Rum, Reminiscence, and Death in Jamaica

Suitable for funerals and other occasions.

Rum killed plenty of people in the Caribbean, either through overwork in a distillery in the punishing heat or overindulgence in the finished product, so it is fitting that the beverage has such a central point in funeral rites in Jamaica. By tradition for nine nights after someone died a celebration of their life began at sundown, with stories about them told in between liberal toasts with white rum. A little was also always poured on the ground as a libation for the spirit, who was presumed to be present on those nights. The celebration peaked with a particularly festive and raucous celebration on the ninth night, featuring flirtatious dancing as a reminder that life goes on. On the tenth night the solemn and sober funeral took place – sober except for the gravediggers, who were paid in rum. I expect that they received their reward after their job was done, because even as simple job as digging a hole and refilling it later can be much more difficult when under the influence.

When it comes to arriving at work with a hangover for nine days straight, modern employers are much less tolerant than those of bygone eras, so these days the celebration is compressed into a single blowout on the night before the funeral. Modern gravediggers in the major cities seem to prefer cash, but those some in the countryside may still take their payment in the country’s most famous export.

A Strange Beginning For Asian Fusion In Flight

In my book I mentioned the ways in which airlines created themes aboard aircraft to make the flying experience more alluring and exotic. The most interesting of these was probably Northwest Orient’s “Fujiyama Room” which was the upstairs lounge aboard their Stratocruiser aircraft. In 1955 to celebrate their service to Tokyo and beyond in Asia, the airline put live bonsai trees and Japanese dolls aboard, painted Japanese calligraphy on the walls, and created a space that looked like this:

This looks like kitsch nowadays but was edgy in its time – remember that the US and Japan were at war just ten years before. The food was more reminiscent of a tiki bar than anything actually Japanese – here’s a description:

In the center of the large colorful tray was a pineapple cut flat on the bottom. The following items were skewered onto the pineapple with Asian type picks – shrimp, cheese, ham, cherry tomatoes, and various types of fruit cut into squares. Tray decorations included small wooden Asian dolls and other oriental trinkets, parasols and ribbons… 

Note that this meal service and decor was only offered on US domestic flights so that there was little danger that many actual Japanese people would see it – the flights to Tokyo offered standard service. After a few years the Stratoliners were retired in favor of jets, and the theme wasn’t replicated there. It remains an odd little milestone in air service, an exoticized Oriental fantasy to enjoy when flying between Minneapolis and Seattle.