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Catrinas, one of the most popular figures of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico.

Mexico’s Day of the Dead isn’t really a funeral custom as such, but because it is a day when people remember the dead, it fits right in with this series.

The Dia de los Muertos isn’t one day, but two. It’s related to All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which take place on November 1 and 2 respectively. Mexican civilizations have been observing celebrations of this type for up to 3,000 years. In the Aztec period, the festival that was the forerunner to the modern holiday ran for a whole month!

To keep things simple, each day has its own function. In many parts of Mexico, children who have died are remembered on November 1, and that day is dubbed ‘Dia de los Inocentes (or Angelitos)’ – Day of the Innocents (or little angels). November 2 is for remembering adults who have died, and is called the Day of the Dead.

Key parts of the ceremony include visiting cemeteries, cleaning and decorating graves (with marigolds and offerings). These offerings may include toys for children, food, bottles of tequila or mezcal and other trinkets or favourite items. People may also set up shrines or alters in their homes. This is also a public celebration, which takes place in schools as well, while persons may choose to show their respect by creating poems and songs.

Skulls are key symbols of the holiday, to be seen both as masks and as candies.

There are a number of local variations in the celebrations, which also take place in Mexican communities in the US and in other Latin American communities. Many other cultures also have similar celebrations, which only serve as concrete evidence that mourning and celebrating the lives of our loved ones is a universal impulse.

Halloween Island?

A Bajan Halloween

Right now, thousands of Bajans are getting ready to celebrate Halloween. To tell the truth, I can’t understand this sudden fervour for a festival (if you could call it that) that has nothing to do with us. It’s yet another American import – they have made this a holiday since back in the 19th century, but in other parts of the world, it’s part of mourning and celebrating those who have passed – no silly costumes in sight. I certainly won’t be dressing up, but if we have to focus on ghost stories and general spookiness, let’s at least make it culturally relevant. Any ‘granmuddah chile’ could tell you, that we in Barbados are chock-full of scary stories…Steel Donkey, Heart Man, Baku Man…. The list is seemingly endless. Today however, probably due to our peculiar bias, we are going to talk about the Chase Family Vault.

The History of the Vault

The vault is in the graveyard of Christ Church Parish Church. Back in 1724, James Elliot had a vault built, partly underground. In 1807 on 31st July, Thomasina Goddard was buried there. Seven months later, on 22 Feburary 1808, the Chase family, an important but highly disliked family at the time, acquired the vault and little Mary Ann Maria Chase, Thomas Chase’s infant daughter, was interred there. In 1812, his other daughter, Dorcas Chase joined her. Both girls’ caskets were made of heavy lead, so it was a big surprise when the vault was opened later that year (this time to bury Thomas Chase) and the caskets had moved. In fact, Mary Chase’s casket was standing on one end, with the head pointing down. The caskets were put back into position.

In 1816, when the vault was opened again for the burial of infant Samuel Brewster Aimes, the Chase family’s coffins were found in a state of disorder. Again, they were moved back into position, and the vault sealed in cement. This time, to make sure that this was not the work of pranksters, the floor of the vault was sprinkled with sand, in the hope of capturing any human footprints.. Later that year, when the vault was opened for the interment of Samuel Brewster, the same thing happened. And it happened again in 1819 with the burial of Thomasina Clark. Each time the vault was resealed.

Chase Family Vault at Christ Church Parish Church

Unsealed and Displaced

At this point the governor of Barbados, Lord Combermere, got involved, examining the vault thoroughly. After establishing that there was no secret way into the vault, the coffins were put back in order and the vault was sealed with the official seals of the Governor and his staff. Eight months later, in April 1820, the vault was reopened. Although the seals were intact, the coffins had again been moved. At this point, it was decided to abandon the vault. At the request of the family, all the coffins were removed and buried in graves and the vault still lies empty in Christ Church Parish Church today.

Although there have been many theories about the cause of the displaced coffins, the mystery still remains. Spooky, isn’t it?

Still alive… and kicking

… but not blogging

You all know how it goes, you start out doing something with the best intentions…and then life happens. Well that is exactly how it has been going with this blogging experience. Nevertheless, I plan to soldier on… It has been suggested by persons far wiser than I, that we should do a series on Funeral Customs around the World. Soooo… I believe the very next posting you see from me will be relating to that.

Here’s hoping that you enjoy…

Sartorial Splendor

Recently, a particularly precocious little girl, while at the funeral of her grandmother, wondered aloud about whether the undertaker “was going to carry gran-gran to heaven [by way of] using his Superman cape.” It brought to mind a question we had hoped to look at…. Why do Undertakers wear what they wear?

Anyone attending a funeral in Barbados can, without a doubt, immediately spot the funeral director. Bedecked in tailcoat, waistcoat and pinstriped grey pants he is often the most flashily dressed male present despite the muted palette of his clothing.

The traditional dress of the male undertaker in Barbados is a variation of the traditional British morning dress, the formal daytime dress code. For men this consisted of

* Morning tailcoat
* Waistcoat (black for funerals)
* Formal striped or checked trousers worn with braces
* Formal shirt with tie or ascot
* Handkerchief or pocket square placed in front breast pocket
* Black Oxford shoes or dress boots
* Optional top hat and other accessories

An all black version of the morning suit is sometimes referred to as a mourning suit and was the traditional wear for funerals.

Being the suitable attire for important social events, morning dress was naturally worn to funerals; a tradition still carried out by funeral directors in Barbados today. This strict code is often relaxed by local undertakers to include dove or charcoal grey coloured waistcoats. Indeed, there are few ‘modern’ men who still employ the use of braces or suspenders to hold their pants up. Top hats, though a rarity, are also not unheard of.

But what of female funeral directors? Morning dress for women was simply an appropriate dress. This would hardly allow female undertakers to distinguish themselves from the other female mourners in attendance. Instead they opt for a feminised version of the men’s attire. They are often seen wearing black or pinstriped skirts, formal shirts with optional tie or neckpiece and a black jacket though without tails.

One must be well turned out, at the ‘turn-out’. Sartorial Splendor, indeed!

Say What?!?

We Bajans love to laugh as much as anyone. Although funerals are sad and emotional occasions, that doesn’t mean we can’t lighten the burden with some humour. Here are some funny quotes about death and funerals I found as I was trawling the internet. Believe it or not, some people actually use these in eulogies!

On Death

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
– Jerry Seinfeld

“It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
– Woody Allen

“Dead man cyaan run from ‘e own coffin.”
– Bajan proverb

“Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.”
– Isaac Asimov

“Sickness an’ death does mek alteration.”
– Bajan proverb

On Funerals

“A friend of mine stopped smoking, drinking, overeating, and chasing women — all at the same time. It was a lovely funeral.”
– Unknown

“In the final analysis, it’s true that fame is unimportant. No matter how great a man is, the size of his funeral usually depends on the weather.”
– Rosemary Clooney

“If you don’t go to other people’s funerals, they won’t go to yours.”
– Bob Monkhouse

“They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad to realize that I’m going to miss mine by just a few days.”
– Garrison Keillor

“In the city a funeral is just an interruption of traffic; in the country it is a form of popular entertainment.”
– George Ade

On Eulogies

“I’m always relieved when someone is delivering a eulogy and I realise I’m listening to it.”
– George Carlin

“A funeral eulogy is a belated plea for the defense delivered after the evidence is all in.”
– Irvin S Cobb

On Life after Death

“I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter. ”
– Winston Churchill

“For days after death hair and fingernails continue to grow, but phone calls taper off.”
– Johnny Carson

“My uncle Sammy was an angry man. He had printed on his tombstone: What are you looking at?”
– Margaret Smith

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work… I want to achieve it through not dying. ”
– Woody Allen

“I don’t mind dying, the trouble is you feel so bloody stiff the next day.”
– George Axlerod

Life after Death….Online

After taking his enlightening and spirited trip in ‘A Christmas Carol’, Ebenezer Scrooge declared that he would “live in the Past, Present, and the Future.” Life as we know it today makes that possible I suppose, but the question is, do we really want to? And if not, what happens to your online life when you die?

Picture credit: Phil Date

Ok, so this article is a bit of a re-tread, as I have touched on this topic before, but I think it is important enough that it deserves deeper thought…. and apparently the organisers of Digital Death Day agree with me (they’ve got a whole conference planned around the topic!).. This has been discussed up, down and sideways on the web, and I believe it is something that Barbadians need to worry about it as much as anyone. Maybe we don’t give it more than a passing thought because pondering our mortality is a bit of a downer, or because we somehow view what we do online as novel and ephemeral, the latest fad, although by now, I think most of us realise that it really has passed that point…

Last time I checked, there were about 93,000 Barbadians on Facebook (about a third of our population) and who knows how many Bajans are all a-twitter on that and other social media sites. The vast majority of us have e-mail accounts and make frequent use of online banking and shopping options, whether it’s at B.P.W.C.C.U, Capita Financial, or Aladins Treasure Chest. All of this can add up to a substantial digital estate which, much like ‘real’ estate, can lead to its own peculiar brand of issues when we die.

So, how well prepared are you for the e-afterlife?

Think about it – we’ve always been advised that our passwords should be private. “Don’t write them down! Don’t share them!” we’re constantly told. So, in a case of sudden death, all our online assets immediately become inaccessible. For players?/avatars? on sites like Second Life, many of the assets in the game have actual monetary value, which ordinarily would have passed on to relatives of the deceased, but which now, according to the North Carolina Journal of Law and Technology “will expire when we do. Presently, heirs must look to the courts to gain access to the digital assets retained by these companies”.

Thankfully, many companies have realized that there is a problem and have changed their policies to ease the process. Hotmail lets relatives order a CD (people still use CDs??) of all the messages in a deceased user’s account if they provide a death certificate and proof of power of attorney. Gmail requires the same paperwork plus a copy of an e-mail the deceased sent to the petitioner. Photo-storage site Flickr will keep an account up and mostly open to the public, but if a user had marked any photos as private; the site won’t let family or friends into the account to access them. On Facebook you can choose whether to leave a profile up as a memorial (which means no status updates and no voyeuristic new friends) or take it down completely.

Perhaps because this is an ‘online’ problem, maybe the best place to look for a way to deal with it is there. Sites like Legacy Locker, iDeparted, DeathSwitch and VitalLock offer encrypted storage for passwords and other sensitive information.

My advice? Set a beneficiary for your online accumulations, thereby ensuring that the right people have access to both your online bank account and your social media profiles after your passing. Why? Because it always makes sense to pre-plan, that’s why (shameless plug, forgive me).

Meanwhile, for those of you who are interested, here are two ways to ensure that your memory never fades – the E-tomb (which still amazes me) and the memory box.

See? So there is life after death!

Barbadians generally are not big talkers. We aren’t known to be showy with our innermost feelings either. Having a death in the family can trigger an outpouring of emotion and confusion, especially from children who might not fully understand what’s going on – or how to cope.

Questions and Explanations about Death

At Tudor’s Funeral Home, we believe the best way to help your child understand and cope with the loss of a loved one is by encouraging questions – even if you, as the parent, don’t have all the answers. Children see characters die on TV and read about death in books, but many times questions about death are not resolved in cartoons or stories, and children are left to create their own interpretation based only on what they see.

Because young children (4-6 years-old) are very literal, they tend not to understand the finality of death. Perhaps, it is best to explain the passing in terms of the body ceasing to work and doctors not being able to fix it. Also, try not to over think your answers. If your child asks where the deceased has gone, keep it simple with direct answers like ‘the cemetery.’ You may wish to introduce your beliefs at this point, but be cognizant of the fact that this may cause some confusion and may be better understood when the child is a little older.

As children move into the 6-10 age range, they have a better understanding of death, but still may not realize that every living thing dies at some point. They may also think that they somehow contribute to death through their actions (marks at school, wishing, etc). It’s best to acknowledge this – even if you don’t know for sure if a child is having these associations – to clear up any possible misconceptions.

As they move into adolescence, they begin to realize their own mortality and you may find that they become more reluctant to do things which they previously enjoyed, but now view as risky – such as flying or playing sports. It’s important to explain to them that despite what they may see in the newspaper, in movies, or on television, the world is still a safe place.

Celebrating Life – Children at Funerals

Only you will know if it’s appropriate for your child to attend a funeral or ceremony. If you decide the time is right, describe to them what they’ll see and how others may be reacting to the death of a loved one through crying, sobbing, hugging and reflection. Explain appropriate behaviour and your expectations for them as early as you can.

Final Notes on Discussing Death With Your Child

If you think your child might be embarrassed or feel awkward about the discussion, ask a trusted family member or friend to help with the process. Sometimes, children need to hear words about death from someone with whom they aren’t as close. Regardless, be willing to entertain questions and provide the best answers you can when discussing death with your child. Feel free to visit our Children’s Corner for more information on this topic…

Bob Marley. *sigh* Reminders of my youth. Good times.

Obviously that love is not coming from any of the readers of this blog (all two of you) since, lazy as I am, I have not been posting as I should.

Anyways, iMortuary came out with another kewl iconographic, just in time for today, that I thought you would find interesting; it is also tripling as my lame attempt at an apology; and an indication of my continued foray into the world of blogging (kindah). Enjoy!

Loved To Death

Tweet from the Grave??

Ok, so I heart technology.

From as far back as I can remember, I have been a gadget geek. No two ways about it. The only techno-train I haven’t boarded is that of the BB, and that friends, has been a struggle. But I must say, that even the electronics’ lover in me was slightly weirded out by the latest in memorial gadgetry. The E-tomb.

This nifty device allows mourners to interact with the grave in what TechNewsDaily writer Stuart Fox calls “a perpetual chat room where loved ones and well-wishers can post reminiscences.”

Here’s how it works. Designed by Huang Jianbo, Zhao Ting, Wang Yushan, Ran Xiangfei & Mo Ran, the eTomb, which physically resembles any other tombstone, is equipped with an information-processing terminal that holds the digital remains of the deceased. With a mobile phone or any Bluetooth-enabled device, mourners access the stored information, which can be anything from Facebook pages to twitter feeds.

Ever concerned with our carbon footprint, its solar panels will ensure that the dead remain eco-friendly in the afterlife. If it is approved for production, the eTomb will surely give the grave-going experience a digital makeover. For one thing, it will certainly help mourners remember the deceased for what most of us social-media-loving-people are: over-sharing, narcissistic technophiles.

But joking aside, there is a more serious implication to this. As we ruminate and ponder over the best ways to remember our loved ones in this technological age, we have to recognise that the future of this concept design will ultimately lie, not with us, but squarely on the shoulders of the social networking sites, as it is their death policies which will determine just how much and what information can be bandied about. The only social networking site that probably won’t have to become embroiled in the fray? Well that’s easy…Foursquare.

Stranger than fiction…

Truth really is stranger than fiction!…

Grave Curiosities

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