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Friday, June 25, 2010

Witness to an Incredible Century

It’s late afternoon, but the sun is still blasting down. The ground is soaked from a weekend of torrential rain, and some of the pallbearers have thick cakes of mud on their shoes. I wonder how many verses there are in “When the Roll is Called up Yonder," as the small church choir, accompanied by an accordion, serenades Mrs. Leah Andall’s descent into her final resting place. Born in 1910, she was 99 years old- just 6 months shy of 100. I was stunned by the realization that someone who remembered the end of WWI, the slow, painful acquisition of civil rights, the rocket ascension of Eric Gairy (and his equally explosive fall: Maurice Bishop’s Revolution), the US Intervention, Hurricane Janet (1955), and Hurricane Ivan (2004), etc. was still alive and walking this earth! In this moment, I think of something my neighbor told me recently: “Even like 15 years ago, Grenada was all darkness and bush, man! Then, it seems like all at once, we got electricity, paved roads, street lights, running water, and cable television.” He might have been exaggerating a bit (after all, it was his political party that ruled for the last 15 years), but these things are all very new to Grenada. I mean, the grandparents of this woman in the coffin may very well have been slaves- slaves! - and her parents were probably not much better off. What an amazing time to live! The changes she witnessed and experienced first-hand are some of the most dramatic in human history. Standing there, sweating, I think of my own grandparents and feel a bit more appreciation for their history, which I’ve often considered, and try to see them in this same viewpoint- as a stranger. A lot can change in 100 years, man, that’s for damn sure.

This was my first Grenadian funeral. Interestingly, everything had seemed pretty ordinary up until now: the congregation at the church, the sermon and eulogy, the long procession walking behind the hearse, etc. But after the final few words in the cemetery, I noticed that the singing kept on going. Does “When We All Get to Heaven” really have this many verses? I think to myself. And I swear we sang “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” more than once now! I walk around the back of the crowd to get a better view. I’m somewhat embarrassed by the circles of sweat seeping through my shirt- until catch a glimpse of the grave scene. A few men from the funeral are shoveling wet, heavy mud, assisted by some Rastafari gravediggers from the cemetery- all bathed in sweat. It’s then that I realize we’re supposed to wait until the grave is entirely filled before we can leave! The men have mud all over them, too, and look to be struggling to finish. I walk back and wonder why all the cemeteries I’ve seen seem to employ Rastafarians- or why Rastas tend to be cemetery workers? It’s interesting because most of the people being laid to rest are devout Christians, but their last arrangements are then attended to by people of a totally different faith.

One of my co-workers, Kerry, comes and sits down on a gravestone next to me. His black dress shoes are caked in mud from a failed attempt at shoveling. He puts them in a bag and walks around the rest of the night in his socks. He’s a funny kid: didn’t know this lady in the least, but somehow he was able to jump in as a pallbearer and now as a gravedigger- as if he’s one of the family! “He did that last time, too,” one of my female coworkers explains, laughing. “He should be a politician- he’s so ambitious!”

And then there’s the crowd. It’s enormous- stretching outside of the church and probably numbering over 100 people. Most of them are friends of the family rather than people who knew the deceased. (As it goes, everyone is basically invited to these things.) The Prime Minister, however, was in the front row at the church, ostensibly because he actually knew Mrs. Andall. She was the grandmother of my boss at the Ministry, so I spontaneously jumped at the chance to attend when I heard about it earlier in the day. Our department actually had a bus pick everyone up and drive us to the northern end of the island (in Sauteurs). You would think the north end wouldn’t be too far since Grenada is only like 20 miles long, but it takes about an hour on the main road. (And it’s a rather sickening, bumpy hour with constant turns and sways.)

Finally the singing finishes and we walk back to the car. Next stop is “Happy Hour”- which I think in the US we simply call a “reception.” I have a beer and some food and sit awkwardly in the corner, trying to understand what my co-workers are saying to each other. (There is a definite language barrier here that I’ll have to talk about some other time.) We stay for about an hour and then head back to the southern end of the island in the bus. Later that week, I actually ran into the pastor who officiated the funeral. He remembered me well (not only was I the only white face in the crowd, but I was also under-dressed in khakis and blue dress shirt.) He tells me that it was a particularly lengthy service at the cemetery because the ground was so wet. “We normally don’t have to sing so many songs,” he joked. Then we both shared our wonder at the amazing century Mrs. Andall had witnessed. “I can’t even imagine what sort of conditions she was born into,” he admitted. “100 years. 100 years!! What a life!"