Every two months from one of the out islands of the Bahamas comes a letter from Fr. Richard Eckroth, the collection of which will eventually form a significant body of information for the island historian. In mid October the letter began with “September this year had for me very much of a death character. Mid September I did not get to Nassau for the usual monthly meeting with the bishop and other priests, for I had to preach a big sermon to the inter-denominational Congo #1 Burial Society of South Andros. They had asked Bishop Burke to come and preach, but naturally he had to be in Nassau at the meeting with the other priests; so he asked me to stay home and preach for him. About every five years they have their annual celebration at one of my churches; this year was their 87th anniversary.
“A burial society is a very important feature of native life. Everyone wants to be sure that when they die, they are given a proper burial; and membership in such a society assures this. They have monthly dues to pay, and a special fee at the death of any member. They visit the dying person regularly to care for their needs, especially food and sympathetic presence.
“When the person dies, they build a coffin, dig the grave, have a ‘setting up’ (wake) all through the night between the death and the burial, which by law has to be within 24 hours of death, for there is no embalming in the out islands. Plenty of black coffee is drunk through the night, and the favorite songs of the deceased are sung over and over again; and plenty of visiting goes on. The men unofficially drink plenty of rum, too, in the course of the night. The Society carries the coffin and body to the church, and thence to the cemetery, with a brass band if one is available; but a brass band is becom- ing a rare thing now, even in Nassau where they have a good supply of musicians. So you see, membership in these burial societies is an important feature in the native culture. The congregation seemed to like what I said, and they treated me to a cake and soda afterwards.”
(Saint John’s Abbey Quarterly – April, 1985)