Custom Search 1

Sending a loved one out in style

CELEBRATION OF LIFE: A New Orleans-style funeral procession lives long in the memory

THE MESSENGER of doom knocked on our door earlier this week. He was not unexpected. After all, my father has been ‘once a man and twice a child’ since being unable to speak for himself, let alone fend for himself, since being disabled by a severe stroke two years ago. Ever since then ‘Doom’ has kept on knocking, trying to get in but had been met with resistance.

Even so, we all know that we cannot resist forever. At some point, it may be today, it may be tomorrow, it may be in a hundred years. ‘Doom’ – that old man in a hoodie with his scythe – will have his pound or two of flesh. We are born to die.

For some reason, however, our attitude to death is different from other cultures. That final breath is no different for black people than it is for any other peoples. But our response to it is a sight to behold.

The legendary photographer Charlie Phillips has shown as much with his excellent book and exhibition ‘How Great Thou Art’. His photographs have been of some comfort to me personally in this most devastating of weeks. They have put a smile on my face in my time of despair. Being able to reflect on how ‘xtra’ we can be when it comes to dealing with death and facing ‘Doom’ has made me remember that there is something that unites us as black – if not in life, then in the other place.

Especially, if you don’t mind me saying so, you lot from Africa via the Caribbean. You have really turned the Victorian custom of over-the-top interment into an art form. A celebration of life. As it should be.

For instance, it’s not until you see Charlie’s photograph of what looks like a sound man, standing on the at back of a Land Rover covered in floral tributes, making its way through a cemetery, that you understand that a hearse is not necessarily a hearse. Without the requisite deceased in the back of it, it’s just a vehicle. And it’s not the vehicle that matters but the coffin. And if the dearly-departed was a rover on land, a Land Rover would better suit proceedings.

Yes, we do death differently. There is a whole lot of meaning in the way we pay our respects. A lot of deep meaning. Some of it harks back to our African ancestry where death was a celebration of life. More time such a celebration caan dun in a day, hence your nine nights. Or more.

Some of it is just how we style things out in life and want to go out in style, too. I’m talking shocking out, not go- ing mournfully and miserably in the Victorian way that has informed the way that death is marked nowadays.


The Victorians were a miserable bunch. You only need to see how Queen Victoria dressed dour for most of her life after her beloved Albert passed away when she was still relatively young. She mourned him for the rest of her life. But what good did that do? Nowa- days Albert is nothing more than a hall. A royal one, I’ll give you that, but a hall nevertheless. Compare her grief to the celebration of life at a New Orleans funeral, the kind of occasion that gave life to a musical art form called jazz.

The first thing I saw when I first arrived in New Orleans in 1990 was a funeral. On the other side of the road as I was being driven from the airport. You could have mistaken it for a party. There was a whole band with cheerleaders/professional mourners dressed in white.

There were probably 50 of them ahead of the ‘hearse’ which was a white stretch limousine. By the time I had completed the 10-mile journey from the airport to downtown New Orleans I had passed three such funerals.

That kind of funeral will be remembered and talked about by those in attendance for years to come. Heck, you don’t have to be in attendance, here I am talking about them 27 years later. You don’t forget a funeral like that. And if the next of kin do their job properly and feed and water you not just well, but sufficiently, you will toast their departed loved one for years to come with tales of what a wonderful funeral it was and, by so doing, keep the memory of the deceased alive and well. For a generation and more they will live on.

All this is by way of saying, thank the Lord for the African and Caribbean Funeral Services in Stoke Newington Church Street in north London. Quite apart from anything else it is virtually the only black business standing on a road which was once upon a time 50 per cent black and 50 per cent white. But, hey, this ain’t about that. It’s just pleasing to see a black business that actually owns the building that they are situated in so no amount of gentrification can push them out. In other words, there’s a lot of money in burial. Alongside hair and beauty, it is the most lucrative of black businesses. Whether it be in Jam- rock, Naija or Inglann.

Quite apart from that, it don’t matter how far away I am, when I go I want a culturally specific funeral service, or more specifically a black undertakers to take care of me. They get it. They get how we are.

They get how culturally significant a burial is. It is prob- ably the best decision I have made in this week of my grief, to give my father a send-off using the services of funeral directors who will maintain his dignity and the dignity of the occasion as we see it. When you’re grieving, the last thing you want is to have to inform the undertakers of how to x the yoruba cap on a man’s head.


And, also, only an African/ Caribbean funeral service can advise you on the cultural importance of performing the funeral as early as possible in these short and cold winter days because they know black mourners are uncomfortable about being in a cemetery as darkness falls... and the dup- pies come out.

My old man would have laughed out loud at that one. And no doubt he’ll still be laughing when he taps me on the shoulder tonight and says, “Dotun, Dotun, Dotun... you don’t still believe in ghosts, do you?”

Dotun Adebayo presents Up All Night on BBC Radio 5 Live on Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings (1am-5am) and the overnight programme on BBC Radio London Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday mornings (1am-4am). He also presents the black-interest debate programme Dotun On Sunday on BBC Radio London on Sunday evenings (8-10pm).

Read every story in our hardcopy newspaper for free by downloading the app.

Facebook Comments