Final Goodbyes

Funeral traditions in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

By Jody Rathgeb

Death is not a likely topic for a magazine such as Times of the Islands. The sunshine, blue waters and swaying palms of the Turks & Caicos are so full of life that the alternative seems very far away. Yet people do die here and have for centuries; that has not changed. The ideas, methods and traditions of burial in the Islands, though, have seen change with the development of the nation.

This donkey-drawn funeral hearse was used on Grand Turk during the 1960s.

In the “olden days,” before electric power on the Turks & Caicos Islands was widespread, burials were simple and quick. The dead were buried within 24 hours in coffins made of wood. Only when morgues were built and available and bodies could be embalmed, did practices change to allow funeral planning that could accommodate families that needed to travel for services.

Enter Elbert Edward Higgs of North Caicos, founder of A&S Funeral Services and the longest serving mortician in the TCI. In the 1970s, Higgs, like his father, was a builder of caskets and began performing burials in that old traditional style. But upon his father’s death in 1983, when Elbert was pressed during bad weather to get everything done quickly, he decided that North Caicos needed a morgue. Soon after, he built that morgue under the ownership of the North Caicos Mutual Burial Association, and began a funeral service operation in North Caicos, using expatriate embalmers as was the custom in other islands.

His next step was to become an embalmer himself. He trained in the Bahamas and became a mortician for all of the Turks & Caicos. He continues doing that work and has passed on training and skills to other funeral service companies in the country. Today, his daughter, Adelphine Higgs-Pitter, is the managing director of A&S Funeral Services (ansfuneralservices.com), but her father continues in his work. Together, they have aided and helped craft what most now view as the traditional island funeral: A viewing and wake, church service and graveyard service followed by burial. These are accompanied by memorial programs containing the obituary and photos, and often other memory items such as buttons or shirts.

Each island in the Turks & Caicos has its own cemeteries to bury the dead. Shown here is the Public Cemetery in Grand Turk.

These traditional funeral activities are actually a blend of many traditions that have fed into the Islands: those of the English, Irish and Scots who settled here, plus African beliefs and more modern iterations of ancient rites. The “island wake,” an all-night event with singing, dancing and refreshments, for example, is a version of the ancient tradition of safeguarding a corpse until burial. It borrows from both the famed Irish wakes and the African frenzy-like displays of sorrow. Families put their own spin on the wake; for some it’s a more religious compendium of gospel music, while others turn the event into a full-blown final party for the deceased. The next day’s religious services are also tinged by the fragile emotional states from a full night of wakefulness.

These crosses mark graves in a cemetery on Salt Cay.

Those who have noticed processions of a white, glass-sided carriage during funerals are also seeing an influence from outside the Islands, in this case the theatrical funerals of New Orleans (which also grew from Euro-African traditions). Since Elbert Higgs and a friend built the carriage, Adelphine notes, it has been used in about half of the A&S funerals, “Mostly in the younger generation,” she says. The idea of the mobile display of a casket is only somewhat traditional in the Islands.

Some small changes
Most, but not all, go this traditional route. With the influence of outsiders, more people have become interested in cremation and other options such as burial at sea and “green” funerals. A&S has become flexible enough to deal with these options, and Adelphine kindly shared explanations and comments on them, even though cremation is less than one percent of their business and other traditions are far less.

When cremation is requested, she says, it must be done outside of the TCI since there is no crematory in the country. Her company works with another in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Remains must be embalmed first, then shipped there, as per law. Then the remains are either returned to TCI via IBC Airways or sent to any other address. A&S handles the documentation to accompany the process.

While she says there is increasing interest in cremation, it may be a while before it can be done in the Turks & Caicos. “Cremation will definitely be a growing trend once a facility is established here,” she says, but adds, “The cost to develop a cremation facility by a funeral provider does not make financial sense based on the low death rate and amount of funeral business compared to the population.”

Cremation is only somewhat less expensive than burial in the TCI, Adelphine says, because of the costs of containers, shipping and documentation. For A&S, a basic traditional funeral costs around $7,000. Depending upon what is included, a cremation can run into the $6,000 range.

Scatterings, burial at sea and other options
What families do with returned cremains is up to them. They may keep the loved one in a sealed urn or scatter the ashes on land or at sea. Those wishing a scattering at sea can arrange their own boat, or turn to a Provo tour operator. Both Sail Provo and Island Vibes Tours offer packages for the scattering of ashes, a fact that indicates there has been interest in that non-traditional type of service.

Actual burial at sea, the stuff of English Naval dramas and pirate fictions, is even more rare in the Turks & Caicos, but it is legal, with stipulations provided by the Department of Environmental Health. Sea burial must be done in a leather bag that contains weights, and it must occur at least three miles off shore.

The idea of returning to the land or sea is also shown in the interest in two very different types of memorialization: reef balls that contain ashes, and old-fashioned burials without embalming.

One company in the United States provides the former. Eternal Reefs (eternalreefs.com) is a company that combines cremains with environmentally safe cast concrete to create a memorial “pearl,” which is then dropped into one of several sites off the U.S. coast during a ceremony at sea. The company is permitted through local, state and federal agencies and approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and encourages families to participate in the four-day process of casting, a service and positioning of the pearl. Costs range from $3,000 to $7,500. Those in the TCI are reminded, however, that the approved sites for reef balls are not within this country.

Can one still be buried the old-old-fashioned way, in a wooden casket without being embalmed? Yes, provided that such burial has been approved by the coroner. Also, the dirt grave must be topped with cement and marked. Such quick and green burials bring the TCI full circle to the past.

In the end, our final goodbyes depend on one’s own beliefs, traditions and comfort. As the TCI continues to diversify and be influenced by other traditions, the meaning of a “traditional” memorial service is changing and becoming filled with new options.

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