In Jamaica, marking death with a spectacular party is the norm. The rich Jamaican culture combines European and African traditions with Christianity. Funerals are a social affair, and no expenses are spared for the wake, viewing service, or preparation of the body.
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At the core of Jamaican funerals is the Nine Night celebration or “Dead Yard.” In this guide, we’ll explain the meaning behind Nine Night, why it’s important, and what you can expect if you’re attending one.
Jamaican Death Beliefs
Before discussing Nine Night, it’s essential to know about the history of Jamaicans and their death customs.
Traditionally, African people believed the dead become ancestors when they die. They may continue to watch over their friends and loved ones. Africans may worship more than one god and have specific protocols that need to be followed to prepare the body.
The Jamaican people have a long history of slavery, dating back to the 1600s. Most Jamaicans came from Africa and traditional superstitions are like second nature for them. Back then, funerals were a way for slaves to celebrate their culture and gather together.
African beliefs continued to be important for Jamaican slaves even when Christianity was introduced. The slaves received Christians instruction from Europeans who introduced them to new beliefs about the after-life.
The Nine Night celebration is an important example of how Jamaican Christianity and African beliefs come together.
What is Nine Night?
The Nine Night celebration is the equivalent of a wake for a Christian funeral. Instead of a short wake (held immediately before the burial), the Nine Night is a service for the deceased that lasts the entire night.
Jamaicans believe a person has three parts: the body, spirit, and duppy. The “duppy” is the evil shadow that causes family misfortune. Because of this, the spirit is especially important in the Jamaican culture and must be taken care of.
The “duppy” can’t leave the deceased’s body for Nine Nights. If it’s not given a proper send-off, then it can linger forever.
Some Jamaicans choose to celebrate daily for nine nights. They hold a wake every night and light a lamp to show the spirit is still in the home. Some want to only celebrate the ninth night. Whatever a family chooses, most Jamaicans can agree that the Nine Night celebration is a cornerstone of Jamaican funerals.
During the Nine Night specific, protocol has to be followed. You can learn about these traditions below.
History of Nine Night
As mentioned before, Jamaica has a deep-rooted slave history. African traditions, like those at Nigerian funerals, were part of the slaves’ culture. Customs like drumming, dancing, voodoo, and singing are all part of West African funerals and blend into Jamaican culture.
Jamaican cults like the Revivalist and Pocomania of Jamaica brought popularity to Nine Night. Some groups blend Christianity with beliefs about the supernatural. Traditions like prophecies, healing, and spirits are followed. Many Jamaicans believe that the dead can possess the living, especially during Nine Night.
The main intention of Nine Night is to aid the “duppy” or shadow spirit in leaving. It isn’t until the ninth night after death; the spirit leaves for their African homeland permanently.
If friends and family don’t celebrate the deceased properly, then the spirit will haunt the community forever.
Where it’s celebrated
Traditionally, the Nine Night was celebrated in the deceased’s home. Nine Nights are open houses.
Anyone that knows that the deceased can attend. Today, Some Jamaicans choose to rent a hall instead to accommodate the many family, friends, and neighbors that attend.
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Nine Night Ceremony Traditions and Rituals
Nine Night is still popular, especially in rural communities, because Jamaican Christians have adapted their traditional beliefs to it. Since 77.3 percent of Jamaicans are Christian, it’s not uncommon for mourners to sing hymns and read the bible during the celebration.
You can think of Nine Night as a Jamaican memorial service. Friends and neighbors hold space for loved ones to grieve. It’s a celebration to cherish the memory of the deceased. Keep reading to learn about specific customs you’ll encounter at a Nine Night.
Pre Nine Night traditions
Certain steps must be taken before the celebration to ensure the duppy isn’t upset. The furniture is always re-organized. This is to prevent the duppy from recognizing the house. The spirit will wander off if it doesn’t see anything familiar.
Like during Chinese funerals, family members cover mirrors. Covered mirrors prevent the ghost from catching a reflection of their family and using it to haunt them later.
Order of events
Because Nine Nights is a popular tradition, family and friends follow a general order of service. If you attend a Nine Night, you may see some or all of these traditions.
First, friends and family usually gather between 8 and 10 pm. They sing hymns together and share memories of the deceased. The family prepares a feast, but mourners don’t eat until late in the night.
Around 11 pm, the ritual leader leads the family in a ceremony to release the ghost of the dead person. The leader is a spiritual figure in the community. They may be a Catholic priest or another religious figure. The leader invites a close friend or family member to say a few words or even a longer eulogy.
After the eulogy, the deceased may possess the leader or a close family member. The ghost might reveal his or her final wishes or cause of death. If the ghost doesn’t arrive, family members burn coals instead to symbolize the deceased.
Finally, the mourners sign popular hymns again as they walk outside. The night culminates in a song and dance. It will last all night until the ghost has passed to the after-life.
Family members and friends view the ghost of the deceased as evil. During Nine Night, there are traditions that most Jamaicans follow. It’s important to keep a joyful mood to celebrate the deceased.
Jamaicans use dance to express their grief, especially during the Nine Night. Both the music and dancing becomes more lively towards the end of the night. At the end of the night, the spirit is closer to reaching the after-life. Common dances from Africa are the Dinki Mini and Gerreh.
Another important tradition is an altar. Mourners make an altar out of boxes and place offerings for the deceased there. Items like glasses of water and rum or flowers are meant to keep the ghost happy. The candles that burn out by the end of the night symbolize the deceased’s transition into the after-life.
Jamaicans partake in special activities, too. These activities cheer up family members. They also keep the ghost happy. You’ll find mourners playing dominoes (a popular Jamaican game), cards, or ring games. Storytelling is an important part of Jamaican culture. Friends and family gather to tell stories and express grief.
In the morning, the family makes the final preparation to free the ghost. First, they clean the home. Then they throw the glasses into the street as a symbolic gesture. It’s essential to burn the deceased’s clothing and give away their belongings. Only then are the mourners sure that the ghost is free.
Today’s Nine Night or dead yard celebration has its own customs. Traditional parties were tamer than today’s gatherings. At modern gatherings, Jamaican music may be played instead of hymns.
The eulogy may be shorter or skipped altogether. There is some modern-day criticism that Jamaicans are moving away from the traditions described above in favor of a big party instead of a memorial for the deceased.
Things to keep in mind
You may be wondering what to wear to a Nine Night. Not to worry—there’s no formal funeral dress code. As always, it’s best to check in with the family ahead of time. You’ll likely find mourners dressed in everything from casual clothes to formal wear.
Bringing a gift is a thoughtful gesture of respect. The Nine Night puts a financial burden on many families. Bringing a financial token like a gift-card or making a meal for the family are great ideas.
Nine Night in Jamaica
The Nine Night is a symbol of Jamaican perseverance through slavery. While religious perspective has changed since Jamaicans left West Africa, some traditions remain the same.
- Simpson, George Eaton. "The Nine Night Ceremony in Jamaica." The Journal of American Folklore. www.jstor.org/stable/537806
- Casey John. “Wakes and Funerals – An American Retiree in Jamaica.” Jamaica Magazine. www.jamaicans.com/retiring_to_jamaica-3/
- Traditional Forms of strong African Influence. Jamaica Cultural Development Commission. www.jcdc.gov.jm/sites/default/files/publications/trad_folk_form_bro_final_16_.pdf