The culture and dignity of crossing over

I traced my family's traditions to preserved traditions of the Akan people of Ghana.

Many of us are descended from folk people whose elders talk hopefully about dignity in death. My Aunt Evelyn, a country lady, died last year at 86. A few years earlier, she visited those of us who were born or raised in the United States. She stayed with me in my artistic neighborhood in New York, with my sister, Enid, in her family’s semi-gated golf-course community in Michigan, and with my sister, Judy, in her family’s wooded, suburban, colonial community in New Jersey. But she decided to return to her rural, hillside cottage in Jamaica because she wanted a dignified burial, on top of the hill, beside her parents’ tombs and those of several generations of her family. Five hundred people from Jamaica, other Caribbean islands, Canada, England and the United States turned out for her funeral.

On Watch Night and again on Ninth Night, visitors stayed up all night, played her favorite music and sang her favorite songs to let the ancestors know she was crossing over. The biggest road march for this little country lady was at the “Send Off” at her funeral.

Nowhere is the tradition of celebrating a crossing – with marching and music to let the ancestors know someone is coming – more important than in New Orleans and Southern Atlantic Gulf States in the United States. People sing and march to let the ancestors know someone died a dignified death and is coming over in dignified style.

In New Orleans the tradition of road march survived in elaborate “krewes” of Mardi Gras’ festival. It also survived in funerals that gave those who passed, especially those who passed in a tragic way, a dignified crossing over and a musical “Send Off.” This is the region with some of the most blended cultures in America. Several people traced these dignified “Send Off” traditions to early colonial America, where they were a blend of African, Native American, and European, and especially Atlantic Coast Indians, Irish Isles, and West African traditions. I traced some of these to colonial American traditions and across the Atlantic Ocean to the Ga people and the Akan people who live on the coast in Ghana.

Even today, in the Ga communities surrounding the capital city of Accra on the coast in Ghana, craftsmen design the most personal caskets in the style of the person’s favorite possession or symbol.

I traced my African-American family’s traditions to the Akan people of Ghana, whose medieval villagers preserved their families’ traditions from slavers in the hills of Akuapem and on the coast. Their warrior groups formed a unified line to defend and heal the villages: scouts, advance guards or first line and main body, second line or center with the king’s bodyguards and its right and left wings, and bringing up the rear, rear guard. All of these positions had a name in Ghana’s Akan people’s Twi language. The rear guard of people were the “kyidom.” They were the rear guard of farmers, who fed the people; the women and healers, who healed and bandaged the wounded, and removed and buried the dead. The feeders and healers who brought up the rear knew the herbs, music, words and traditions that healed.

The rear guard was made up of men and women who gave the deceased a good “Send Off” and a dignified death, even in battle, even under the worst conditions. They did their job amid deaths from the slave trade, and they did their jobs amid deaths on plantations and militia attacks. They were the “kyidom,” the rear guard, who sang, marched, fed and healed, and ensured that each person had a dignified crossing over to the ancestors.

I am sure Louis Armstrong and my aunt would agree that we must do the same in New Orleans, where the tradition of musical dignity, if not in life, in death, survived. Music and marching of “Send Offs” ease the crossing of the dead, and heal the spirit of the living.

“Oh when the saints go marching in . . .”

Pearl Duncan is author of “DNA Dawns for Starguided Ancestors.” Please send comments to [email protected]