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.