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Danny, who I never knew, is dead. I know because all the graffiti outside of my flat, and the fresh flowers on the sidewalk, and the obituarised Celtic-football jerseys hung up on the lightpoles, declare his death. A few days ago I was scrambling eggs and suddenly I heard drums and bagpipes and horns outside in the streets. This sort of thing happens in Glasgow and I no longer question it – the curious ways of the natives. I didn’t go out to see what it was about, but when I did venture out later, the marching band was gone but the walls had been spray-painted: ‘RIP Danny’ ‘They tried to make us toe the line, but we didn’t’ ‘I cannae believe yer gone!’ That sort of thing. I didn’t know Danny in life, but it is kind of wonderful that his death has been so loud and so colourful.

In one of my favourite poems (Grace Nichol’s ‘Tropical Death’) the eponymous ‘fat black woman’ of the collection wants such a death – loud and colourful. The Fat Black Woman is a Caribbean migrant living in England, but doesn’t want to die there. She thinks of death in such a landscape and culture as too polite and too restrained. This won’t do. ‘The Fat Black Woman wants all of her dead rights – first night, third night, nine night, all the sleepless, droning, red-eyed wake nights’. Perhaps, The Fat Black Woman would have been ok dying in Scotland – in Whiteinch where I live.

But it all depends, doesn’t it? This process of toning down the rituals of death happens in the Caribbean as well. Our demureness is a product of modernity. At my mother’s funeral a couple years ago, the Anglican priest would not allow us to have the coffin open in the church. Open coffins apparently encourage a louder display of grief, and the priest thought this would be unseemly – a little bit backward.

The trouble is we haven’t stopped dying, and death hasn’t stopped being an unknowable country. So it is wonderful to me how even in urban modern spaces we continue to invent new and strange rituals to mark death. Our walls become wide tombstones on which an entire community can inscribe their small obituaries with spray paint. Flowers are laid on the sidewalk. Footballs jerseys are hoisted like flags. In Jamaican ghettoes the shoes of the dead are tossed over telephone poles; candles are lit on the sidewalks; and a dance is held which may not be kumina or dinki-mini – but just you take a close look and you will note that these dances are much more ancient than they might seem at first. Yes – even the way we dance in cities – this most basic way of declaring ourselves incredibly alive, becomes a way that we mark out death.

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One thought on “Death in the Cities

  1. Kei don’t know if you’ve seen my “No Grave Cannot Hold My Body Down: Rituals of Death and Burial in Postcolonial Jamaica” (Small Axe) but i describe extensively the colourful, even garish, funerary rituals in Jamaican ghettos and among the lowest social rungs, all the time feeling in awe because i couldn’t imagine cremations/funerals like this in India. interestingly an Indian sociologist whose thesis is on such practices–‘ethnography of the crematoria’–told me recently that ‘lower caste’ Hindu mourning rituals are very similar to the ones i described in my article…

    It’s the ‘middle class national’ that yearns for refinement, restraint, discipline and the polar opposite of kitsch to make it plain that they are not to be mistaken for the raffish hoi polloi….

    But i didn’t know that the tennis shoes over telegraph wires, something i’ve seen so often in Kingston was to mark a death….thanks…

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