I lost a lot of family members this last year and a half. All of them from my parents’ generation, and beloved cornerstones of my family—people my mother had known throughout their entire lives. Yet, at their funerals, I felt disturbingly empty and disconnected–I didn’t feel like I had lost someone; instead, it felt like I never even got the chance to.
I’m one of two sons of Jamaican immigrants, each of which hails from a vast family tree. At the time of this writing, I’m halfway through my twenties, and yet, it still feels like I’m discovering new branches. Every family gathering has a plethora of people who’d tell stories about me, from when I was too small to even pick my own nose–like how I used to eat paper plates, or that time I fell into a fish tank. The list of people I’ve pretended to know is longer than the ones I do.
To me, a family gathering is like a trip to Jamaica. While I have a strong grip on patois, the most common Jamaican dialect, the culture isn’t mine: I’m absurdly American. Normally, I’m not too hung up about that. I’ve always explained that I would like to understand more about my family’s old lives, with the understanding that I would never truly be like them. While they grew up on an island; I grew up in suburban New Jersey where all my friends were either Portuguese or Puerto Rican, most of them the children of first-generation immigrants like myself. Growing up, like many children of immigrants, I struggled with feelings of authenticity–feelings that I thought I’d conquered, only for them to come rushing back to me when my Auntie passed away.
“Once you hear all of these stories about this person you’ve never even met, it uplifts your spirits.”
In 2020, a year defined by the astronomical loss of human life, I was agonizingly frustrated by how emotionally distant I felt from the rest of my family when a death occurred. I saw the pain and grief my relatives were feeling, my own mother was inconsolable for days after each of the deaths–yet, the only thing I felt was anger. Anger at myself for not feeling that same weight of sadness with my mother and the rest of my family.
In Jamaica, there is a celebration called nine night. When a loved one passes, people will gather in someone’s yard and celebrate their life for nine nights up until the day of the burial to help say goodbye to the departed as they travel to the afterlife. Each night they drink rum, sing hymns, and share stories– often, many of the people invited won’t have even known the person. “It’s more for the living than the dead,” My mother, Carol Rowe Mair, told me. “Once you hear all of these stories about this person you’ve never even met, it uplifts your spirits.”
On the final night, it’s common for families to set up tables full of food and gifts for the departed before guiding them to their final resting place. Nine night, like many other aspects of Jamaican culture, are community-focused. It’s a pluralist culture where people don’t need much of a reason to go out and help other people.
No such thing exists in America–in contrast, the funerals here always feel very much like a time to dwell on the departed’s death as opposed to focusing on the life they lived. During the Covid-19 pandemic, big get-togethers weren’t possible, and opportunities to celebrate were few and far between. Comparing each of the funerals–the ones where we gathered en masse to the ones we couldn’t–was like night and day.
Those early gatherings provided opportunities to catch up and share stories of the departed, and my relatives were all too happy to talk about the ways I reminded them of my uncle, or a particular aspect of the story that everyone knew him for. I still remember the way my Mom’s face lit up at the sight of seeing everyone again, and to this day, she still tells stories about her siblings that have passed with a smile–it’s as though they never left.
Those covid funerals felt depressingly clinical in comparison–a series of motions we all had to go through so we could get on with the rest of our lives. How are we supposed to gain a sense of finality with our loved ones after spending just an hour or two in a church with someone who is paid to give speeches about a person they never knew, and will do the same for countless other families that same day? I don’t own a suit, but for some reason at those funerals, an expensive outfit is supposed to convey my love for my family. These things make the departed feel more like a number than a unique person. At my college graduation, I was but one of hundreds of other students, and it felt the exact same way here.
Although I never got the chance to know many of my relatives, and in result I couldn’t share in the same pain of my family’s grief; but through the stories they shared during nine night, I could come to understand the person they’d loved, and lost.
Through the stories they shared during nine night, I could come to understand the person they’d loved, and lost.
In America, death and dying are thriving industries-between a predatory medical system that punishes people for being ill with things like $400 ambulance bills. Many people can’t afford them-and in the U.S., the average cost of a funeral is $8,500. And in exchange for these exorbitant costs, you’re given the opportunity to cry in a room and watch your loved one be put in a box before returning to the monotony of everyday life.
Maybe we need less mourning and more partying? I can’t count the number of times a friend of mine has given me some eccentric request for their eventual funerals, asking for things like rock concerts, chocolate fountains, and drag races. I know I wouldn’t want my family to be paralyzed over my loss, and maybe my own funeral and burial process could reflect that—by celebrating my life instead.
I can’t afford an ambulance or even my own casket, and I have little reason to own a suit at this point in my life. Yet, for some reason, a loved one’s death involves buying nice outfits and gifts, then we all take our turns crying and frowning in front of someone we love. I’m not saying there’s something wrong with crying, I just feel it should be a little closer to the laughing, to the sharing, and celebration that rituals like nine night provides us. When I die, I want people to remember how awesome the party was, rather than the length of the eulogy.
Chazz Mair – As child of 90’s Arcades, Chazz most enjoys experiencing new things with people he’s never met before. Lover of fighting games, comic books, and radio. Prior to writing for Screen Rant, Chazz Mair graduated from The University of New Haven with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications. There, he worked in Radio, Television, Public relations, and Journalism. In his free time, Chazz does Stand-Up Comedy and can usually be found playing the newest fighting games around popular New Jersey hang-outs.