrangements were put in the middle and cuttings were placed around the perimeter of this new grave (shown below). As the sun began to set, everyone departed the cemetery.
Most folks then convened at the home where the deceased had lived. A tent was set up in the yard, where food, snacks, and drinks were offered. That is one of the differences that I see between our cultures. In the United States, my experience has been that friends will often bring casseroles, cakes, and other food items to the deceased's home (and/or church), so that the grieving family does not need to cook for the visitors who come to comfort them.

Here in Dominica, the tradition is that the deceased's family is responsible for entertaining visitors with food and drink. In other words, if you make the effort to visit and console the family, then they should reward you with food and drink that the family has prepared or purchased. It is just a different way of doing things than I have previously experienced, but that doesn't make it wrong. In some respects, this responsibility may give the family something to do rather than overly focusing on their loss.

It is partly because of this practice that there is an emphasis on funeral pre-planning and insurance here. Funerals can be expensive for your survivors, so many Dominicans make the arrangements in advance and pay for them by installment plans. I think many Americans might benefit from contemplating their own death and preparing funeral service plans, wills, etc., even if they don't have to host their own guests.

Dying is a part of life, regardless of one's location on the globe. However, I hope that deaths are a rare occurrence in my village (as well as back home), and that this will have been my last opportunity to write about this topic. In the meantime, make the most of each day you have. I know I am trying to do just that!

Here is a shot of the interior of the Catholic church in our village where the funeral was held.
Notice how the holes in the cement blocks on the back wall provide ventilation.

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