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How one woman is celebrating the lives of Caribbean elders

ROUNDED VIEW: Eulogy contributors, from left, Elizabeth Johnson, Alford Gardner and Yvonne English (photo: Joanna Crawford)

CARIBBEAN FUNERALS have always been about celebrating a person’s life. Whether it’s at the wake or the funeral service, family and friends gather to reminisce about the one who has passed on, share stories and enjoy traditional food and drink.

But when Leeds-based PR professional Susan Pitter’s parents passed away, followed by one of her father’s best friends, an idea was sparked to not just celebrate their lives but those of a generation of Jamaican migrants who had made the city their home after arriving in the UK in 1948.

“I lost my mum in 1995 and I lost my dad in 2017. So that’s twice our family have had to pull together information for eulogies and organise funerals,” recalls Pitter.

“And it hit me recently when we had to put together the hymns and photographs for my dad’s funeral order of service, and speaking to people who grew up with him, that this was his lifetime in a booklet.


EULOGY PROJECTS: Daniel ‘Sunny Man’ Bloomfield who came to Leeds from Jamaica in 1954 (photo: Gerald Donne Photography)

“Almost exactly a year after we buried my dad, one of his best friends died. And again I was looking through the order of service at his funeral and his eulogy and the amazing pictures that they took when they arrived here in this country, when they were young and full of hope and dreams and prospects.

“And it struck me that there is so much that my generation and those who are younger find out about first-generation Jamaicans, our parents and grandparents, on the day of their funeral or during that period of bereavement and grief. “So I figured that if one funeral programme with its eulogies, its order of service and photographs tells the life story of one person then a collection will tell the story of a generation.”

DEVELOP
Pitter then set about exploring how she could develop a project that would capture the lives of the city’s Windrush Generation and the contribution they had made to society. She contacted close friend and colleague Dawn Cameron, who is also of Jamaican heritage and with whom she had worked with on previous arts and cultural projects.

After partnering with Jamaica Society Leeds, they developed the Eulogy Project, which aims to celebrate the lives, heritage and contributions of those who made the journey from the Caribbean island and who have since passed away.

They approached the National Heritage Lottery Fund, which decided to fund the project to the tune of £81,900. Pitter began by launching an appeal to the local community for photographs and funeral programmes of Windrush Generation members who had passed away.

Typically, the funeral programmes include printed and read eulogies, and photos taken shortly after arrival to send home to family back in Jamaica. Like most West Indians new to Leeds, Jamaicans used Gerald Donne Photography on Chapeltown Road.


PICTURED: Susan Pitter

Together, the photos and eulogy tell rich life stories and often reveal new details – even to family members who have known them all their lives.

Pitter says: “What we set out to do was have a number of collection events.

“We started to engage with the churches and with the membership of the Jamaica Society as well. I’m from a public relations and communications background and I’m used to being available 24/7 through e-mail, social media and so on.

“And we quickly realised that this approach wasn’t going to work for this target audience. The people who have the stories, who have kept the funeral orders of service, are – in the main – first generation.

“So we had to rethink our strategy and communications and start to write letters, because not all of the people we were trying to reach were digitally engaged or used e-mail or a smartphone.

“This was wonderful and it really worked, because we had great turn-outs at these collection events where people brought along items that were precious to them.

“I feel humbled to be part of the project.

“We have 70 funeral programmes at the moment. “Included in the funeral programmes were the original photos of parents, grandparents, friends, and spouses, who came over between the 1940s and the 1960s and some of those photos are absolutely glorious and they really capture a moment in time.”

The content that has been collected will be showcased at the Eulogy Exhibition from August 1 to September 1 at Room 700 in Leeds Central Library running alongside smaller versions in community locations, as well as a Eulogy book, and online teaching resources at MyLearning.org.

Volunteers will receive training in heritage and other skills and will help to launch a Jamaica Heritage Trail in the city’s permanent collections of Leeds Libraries.

RESEARCH
They will also help with the collection of photography and community interviews.

Other parts of the Eulogy Project include a series of workshops by writer Colin Grant who will work with participants to help them research and write a life story and a programme called Sing A Sankey, which will explore the traditions and customs around Jamaican funerals from the Nine-Night and the wake.

Another part of the Eulogy Project will explore the music around bereavement. It will feature a gospel choir and attendees will be invited to sing along to the traditional choruses that are sung.

Partnering with The Jamaican High Commission in London, BBC Yorkshire and Radio Leeds, Leeds City Council’s Libraries and Museums and Galleries Departments and West Yorkshire Archive Services, the series of workshops and events that form the Eulogy project, running until early next year.

Pitter says that one of the most important aspects of the project is to present what she feels is a more rounded view of the Windrush Generation than mainstream media coverage has allowed.

“What’s really important for me personally is how we see this Caribbean generation given the current media narrative.

“We tend to see them as kind of one-dimensional, often portrayed as only victims of the Windrush scandal or of them having come here and given so much, which is absolutely true. “However, what is missing is showing them as multi-layered, multi-textured, ordinary people.

ASPIRATIONS
“They were young Caribbean people in love, going to work, raising their children, going about their daily business, working towards their dreams and aspirations.”

“Eulogy will not be mournful.

“It will be a touching, uplifting tribute to a generation, which includes my own parents, who left everything and everyone 5,000 miles behind to answer Britain’s call to its Commonwealth citizens.

“What’s great about the project is that it crosses generations, tells stories that anyone can relate to and reflects not only the DNA of the Jamaican community, but of the city too, and I am honoured to help protect and share their inspirational stories.”

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