by Felicity Johnson
A telephone conversation with a friend a few weeks ago centred around her attendance at a funeral of the friend of her parents in Curacao. The late gentleman's daughter was a member of parliament there, and what utterly amazed my friend was that although the daughter's parliamentary colleagues attended the funeral, (as my friend said) "if you didn't know, you wouldn't know who they were”.
Bahamian funerals have become something of a spectacle - one of the places to be seen, a veritable fashion parade, and a who's who of profiling and strutting. In fact, they have often become everything but a respectful remembrance of the dearly departed, and with all of the window dressing it is easy to overlook the main purpose of the occasion - so caught up have we become in all of the trappings of our public display of self importance.
Years ago, a foreign friend asked me about the practice of listing prime ministers and members of parliament among the deceased's obituary survivors. He remarked that everyone in the Bahamas was clearly well connected!
The observation, to which I had not until that point given any thought, caused me to pause. Why indeed do we have to list politicians amongst our survivors? Is this not a way of making the departed and ourselves appear to be more highly connected than we really are by "borrowing" the politician's "importance"? And must we, in so doing, declare our political allegiances even in death?
I suspect that therein lies one of the causes of the ridiculous drama in which we find ourselves today, as the clergy now begin to realise that they have lost control of the sanctity of their churches during funeral services to the politicians, and as they struggle to take back what they have all too willingly surrendered in the past.
The role of the Church in Bahamian politics, particularly as regards the majority rule movement in the 1960s is well known. The Baptist Church is acknowledged as the leader in this alliance and whilst it was less blatant in other denominations, it existed nonetheless.
Parishioners were easily able to identify the partisan politics of their church leaders during the 1970s,1980s and the 1990s in particular. Politicians shamelessly used the churches to their own ends and the resulting mockery and disrespect towards the clergy was the sad result.
It was not until the 1990s that churchgoers began to demand that those ordained by God and occupying the pulpit kept their partisan politics to themselves. After all, they said, the full gamut of political choices was represented in the congregations and one really wanted a break from the all-too-pervasive political debates in God's house.
At funerals, politicians have regularly been invited to take over the pulpit to eulogize the deceased or to bring "greetings" to the family. It is an irresistible invitation for a politician, but is it really appropriate for the occasion?
One denomination during all of this politicizing of funerals which appears to have exercised great restraint and distance is the Roman Catholic Church. There was and is no handing over of the pulpit to politicians.
The funeral service in the Roman Catholic Church is firmly under the control of the priest in charge and any tributes must take place prior to the appointed time for the service. I recommend this model to those churches who are trying to wrestle their service from the politicians.
Archdeacon Brown, in his recent letter to his parishioners, now seeks to put the genie back into the bottle with new guidelines for funeral services in his church. Some have already scoffed at the guidelines, signifying them as impotent in the face of the parishioners' wishe .
The tussle for control of the church between the priest and his parishioners remains an ongoing saga and unless resolved quickly can only result in a diminished church.
I well remember the funeral of my dear friend's husband several ago. She and the rector agreed beforehand that the politicians, expected in great numbers, would not be given front row seating. It was, however, the church ushers who were heard to say that they did not care what the rector's instructions or the widow's wishes were, they were going to give the politicians their front row seats.
My friend, seeing her family members having to stand whilst the (perhaps unwitting) politicians sat comfortably in what were designated as the family seats, in anger took it upon herself to ask them to move so that her family could be seated. Her actions became the topic of conversation, and the point was likely missed by many, but what she did should also have been an indication to the politicians of the changing attitude.
Alas, as seen recently, it was not. Tone deafness has won and the opportunity to be seen and to subtly campaign will clearly not go quietly into the night.
But we, the people, too must take responsibility for this state of affairs. We appear to be unable to clear our minds of a subconscious desire to elevate politicians above ourselves and our families.Our insistence that they must be seated and treated in special ways at a family funeral speaks largely to our willingness to be submissive.
At a recent funeral at St. Francis Cathedral, a funeral director wrung her hands in despair. Even though the church has five or six sections, each with front row seating, all but one section was allocated to family members and the choir. She was stressed out about how much space to leave for the judiciary and the politicians in the front rows.
It turned out that the politicians included those past and present and the numbers overwhelmed both the ushers and the space, as everyone who thought they needed to be there jockeyed for position and squeezed into the front row pews whilst there were numerous empty pews in the middle.
At another funeral I overheard the argument between a politician and his wife who had come late and were sitting behind me.The wife was demanding that they go to sit in the front pews and was furious with her husband because he properly refused to do so.
Politicians worldwide, by the nature of what they chose to be, are egotists. They seek attention and tend to be arrogant and lacking in humility. Bahamian politicians take it to another level and they have a sense of entitlement in this country when it comes to being seated in prominent positions largely because of our traditional subservience to them.
I often wonder if they cannot sense the virtual "suck teeths”, and the tangible resentment and hostility of the remainder of the church congregations when they are paraded up to their front row seats; or worse, when they walk out of the church after the service either ahead of the casket and the family or immediately behind.
I often ask myself whether they are that insensitive. Some of them certainly look uncomfortable but clearly do not know what to do about it !
And yes, it is easy to blame the ushers or the family but as a leader the politician knows how to exercise control. He can say upfront that he will sit among the congregation. After all, on this tiny island we know who they are, we will recognise them and we will like them the better for their humility and their willingness to appropriately step out of the limelight as respects are paid.
This practice of importance by association so prominent at Bahamian funerals in their affiliation with politicians needs a reset button. Egos need to be left in the churchyard, politicians need to take the initiative and "sit small ", and we all need to get on with what should be the real reason for attending the funeral service, which will certainly be cause for less aggravation all around.
Felicity L. Johnson is an attorney who was employed at The Bahamas Telecommunications Company from 1998 to 2013 as corporate secretary and ultimately senior vice president-legal, regulatory and carrier services. She has a particular interest in the telecommunications regulatory sector. She was also a lecturer and assistant ahairperson in the Humanities Division of the College of the Bahamas (1978-84) and has written articles on various topics during the course of her career.