(For The Punch – Issue 18 July 2011)
THE WHITE FILE by P. Anthony White
The people who pretend that dying is rather like strolling into
the next room always leave me unconvinced.
Death, like birth, must be a tremendous event.
~ J. B. Priestley ~
Up through the years many writers, and especially poets, equally in former times and in the present, have had a morbid, incessant obsession with death, cemeteries, and the afterlife.
Yes, even here in The Bahamas we live day after day, week after week with death and funerals, and, like the Irish who have always been passionate about death, wakes and funerals, death is hardly ever simply a passionate episode.
Perhaps the most demonstrative example of that morbid, incessant obsession with death, funerals and cemeteries was the quite lengthy 19th century poem by the English writer Thomas Gray titled ELEGY WRITTEN IN A COUNTRY CHURCHYARD.
In that work, the poet actually took his time walking through a cemetery in Stokes Poges in England, pausing to comment on what might have been in th elife of the person buried there. At one point he paused to write:
“Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire,
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.”
We recall back in 1959 how when we were only a youngster at school in New York the late American jazz singer Billie Holliday passed away after a long and tragic battle with drug addiction.
They organised a memorial service for the occasion, held on Riker’s Island, which sits in the East or Harlem River, midway between, between Manhattan and Queen’s. Thousands turned out and under the food lights paid endless tributes to an ebony songstress who had turn out simply and ruinously to have become an angel flying too close to the ground.
Then around midnight came the announcement over the loudspeakers that they were about to turn off all the lights, and invited all in the audience to light a match or flick on a cigarette lighter. In the bleak blackness thousands of little lights flickered, and from the speakers came Perry Como’s voice intoning that haunting song:
It is better to light just one little candle,
Than to stumble in the dark!
Better far that you light just one little candle,
All you need’s a tiny spark!
If we’d all say a prayer that the world would be free,
The wonderful dawn of a new day we’ll see!
And, if everyone lit just one little candle,
What a bright world this would be!
It was a sad, sombre, and serene scenario in a city which seldom knew utter peace and quietude, but those who were there will never forget New York on that touching occasion when the death of a black megastar singer practically brought to tears the city that never slept.
There was another occasion in Brooklyn in New York back in the 1960s when a beautiful Bahamian girl from East Street perished tragically.
Ethel King was truly, as they say in modern parlance, drop dead gorgeous. She was part of the great King family of East Street, which had deep roots in Cat Island. Her sisters were Octavia, former registrar of insurance companies, and Gladys who, like Ethel, had migrated to New York.
A brother, Roy, had studied law in New York and eventually became a judge in Rochester in upstate New York.
Ethel had had an unsuccessful marriage to Percy Pinder Jr., son of the entrepreneurial elder Percy Pinder who in fact had been the first to build and operate a movie theatre Over-the-Hill. After she and Percy separated she used to be frequently on the arm of the late Ernest Strachan, then employed in the French Department of the United Nations, before he returned in Nassau to become Chief of Protocol for the Bahamas Government.
Ethel took a job in Manhattan and was living in an apartment in Brooklyn. The full story will probably be never known, but there was apparently a young Puerto Rican fellow who fell desperately in love with Ethel who, it seemed, was not interested.
Once morning as she left her apartment for work, walking through the basement of the building, the young fellow accosted Ethel and perhaps for the last time pleaded for her heart. According to the New York Amsterdam News, when she again spurned him he opened fire on her with a handgun, and then turned the weapon on himself.
The two were discovered lying next to each other on the ground of the basement.
The funeral for Ethel, who had grown up in St. Agnes in New Providence, was held not long afterwards at the Episcopal church of St. Mark’s in Brooklyn. The little church was packed with Bahamians living in New York, and scores of others who travelled to the city for the sad occasion. Among that Nassau contingent was Lynden Oscar Pindling.
Back in New Providence some years later – in early 1969 – there occurred the death of a bright and promising young thespian who had striven since his teenage years to master 6the stage in The Bahamas and in so doing to bring along other youngsters with a yearning for the footlights.
Basil Eric Antonio Saunders was a truly ambitious lad who quietly felt his reach should always exceed his grasp. After studies in London he returned to The Bahamas and began teaching English and drama in the public school system, whilst, along with The White Boy who had been his childhood histrionic partner, continued acting, producing and directing. At one point he had a stint as an insurance agent, but his heart was never really in it.
Yet at an early age B.E.A., as many referred to him, developed diabetes, and at only 31 years old he passed away. The town was stunned that one so young, so talented, so brilliant, so filled with a lust for life should have been plucked so prematurely from that life.
It seemed half that town showed up at St. Agnes Church for one of the most mournful yet flambouyant funerals seen in Grant’s Town, after which he was buried in the extreme northern section of the church’s cemetery on Nassau Street next to Gibbs Lane. To mark the occasion The White Boy penned and published a poem on the life of Basil Saunders. The final stanza read thus:
“Now up against the northern wall
where friendly footsteps seldom fall,
when others last to withered end,
you’ll still be smiling, childlike, Friend.”
The community was in a dither back in early May of 1990 with the passing of Sir Cecil Wallace Whitfield who had for some years been afflicted with cancer. As Leader of the Opposition he had been treated at home and abroad at the expense of the Bahamas Government, and had returned home to carry on his political assignment as best he could.
He died in a Florida hospital surrounded by family and political colleagues. In the Free National Movement there was widespread speculation about the future leadership configurations of the party, especially since general elections were just over two years away.
Orville Turnquest was at the time deputy leader of the party. That was about six years after Hubert Ingraham and Perry Christie had been fired from the PLP cabinet of Sir Lynden Pindling. Ingraham, then an independent Member of Parliament, had thrown his parliamentary support behind the FNM.
Whitfield had pretty much handpicked Ingraham as his successor, and subsequently the party’s Central Council concurred.
The ornate funeral was held at Christ Church Cathedral, and amongst those paying tribute to his old childhood friend and political nemesis was Sir Lynden. The interment was in the Eastern Cemetery, where his father, Kenneth Whitfield, was buried a few years earlier.
Of course ten years later, in 2000. Sir Lynden himself succumbed to prostate cancer, and after some deliberation the decision was made to have the funeral services conducted at the Church of God on East Street.
Following the funeral, at which Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham spoke, there was a massive procession – joined in by political friend and foe alike – down East Street, west on Wulff Road, north on Blue Hill Road, then west on Meeting Street to St. Agnes Cemetery on Nassau Street.
There the body was received by then Anglican bishop Drexel Gomez and St. Agnes rector the late Fr. Patrick Johnson, assisted by The White Boy. Afterwards Sir Lynden was entombed in a special and imposing mausoleum in the cemetery.
Bahamians have over the years continued to have a fascination for funerals in all their forms and fashions, and it never really matters the identity of the deceased if there is something special about the arrangements.
A few years ago with the brutal murder of fashion designer Harl Taylor, mortician Ted Sweeting introduced to The Bahamas an interesting new embalming trend imported from the United States, whereby in the viewing room of the funeral home the full-clothed body was sitting in a chair in front of a desk with pen in hand as if engaged in work.
For two days it seemed the whole Bahamas had beaten a path to Sweeting’s Colonial Mortuary on Blue Hill Road just to have a view of the fantastical scene.
And so death, wakes, funerals and the celebrations afterwards are still rudimentary parts of Bahamian life, and will perhaps persist in that way for hundreds of years, so long as Bahamians continue to be born, to live, and to die.