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The last writes

By Terry Joseph
February 16, 2000

At the end of our telephone conversation on Sunday afternoon, The Mighty Sparrow surmised: "Well, I will see you at the funeral tomorrow." I corrected that misconception immediately.

Kitchener protégé Pink Panther had thought so too, when we spoke on Saturday night at the Calypso Revue.

Ace pianist, Raf Robertson, called on Monday morning. There were many other similar queries. I responded to them all with the same well-rehearsed words: "I love The Grandmaster, but I know that his funeral would turn into a circus and I would not want to be a part of that."

And it came to pass. The last words we would write about Kitchener, ferried him into posterity on a barge of bacchanal, conveying a sense of scandal rather than sanctity, with politics replacing piety at his very funeral.

The Guardian said "Kitch fans turn funeral into ole mas" and on page seven of the Express, we saw: "Melee and music at Arima burial." None of these outcomes required any special gift of clairvoyance.

Even the ringmasters must have known that. Anyone who witnessed the burial of steelband captain Rudolph Charles would have known that in the absence of an official funeral, Kitchener's last rites would be no less bacchanalian than those other Carnivals.

But Kitchener was not Rudolph Charles. The Grandmaster was, for the most part, a quiet and sedate man, who smiled politely, tipped his hat at ladies and always dressed immaculately in public. To my mind, the behaviour of the crowd at his funeral therefore remains indefensible.

Of his final moment, Debra Ravello-Greaves of the Express wrote: "Kitchener's body was quickly lowered into the grave, while the pushing and quarrelling continued. The tumbling sound of dirt onto the casket was the only indication some had that the Grandmaster had indeed been buried."

Newsday's Jada Loutoo, noted: "Some must have even forgotten they were in a place of worship, because in order to get a better view of things, they resorted to standing on the benches (pews), while others were heard muttering obscenities at intervals. Some 'mourners' must have thought that, being a calypso icon and with the presence of so many calypso greats, the funeral service would have been much like a fete, which would explain why they brought along their beers inside the church."

Thankfully, no one brought a cooler. The Express account by Ucill Cambridge and Ria Taitt included: "No one would give way for the pallbearers. The casket was brought up the aisle without the reception rites. 'Let us do this with dignity,' Dean Knolly Clarke scolded. People grumbled louder and chastised one another for pushing and shoving, for talking too much, for forgetting they were in a church."

So, when the world browsed the Internet yesterday morning, it got a bizarre appreciation of how we treat our heroes in death. But there are those who argue that the media contributed to the general indiscipline, by traipsing across the altar and even unto the pulpit to get the best shots and waiting until the last minute to hook up electronic systems.

Pat Bishop, who led the Lydian Singers, was hit on the head with a microphone, as she positioned her choir.

Prime Minister, Basdeo Panday, whose offer of an official funeral was publicly refused, did not attend. This time, he took wise counsel for, had he gone there, an even more embarrassing kind of report would surely have resulted.

The absence of Housing Minister John Humphrey, a known Carnival person, was however a disappointment. But then, the funeral also doubled as cheap electioneering. Indeed, it sounded much like a massive show of African-Trinidadian solidarity, rather than a funeral at all.

The arrival of Opposition Leader Patrick Manning pre-empted the first lines of Pat Bishop's moving eulogy, with partisan "mourners" applauding him instead.

It was another kind of event too. There are those who swear that they heard someone cursing while on the altar and at the end of performances by the calypsonians, Dean Clarke had to beg the fete crowd to stay for the committal-a significant funeral ritual.

They obviously had not come to the cathedral for any such petty distraction. In fact, Kitchener's corpse had become a bit of a political football too, being carted here and there in the blazing sun.

For its interment at Arima, reports say, his own children could not even get near the body of their dear father, but one week earlier, when the old man needed blood, less than ten people showed up at the hospital to make a donation that would cost nothing.

Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, it is clear that we like these circuses, which really specialise in death-defying acts. As Kitchener himself was moved to sing in describing quite another circumstance some 30 years before his death: "Oh what a country!"

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