On the evening of March 24, 2007, I was at 35,000 feet aboard an Air Jamaica flight to Los Angeles. I work there, though my home is in the Rose Hall
district of Montego Bay, in a community known as Barrett Town. I had left my wife, daughter, granddaughter and grandson behind, for the 14th time in two years,
intending to return in two months, as usual. But when I reached LAX and called my wife to say I’d landed safely, she had this shocking, tear-filled news:
“Jaheim dead! Oh God,’im dead, man! . . .”
She was referring to our 5-month-old grandson, Jaheim Miller. Without even leaving the terminal building, I turned around and booked flight on the same plane,
heading back to the island. I reached a-yard by 8 a.m. The family, which included three elder sisters, their husbands, and fifteen
chindren and grandchildren, was in complete shock, of course. It took me awhile to get
the full story of the accident.
It happened on the deadend dirt road up above our house on the hillside. My niece who was babysitting for my daughter, who was at work as a chef at Ritz-Carlton
MoBay. The niece was carrying the baby up her steps to the road when her knee gave out.
To keep from dropping the baby, she gave him to her 11-year-old son. He walked the baby down the road to his grandma’s home. Not far from her gate, he was struck from
behind by a pickup being backed down the road in the dark with no rear-view mirror, and the driver was deaf, dumb, and retarded. He’d been given the pickup to wash,
which he does for a living. The pickup struck down my nephew and ran over his leg. The boy lost control of the baby and dropped him . . . and the truck subsequently ran over
the baby’s head, killing him instantly. The nephew, oddly, did not even suffer a broken bone; but my grandson was dead.
The entire town went into mourning, and as is the Jamaican custom, undertook a “dead yard” process that lasted most of a week. I had been to dead yards before, but
was never part of the berieved family; now I saw what it was all about from the inside.
Dead yard is a kind of public wake, to help the family and the community come to grips with their grief. Friends, neighbours, and well-wishers come by every night
for sound system music, dominoes, drink, smoke, and food; and they stay, very late into the night. The night before the funeral is the biggest dead yard celebration.
Everybody shows up — even all the taxi drivers who ply the road to town. In our case, because of this particularly tragic death, hundreds of people showed up. And the
story ran in the Gleaner and the Mirror (see photos), so wherever we went in MoBay people seemed to know. I was amazed at the universal outpouring of condolence and
support. The saying, “It takes a village,” could never be more true than it is here.It’s as if everyone we’d ever met is now a permanent family member.
Round the clock, for a week, care was given to the berieved. Everything and anything we needed miraculously appeared. Barrett Town is a struggling middle-class
neighborhood barely above the poverty line economically; but suddenly anything that was needed was found and delivered quickly, with no thought of favouritism or
compensation whatever. This is TRUE community love at work.
And it extended beyond the community. Ritz-Carlton brought in a moving van full of food and drink, and fed the entire town! Usually more people come to dead yard
than there is food to serve, but not this time. Many visitors were blessed with a third plate! And not to stop there, an entire busload of Ritz chefs appeared at the church
service, dressed in full chef gear, including the tall hats. It was so beautiful an act that we all cried all over again.
Then there was the ritual of the grave. I spent an entire day at the cemetery with the gravediggers — bredrin and nephews — and photographed the entire process.
Though it was a solemn affair, we found many moments of joy and laughter just being together and sharing the odious task of making a grave for a tiny baby.
Last but certainly not least, the burial itself was a massive community effort, with the church pastor following the proscribed ritual of song and sermon, which
kept everyone calm and focused. God bless that man!
Two things strike me now as exemplary about this process, as experienced Jamaican style: One, the children are included from the first, encouraged to talk about the
loss and accept it as part of life, shown everything from morgue photos to grave-making; and two, it is a thoroughly “organic” process, wherein everyone plays
care-taker, therapist and grief counsellor — especially the elderly, who are respected no
end for their wisdom and years of hard life experience.
Little Jah Jah is gone from us, but his passing gave us a renewed zest and appreciation for life. I have always loved Jamaica to the core of my being, but now
that love has grown manyfold, and I find I not only love Jamaica “to death,” but well beyond it. I am gratified to know that when it’s my time to go, my passing will
trigger yet another beautiful display of honest, heartfelt love among my community.
Wherever the future leads Jamaica, I trust this aspect of the culture will never die. If it does, though, they had better throw the best dead yard the island has