Aama Sade Shepnekhi on Rastafarian funerals

Funeral service from Tree Circle Ceremonies

Six minute read

Aama Sade Shepnekhi is an all-round brilliant celebrant who officiates culturally specific ceremonies, including Rastafarian funerals. She shares her thoughts on Rastafarianism, from the deep-rooted politics of language to why some within Rastafari choose not to hold funerals at all.

What do you think is important for people to understand about Rastafarianism?

I'd like to just express that I'm not the total authority on Rastafari, I speak from personal experience and a love of African cultures. In terms of overstanding what Rasta is about, it's a deep expression of love from an African and Caribbean cultural perspective.

Rastafari has a structure with very clear organisations such as the Twelve Tribes, Ethiopian Orthodox and the Nyabinghi National Council. It's also steeped within the teachings of HIM Haile Selassie I, Marcus Mosiah Garvey and Bible scriptures.

Could you talk a little bit about the importance of language, like overstanding?

Looking at racism and politics in Jamaica where Rastafari seeded and grew, we as a colonial country were taught the Queen's English. Our own colloquial way of speaking patois was frowned upon. So the Rastas were the first ones to say, ‘our language is our culture, let us have pride and use our culture for our benefit.’

Rastafari wanted to promote patois and transform the language. They realised there were a lot of negative words in the English language. Let's take a word like ‘dedicate,’ well, the word ‘dead’ is in that word. So we don't want to dedicate anything, we actually want to livicate. We want to give it life because that's the essence of the word.

The same with the word understand — Rastas say they don’t want to ‘under’ stand they want to overstand. So there is a certain aspect of English that they have translated and uplifted.

Do you think there are any kind of misconceptions about Rastafari?

Rastafari experienced a lot of prejudice, racism and fear in the West when they came. They would always be the first ones to be arrested by police. We have many stories in the past where on arrest their locks would be cut and they would be brutalised. They were ridiculed rather than being respected as a spiritual order.

When you talk about misconceptions, I think today we're in a particular time of awareness with Black Lives Matter. People are very aware at the moment of prejudice and how deep those roots go. Rastafari took a lot of the brunt of prejudice because they were a grassroots organisation but really that prejudice filters right through African Caribbean culture as a whole

Why do some Rastafari choose not to hold funerals?

Within Rastafari there is no death, that's one of the key things. They are spiritual beings having a physical experience, so within that there is no death.

As a Rasta, in days of old, and still in some cases today, when you go to a funeral, you then cut your dreads. That is when I cut mine actually, at my mother's funeral. We sat by her bedside for fourteen days, me, my brother and sister, and I just knew that after she took her last breath, I would cut my hair. I'd had dreadlocks for seventeen years and I've never grown them again since.

If there is no death, why do some Rastafari decide to hold funerals?

Rastafari hold specific rituals during their end-of-life ceremonies. They prefer to conduct their own ceremonies as much as possible. They have their own songs, their own chants, their own order. The focus is more on the content of the ceremony rather than the funeral.

Within Rastafari death is a process of life, it's not just, 'we're going to have a funeral and bury our dead.' There is a whole series of rituals that need to be carried out. I think we want a space where we can be free to do our ceremonies in our own way as opposed to having to knock on doors.

I love the gentleness and consideration that I witness around Poppy's funeral services, unfortunately there's just not enough of that. There's still not enough handing over space to other cultures and embracing cultural practices and saying ‘yes, you do your thing.’ Because of that, I think Rastafari have learnt to bury their own.

In some cases, there's a reluctance to put on funerals within Rastafarianism. So does it make sense to talk about Rastafari funeral customs?

I like that question, but it’s a challenging one because there are different orders within Rastafari. But the one ritual that I know that many of us practice would be Nine Night.

Nine Night is the deeply held practice that once the spirit leaves the body, it travels the earth saying goodbye or seeing places for one last time. Then on the ninth night, the spirit ascends and starts its journey.

The Nine Night celebration is when families, friends, and communities come together and hold a vigil. In many cases you would stay up all night and people share food.

There's always a section where specific rituals are performed and prayers are said. It's an African Caribbean ritual that Rastas hold in their way.

What has been your experience like as a woman acting as a celebrant at Rastafari funerals?

There are different orders of Rastafari and some of them have very strict ideas about the role of women. So as a woman, I always enquire before I take on the celebrant role.

I bring Ancestral Earth connections to Rasta Ceremonies. I have personal experience of the respectful role of each member attending and knowledge of the types of rituals that are performed. My offering is to ensure that the spirit of the deceased travels well to the Ancestral realm.

Drumming, songs and percussion are very important at Rasta Ceremonies so this would be something I would check to ensure I’m respectfully honouring the deceased and those attending.

As a celebrant in general, what feels most important about your work?

My mother’s transcending into spirit set me off on a journey. The clarity she left me with was that it's important for us, as African Caribbean people coming out of the trauma of the Maafa, the transatlantic slavery Holocaust, that we now stand firm within our own spiritual practices.

Being displaced people in the diaspora, our land and our language was taken away, also our culture. We had to hide and we were constantly ridiculed. So, the important thing for me is to uplift our essence as a people and culture and stand on the world stage with our heads held high and say, ‘this is the spiritual culture that we bring.’

I set up Tree Circle Ceremonies in 2013 to promote African Caribbean spiritual practices, ceremonies and culture, my contribution to healing our PTSS trauma. Also for us to advance ourselves as a nation. I have found that many cultures globally fully connect with the ceremonies offered.

What memories from Rastafari funerals really stand out and feel meaningful?

There's a real magic about Rastafari funerals. Rastafari have a practice they call Groundation. They drum and they chant and it really grounds a situation. I think this is what Rastafari bring, they bring a Groundation that really does set the spiritual soil and make it fertile. They create an essence for things to grow from.

We forget sometimes that spirituality has always been there, since before it was formalised. The Rastas hold the knowledge and energy that spiritually we've been here from creation.

Feature image from Tree Circle Ceremonies.

Looking for more brilliant interviews? Don't miss Katrina Spade on composting humans and a palliative care nurse on breaking taboos around end of life care.

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