Saturated in Life

By Brie Cokos

Diversity can be measured in flora, fauna, and race, but at times when traveling through Belize, the word loses its meaning and becomes immaterial. The differences that make one a stranger to the other fall out of context when one experiences the most unlikely scenario of community unity, the passing of a loved one in the Garifuna culture.

Appropriate for people renown for their uncanny hip movement and passion for dance, the concept of death for Garinagu does not indicate a cessation of activity. On the contrary, death of one brings life to a community. The sense of community following the death of a loved one stirs the emotions of complete strangers and most definitely, the spirit of the deceased. Although the topic of one's mortality rarely graces the travel brochures of Belize, the outpouring of emotion for the loss of a member of the Garifuna community deserves the attention of curious onlookers of Belize.

In the Garifuna culture, the spirits of the deceased continuously hover about the living to provide protection and guidance. For this reason, homage for those lost must be paid in grand, dramatic style at the moment of death and at any time thereafter if disturbances or instability in both the spirit and living worlds arise. The moment one dies, a glass of water with a cross is placed by the body with a burning candle to symbolize the soul that is still alive. While family members are discouraged not to cry or speak in loud voices so as not to disturb the soul, elders clean the body in a bath of strong rum before dressing it for viewing.

For the Garinagu mourning is communal experience; relatives and friends gather to ease the burden of the family. While swapping stories, jokes, songs and advice, these support teams cook food and prepare for the wake and funeral, the first step in the mourning process. The wake serves as a forum for reflection and modest merriment and marks the beginning of the novena, nine nights of prayer, an adaptation from the Roman Catholic faith. If the person died suddenly, the novena does not immediately begin. The family generally waits longer until the soul has settled and can properly receive the prayers of the living. The invite to the wake is open; I strolled home after some basketball one night when someone hailed me and forced a beer in my hand: "So-and-so has died. Joe knew her and said she was a good person... " As Andrea "Nuku", a well-known matriarch in Dangriga, observed, "People need people, so all are welcome."

After the novena, the somber tone gives way to an explosion of gaiety. Formally called a beluria, the ninth night celebration truly sends off the recently departed in grand style to seiri, a paradise for the departed spirit. Smells from the kitchen, fire pit, or stove waft over the outdoor tent and send those by the bar wandering about with their noses high in the air. Colossal pots of conch soup, sweet rice, and chicken soup bubble over. Rum is spilled, but more is consumed as food and drink remain in the forefront of everyone's mind throughout the night. As with the wake, the beluria is not a scheduled affair; usually the darkness of the night slips by as dawn greets the heartiest of participants. Once properly lubricated, the drums roll in and the ground begins to shake with the vibration of the beats. The main event of the evening begins unexpectedly, but the hypnotic drumming lures in all parties quickly. The lightning speed of the slaps on the drum and shudder of the calabash shakers actually coincide with the jiggle of the hips of those dancing to the beat. For a beginner, the show is mesmerizing and outstanding. This is the way I want to be remembered.

After the ninth night celebration, the community does not sever the lines of communication with the departed. The spirit may opt to contact a family member via dreams and request assistance from the living. The scenario, dubbed "the bathing of the dead" can happen anytime and requires immediate attention. Usually, those contacted dig a hole and simulate washing the body using a calabash to represent the deceased. Salt and fresh water, various herbs, and cassava water are poured into the hole and the spirit is addressed. The spirit may also call for a mass. During this form of transmission, friends and family hold a church mass and gather food offerings. Men and women then perform gender-specific dances for the deceased. Again, drums and music are integral parts of the summoning of the spirit world.

Perhaps the most well known form of communication with the dead in the Garifuna culture is the dugu. In this unification ceremony, the extended families of a person gather to give thanks and promote the healing of an ailing member. When someone falls ill in a family, the high priest, or buyei, will inform the family if a dugu is warranted or not. Throughout the weeklong ceremony, offerings are made in hopes that those ill regain their strength. Singing and dancing to particular beats often hypnotize participants and send them into trance-like states that captivate onlookers and convince them that this activity should be performed by trained personnel only! Again, the community involvement astounds those cultivated in more reserved cultures where death is a personal grievance shared by only one family. The encouragement by the Garifuna culture for all to join in the dancing, drinking, drumming, singing and merriment creates a familiar atmosphere intoxicating to visitors once wary of being dubbed "stranger."

The Garifuna culture has modified over the years to accommodate new religions within the community. Blending of Christian and Garifuna principles regarding death and the afterlife has given many of the original practices new appearances, but has astonishingly refrained from destroying the fundamental principles of either. While the practices may have shifted to accommodate new beliefs, the fundamental principle of community involvement will never falter. Death need not be a glum word nor indicate the end of the line. If you spot a green and white tent in Dangriga Town the next time you pass through, feel free to step in and flood your senses with the energy of the living.


Special Thanks to:

  • Gwen Nunez Gonzales
  • Rev. Canon Jerris Valentine - "Garifuna Understanding of Death"
  • Andrea "Nuku" Nunez
  • Family of the late Peter Rueben Ciego
  • Family of the late Mrs. Edith Marcello

    Images Courtesy of:

  • Dreddi
  • JC Cuellar
  • Cornell Anderson

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