When someone dies in Accompong Town, in the hills of central Jamaica, neighbors dig the grave because there is no one else to do it.
If you ask someone for directions from the airport, you might hear heavily accented Jamaican Patois variations of “follow de sign dem” or “up de way dere, ‘round de back”; we are hours from Montego Bay or Negril. Here, black men in tattered hats and makeshift du-rags sift through weeds and heavy earth to make way for my grandfather’s exit into the ground. As they dig, swelling choruses of old spirituals waft through the air, graced with the salty scent of pimento seeds.
Mud and plaster is pulled to and from the graveyard atop the steep hill that’s overlooked the town for centuries. Goats find their way into the fray and follow along behind the hearse, the funeral band of schoolchildren playing drums, and the SUVs carting family to the final point.
It’s an uncomfortable procession — a disorienting mess of sweat, tears, and sun that somehow ends in solace.
Accompong Town is a rural village of around 2,000 people, tucked away up roads with no names, some roads with two names, and, for a mile-long stretch, what seems like no road at all. There’s a small internet café, some battered but charming stores where you can buy coconut milk, plantains, and SIM cards, a primary school, brightly painted houses scattered unevenly among bushes and unpaved dirt paths, and a few friendly dogs. Most things you eat, you grow.
For most of my life it was little more than a dream, somewhere my body had once been but my mind hadn’t quite settled on. From the children’s table at Thanksgiving every year, my family’s chatter about this place resembled that of a storybook narrator waxing poetic on a forgotten kingdom. My family has roots here going back generations — the children of Africans marooned on the Jamaican island during the slave trade who built their own communities in the hills and fought for their independence from the British.
I was 7 or 8 years old the last time I came to Accompong, and my only memories of the place were the bumpy car ride up and splashes of color on the walls of houses. The few times I remember dreaming about the town, I dreamed of reds and blues and bugs — some of the biggest mosquitoes I have ever seen.
For this trip, at 22 years old, I pack the best version of summer clothes I own: two pairs of barely worn light-brown khakis, and a few loose-fitting linen shirts that had gathered dust in the back of my closet in favor of preppy, Manhattan-friendly button-downs.
To make the journey up the hill to the graveyard in Accompong is to walk with pain emblazoned on your face, to march against the sun toward God and to trudge with swollen feet as thumps of resounding drums goad the spirit on.
Heat drapes in waves over our somber caravan and funeralgoers use the green-tinted funeral programs as fans to keep cool. A smiling portrait of my grandfather, an entrepreneurial businessman who would wear a three-piece tweed suit and loafers in any heat, is on the program’s cover page. A river of those green programs flap ahead of me as we inch up the path from the church.
Neighbors who see me walking alongside my American family but knew the man on the funeral programs would have little indication that I was his grandson. A familiar face in his life, I’m now a stranger to most of the people around me in his death.
I’m flanked by my mother and her sisters. We lock arms, as if saying to let go would mean falling back down the hill, or into a full realization of what we are about to do. The man who helped bring our family to New York City from Jamaica, the man whose affinity for spaghetti westerns, games of dominoes, and slightly scratched reggae records superseded most things in his life on Friday nights, is making his ceremonious departure.
If he were walking with us, he would deliberately trail about 20 paces behind the last person in the group. Alphonse Edwards, born on May 7, 1940, took his time in his suits and cufflinks and his gait was equal parts languid and present. In his youth, I was reminded, he was smooth with women. In his old age, he once reminded me, he never lost it. My mother wrote in his obituary that he “wasn’t perfect, but made perfect when our Lord called [him] home.”
My grandparents were both born in Jamaica (the island) and moved to Jamaica (in Queens, New York) in 1967 to raise my mother and her siblings. After moving back to the island around 2008, my grandfather would take walks up and down this hill with my grandmother, Norma, for exercise until it was no longer healthy for him. Neighbors talked a lot about his rewarding smile and how “wherever Norma went, Mr. Edwards went with her.”
My grandparents’ house, which they began building shortly before moving back to Accompong Town, stands in a clearing at the foot of a steep winding path. It’s a modest, mid-construction home with a small garden and pig shed out front. There’s a large tarp draped high over the house’s entrance and held up by sturdy bamboo, the Accompong version of a garage.
Through the front door is a small staircase, each step adorned with stacks of portraits, magazines, books, and mementos with the titles peeping out from under the organized chaos: Chemical Principles, Evangelical Commentary, The Unique Woman, African-American Religious Studies.
Next to an old black-and-white photograph of my grandfather is a small wooden block with words painted on it in white:
“The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.”
A few days before the funeral, it’s becoming more apparent that the father of this house is gone forever. There are no spaghetti westerns playing from the bedroom, and no happy clinking of dominoes. But he’s still alive in the air and in the trees and in the mud and in the books on the staircase.
The mother of this house, a short woman with warm brown eyes the color of her skin, is sitting in the living room, wrinkled fingertips rolling over one another in her lap, shiny with the remnants of tears.
She looks in my direction. “Come here, my son.”
I hear the weight of generations on that phrase. It plays over in my head. “Come here, my son.” I walk to the couch and sit next to her. I’m nearly twice her size, but she wraps her arms around me as I slouch into her shoulder. The air is muggy and the warmth of her arms feels like home against my crumpled linen shirt.
My eyelids start to sink, and I can feel the soft vibrations of her voice over my head. Finding words where there are none to say, my grandmother is whispering a prayer.
As our walk continues, I start to wonder if my grandparents saw things on the path the way I saw them. I notice my mind beginning to wander.
There’s something numbing about the drums beating as we approach the grave; hearing unfamiliar sounds in an unfamiliar place only makes everything feel more foreign. My eyes dart back and forth as the drums pick up in frequency, and I feel my knees buckle just a few steps from where we would soon place my grandfather’s casket.
I stop in place on a balding patch of grass as others continue to move on — paralyzed from what feels like an unrelenting sickness. Some might call it fear, some might call it sadness, but in that moment it is the chilling sensation of being alive in a graveyard preparing to accept the owner of its newest shrine — like a cube of melting ice hitting the center of a cavity.
Someone — maybe a relative, maybe a townsperson or even a stranger — grabs my shoulder and helps me move forward. Everyone on the hill seems overtaken with the equalizing force of grief. But somehow, crying here is more unusual than cathartic. In this town, surrounded by people who had never seen my face, I feel like I am betraying their space by crying onto their ground. In these moments before stepping up to the hilltop, tears are all I can muster.
Time, which before moved at the pace of thick air, speeds up once we are in place around the grave. Men begin to lower the casket and the town’s pastor gently touches the same shoulder someone nudged to keep me moving earlier. The only thing left to do, I thought to myself, is to walk back. After hugs and nods and a dinner of curry goat and rice in the nearby community center, the group makes its way back to where the procession began: the family home.
My family tells me that Accompong and that house in the clearing is my home away from home, a place where I could one day bring my future husband and children or a place I could choose to grow old. The time I spent saying good-bye to my grandfather there made that seem like more of a reality.
I put him to rest in the mountains, and I left a piece of my soul there. One day, I’ll come back for it.