A Jamaican-American Funeral

[I had the privilege and honor of serving at the funeral of Flora Alexia Chin at Gates Presbyterian Church on Saturday, September 28.]

 

I am currently on pastoral emergency call for a local church whose pastor moved almost two months ago. Last week I was called to serve a family for a funeral. I met with a handful of family members two days before the service—and I knew this was going to be a special honor for me. Flora died at age 89. She was born in Jamaica and came to the United States as an adult with her husband, settling in Rochester. Their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, along with many nieces and nephews, form a large family. While those generations are American born, their Jamaican cultural roots are vital. We spent an hour planning the service as they graciously told me about their beloved mother, grandmother, and aunt (Auntie Flo).

 

A first challenge dealt with whether the casket could be open for the service, which was their desire. The church has a policy that caskets be closed for funerals. I agree with that policy, but I saw that there was a meeting of two cultures, both good and honorable. I suggested that the casket be open during a visitation hour before the service and then closed for the service. The church leaders and family agreed.

 

While I do not prefer the custom of open caskets for public viewing, as I sat silently in a pew, occasionally walking around to greet people during the visitation hour, I was moved by the tenderness and love evident as people quietly approached the coffin and paid their respects. There were tears and some audible sobs—all communicating the affection in which Auntie Flo was held.

 

A few minutes before the time for the funeral, the family and I exited to a side room. Simple white flowers were distributed to all the relatives. Then, the hour at hand, we processed back into the sanctuary. One-by-one and two-by-two, the relatives made that final journey to Flo’s casket. When all were finished, the funeral directors quietly and reverently closed the casket and placed a spray of red roses in it.

 

The service was filled with tears and laughter, as relatives and friends shared their memories. There is nothing unusual about that at a funeral or memorial service, but there was a depth to the comments that is not so common. A granddaughter reminded us that Flo often quoted Proverbs 22:6, about training a child in the right way so that the when they are old they will hold to it. That gives parents of wandering children hope. Then she scanned the congregation, seemingly making eye contact with every one of her cousins, to drive home the point. All scripture readings and quotations were from the old King James version, except mine. Two grandchildren sang solos beautifully. Knowing the size of the family and the number of people pre-selected to speak, they didn’t assign me a sermon (and I love preaching the Good News at funerals), but said I could say anything I wanted whenever I wanted. I contented myself to start singing “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine…” knowing they would quickly join in. We excited the sanctuary to the strains of “This is my story, this is my song, praising my savior all the day long.” That was well over 90 ministers after we had started. And it didn’t bother anyone one bit.

 

On Thursday I had suggested that from the sanctuary, the pall bearers would carry the casket right to the hearse. “Oh no,” one of them said. “She will be carried away in a glass-sided carriage, just like Princess Di was.” I asked, seriously, if horses would pull it. “No, a motorcycle will.” I couldn’t wait to see this carriage after the service. Sure enough, a glass-sided carriage connected to a motorcycle was waiting for the casket. When I saw that many others were snapping photos, I got out my iPhone and joined them. It was, indeed, a beautiful way to send off Auntie Flo.

 

The long procession of cars following the glass-sided carriage was quite a sight going from surface roads to an interstate highway and back to surface roads. A second motorcycle went ahead blocking off intersections, and stopping, almost by force, any drivers that didn’t know funeral procession protocol. He would not let this solemn procession be interrupted by the unknowing!

 

As the graveside service ended, the funeral director said a few words of gratitude to send us away, when one relative said, “We want to see it go down. Can’t we do that?” Yes, we could and we did. Two workers lowered the casket into the pre-dug hole. When they stood aside, one by one, we took those red roses we had plucked from the casket spray and dropped them into the hole and onto the casket. That is such a healthy way to honor that moment of finality. But we weren’t finished. One woman began singing a song with a simple refrain about saying goodbye to this world. Others joined her. Then she seamlessly moved into “I’ll Fly Away, oh glory,” with even more of us singing those well-known words.

 

The repast, the meal following the graveside service, was a Jamaican feast, as promised. At our tables in a jam-packed church fellowship hall, cups of goat-head soup were brought to us first. The Jamaican man t my left reminded me that enslaved peoples never got the best cuts of anything, so they learned to slow cook the lesser cuts with the right spices—and nothing was wasted, not even a goat’s head. The soup was delicious. And so was everything on the long serving table: white rice, brown rice with beans, cabbage in some exotic sauce, chicken in brown sauce, Jamaican jerk chicken, goat stew, small white fish (whole fish with heads intact) in onions, some other meat dishes, Jamaican bread, and more. And callaloo. There is a story there. At the Thursday gathering they said that there would be a Jamaican feast. I spent some summers in my youth in southern Caribbean islands and became fond of callaloo, a thick broth with cabbage, spices, and whatever else was available in it. I asked if there would be callaloo. They said no. But during the visitation, one of Flo’s daughters, Tammiko, came up to me and said that she had made a large batch of callaloo on Friday. The first bowl of it was brought to me at my table. It was all I had hoped for and more.

 

I had left my home at 9:00am that Saturday morning. I returned home at about 4:30pm, my heart filled with joy and gratitude for the rich honor that was mine to be included in such a day, such a sendoff. Auntie Flo, rest in the Lord’s peace. You are dearly loved.

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