A Fallen Warrior's Last Rites

by: Sharief Khan

(Courtesy of the Guyana Chronicle - March 13, 1997)

Slowly, everyday life yesterday began to plod back to normal for a nation numbed by the sorrow of the passing, one week ago today, of President Cheddi Jagan.

Guyanese, moved by a death as they had never been before, were consumed by an outpouring of homage and tributes before which everything else paled into insignificance for seven days.

The fall of their warrior and hero has cut them deeply and they showed it by countless numbers in a long, thunderous symphony of silence that seemed to move the heavens to tears on a windswept piece of Guyana seashore.

Neither sun nor rain could dampen their reverence and the shower of rain that came as the casket of the fallen hero began that slow march on the shoulders of soldiers to its final destination was a certain sign to the faithful.

In their sorrow they were filled with hope that even the gods shared their grief.

Dr. Jagan died at 1:23 a.m. last week Thursday in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and his long final journey home ended yesterday, at about 1:10 p.m., when his daughter and son lit the pyre for his cremation in the rural village that gave him birth.

The ashes of his mortal remains are to be gathered today, one day short of a month since he was stricken by a serious heart attack at his official State House residence in Georgetown and to which he succumbed after a spirited battle for 21 days.

Dr. Cheddi Jagan, born in Port Mourant, Corentyne, Berbice on March 22, 1918, died March 6, 1997 in the capital of the United States and was cremated where it all began yesterday.

Guards kept close watch over the smouldering pyre throughout last night and will remain on watch until the ashes are gathered and placed in an urn by immediate family members.

Sources close to the family said the ashes may be scattered in the Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice rivers.

The thousands trekked to the site in a steady, determined swell and they sat all around on the ground outside the barricaded cremation area.

People's Progressive Party (PPP) Executive Committee member, Mr. Ralph Ramkarran said at the ceremony: "Above all (these recent days), we heard the footsteps of the largest number of Guyanese ever to come together in our history, putting aside all differences, united at last in sad but warm embrace."

He added: "No greater tribute could have been paid to this simple, unassuming man than the time taken by so many to set their eyes on him in a final glimpse as he lay at rest or as he went on his way in his final journey to this place."

Above all else, it was the simplicity of the ceremony of the last rites that towered above everything else, with the working people he had laboured for caught in a hush and saying their last farewell with deep reverence.

Dr. Jagan ignored the ususal pomp and ceremony associated with inaugurations when he was sworn into office as President of the Republic on October 9, 1992 following the PPP/Civic victory at the historic elections four days earlier.

There was no fanfare for that return to power and so it was with his cremation yesterday - short, simple but momentous.

The mourners dressed for the occasion, sombre colours all.

There were the usual military ceremonial ... associated with funeral for presidents but these were kept to the barest minimum in a simple rural burial ground.

The masses sat and waited all morning for the cremation and a roar of complaint went up whenever the driver of a vehicle of a dignitary attempted to park in a spot that would block their view of the proceedings.

Mr. J.B. Raghurai, Administrative Manager for the Albion sugar estate said the site was ready in three days. Preparations began last week Thursday afternoon and the works included clearing the area of bush, building an all-weather access road and two bridges to the site, and putting up sheds and running electricity supply.

The crematorium is in a 20-acre plot and Raghurai said that about 150 to 200 workers a day took three days to complete the job.

Senior and junior staff from the Port Mourant and Albion estates worked dedicatedly on the project and about 50 percent of the work was done free, he said.

The workers refused payment for working and most did not want their names recorded in books as having worked, he told the Chronicle.

"They said they were doing it all in honour of President Jagan", he explained.

The Guyana Sugar Corporation provided a band of young women dressed in white as ushers for dignitaries and there were four fully-equipped ambulances - one from the Health Ministry - with doctors standing by at the Port Mourant Hospital and the Port Mourant Dispensary to treat any emergencies.

The corporation also put down eight water containers around the area for the massive crowd, the official said.

Several persons fainted and one person who took ill was carried away in an ambulance.

It was an impressive accomplishment and the proceedings went on without a hitch, officials said.

Police ranks and officers were out in strength for crowd control, with other members of the Disciplined Services also on duty but, according to the officials, there were no incidents of consequence.

The focus of attentions was the cremation of the man many called the 'Father of the nation' and the air was stilled by their silent homage.

As the rains came, black umbrellas went up around the pyre and a green tarpaulin was held aloft over the mound resting on a white-painted wooden support as the body was lifted in a white sheet and placed on the pyre.

For the cremation, 300 pieces of 'Long John' wood, each four feet long, were stacked between layers of coconut shells and about 100 pounds of wood chips.

Workers said 20 pounds of ghee were used and mixed with pieces of camphor and put into four 'fire' holes in the structure.

After the body was covered with a layer of wood and the preparations completed, the late President's son, Dr. Cheddi Jagan Jnr. and his daughter Nadira Jagan-Brancier set the pyre alight, using a torch made of wood with cloth wrapped around it at the end.

Other immediate relatives also participated in the ritual and the bags of flowers collected form the showers thousands placed on the casket as the body lay in State for public viewing over four days in Georgetown and in Albion were scattered in the flames.

Mrs. Janet Jagan, wearing dark shades, was fully involved and watched with the others from the shed to the north of the site as the flames consumed the pyre, including the empty oak casket, with copper trimmings, placed on top.

Dr. Jagan Jnr. and his son, Cheddi Jagan Jnr. the Second, stood side by side for a long while on the eastern edge of the burning mound, the late President's son giving his father a prolonged final military salute.

And then the two hugged each other tightly, the 13-year-old boy crying bitterly as his father clasped him to his chest.

Barefooted, as is the custom at such religious ceremonies, the two left the area and then came the aircraft fly-pass in tribute to the fallen leader.

The ceremony over, groups began to lingeringly move off, but thousands remained for hours after, the silent tributes continuing.

Later in the afternoon, Mrs. Jagan and other members of the family travelled back to Georgetown, amid thousands going back to their homes around the country after what had all the makings of a huge national pilgrimage to the graveside of a fallen hero.

Along the coast, people were slowly beginning to carry on with their life by last night but it will be several days before life will be the same for the vast majority.

The seven days of national mourning have ended but the loss will be felt deeply for a long time.