Superstitions permeate many aspects of Jamaican life. Not surprisingly, the cultural influence most often cited is African. What may be unrecognised, however, is that the area with the strongest retention is death, including burial practices. Most of these beliefs are born out of fear of the unknown; fear of what happens after death and how it can affect the living. These actions are carried out because it is believed that they will protect those left alive from the wrath of the spirit of the dead, known colloquially in Jamaica as the duppy.
Many Jamaicans believe that when a person dies, his soul goes toheaven but his spirit stays for a while, sometimes permanently. Some say the duppy rises on the third day after the burial and returns to the house to wander around his/her possessions, finally leaving on the ninth night. Relatives and friends gather at the house of the dead to welcome his return and send him back to the grave. Often cause for celebration, wakes or ‘set-ups’ are held and on the ninth night; an all-night vigil is sometimes held.
Signs of Death
According to the Jamaica Information Service’s (JIS) (1991) Jamaica Folk Customs and Beliefs, omens of death include: the unusual crying of animals, birds or insects; the crowing of a cock inside the house. Similarly, the sudden occurrence and abrupt end of a rain shower on a clear day and a loud knock on the door or roof for no apparent reason are taken to mean death is imminent. If two people say the same thing at the same time, it means they will die together. If you add to a house or cut down an old tree, you must kill a goat or a chicken and shed the blood to prevent the death of someone in the house.
Coping with Death
JIS (1991) and Hopwood (2003) note the following beliefs are designed to protect the living. They tend to be quite specific and require strict adherence to instructions. Many include the use of water.
For example, one must not throw out the water used to wash the dead body unless the duppy is told first. Some say that the water must be emptied into the grave following internment.
All the mirrors in the ‘dead’ room must be covered so as to prevent the reflection of the living being cast upon the dead. This prevents the living from pining away. Some believe that the water and a light must be left on in the room and the room must remain unchanged for nine nights. The water must be emptied each morning.
To rid the house of the ghost of the dead person, you can also burn rosemary and scatter rice.
Place 10 coffee beans in the ‘dead’ room and no duppies can enter – they can only count to nine.
In order for the spirit of the dead not to return and haunt any family member, they must all say goodbye to the corpse and every child must be lifted and passed over the coffin while its name is said. No tears are to fall on the body or the ghost will return to haunt the mourner. The body should also not be kissed or the teeth of the kisser will rot.
Before the coffin leaves the house, the husband or wife of the deceased must put on a piece of black cloth with a white cross made of chalk. This is to be worn for the next four to five months.
Buttons must be removed from the clothes of the deceased and the clothes must be pinned or sewn without knots or the ghost will return. Pockets must also be sewn up or the ghost will return and fill it with stones and harm those left alive.
If you leave a wake, simply touch a person who is to leave with you – do not announce it – so that the duppy does not follow you home. You should also walk backwards and turn around three times since duppies walk in a straight line.
The body must be taken out feet first and through the front door. If the back door is used, the spirit of the dead will not leave the house.
As soon as the body leaves, the room must be swept out.
- Either one man or an odd number of men should dig the grave. After the digger makes the first dig, he should drink some rum.
- The grave must be dug east to west and the body placed to face the sun.
- When filling the grave, the diggers must stand with their backs to the grave and throw dirt in backwards through their legs to prevent the ghost from following them home.
- A calabash tree should be planted at the head and foot of the grave.
Duppies are said to live in the roots of cotton trees, bamboo thickets or in abandoned buildings. They eat bamboo roots, fig leaves and the fruit of a vine called the ‘duppy pumpkin’. Although generally believed to be harmful (especially when used by an obeah-man), there are good and bad duppies.
Duppies can take on the shape of humans or animals and are also able to change themselves into different forms. They can talk, laugh, sing, cook, smoke, ride horses and generally do anything a human can. When they do ride, however, they are said to use the animal’s tail as a bridle.
Interestingly, a number of Jamaican plant names feature the word ‘duppy’. This use of the term ‘duppy’ in plant names to distinguish between edible and inedible plants shows how superstition helps to direct the relationship between Jamaicans and their environment. Generally, what is good for the duppy is bad for humans – this is an important lesson to learn from a young age. For example, there is the real chocho and the duppy chocho, the real coconut and the duppy coconut. There is the real tomato and the duppy tomato, the real soursop and the duppy soursop and the real cherry and the duppy cherry, etc. Similarly, certain plants like night-blooming jasmine are known to attract duppies and Jamaicans know to keep them away from their homes (Resford, J.,1984, p. 69). According to noted historian Edward Long, this belief in the good and bad qualities of certain plants and trees comes from Africa. (as cited, ibid., 1984, p. 69).
Again, the information included in these folk customs about duppies is consistently specific. The following are noted by JIS (1991):
If you are followed by a duppy, stop and mark an X on the ground and since they can only count to nine they will spend the night trying to count to X.
Do not speak to a duppy immediately or it will hurt you. If he is wearing black, he is harmless. But if he is wearing white, he is dangerous.
Use your left hand to strike a duppy.
Do not kill any green lizards in a graveyard as theyare believed to be duppies.
If you are in the bushes and hear a stick break, it is a warning from a dead relative that the area is unsafe.
If you feel a sudden gust of warm air, it means that a duppy is present.
While there is no official recognition of the role of superstition in everyday Jamaican life, it is clearly holding on strong as generation after generation share these ideas and continue to act on these beliefs.