BURIAL TRADITIONS IN ARIMA AND THE EVOLUTION OF ARMSTRONG’S FUNERAL HOME
Francis Morean @ 3rd November 2018
(This is the sixth in a series of articles being published here by Francis Morean with the focus upon the history of Arima.)
I was hoping to post this piece yesterday or Thursday in keeping with Latoosay as the Patois-speaking gen’s d’Arime may have said. There was however just too much happening.
In the previous piece in this series, I shared how my sometimes roving life circumstances exposed me to persons from various walks of life.
Sometimes it is even very hard to say, which phase was the most interesting and educational.
The following are notes from an interview I conducted on February 8, 2007, with the now deceased Funeral Director, Israel William Armstrong, who was one of my neighbours when I lived at King Street near the paved ravine that the old gens d’Arime called El Canal de Los Muertos, near the entrance to Jonestown. Between today and 20th November, I plan to post about 5 or 6 pieces pertaining to Jonestown , to El Canal de Los Muertos and to other funerary traditions in Arima. But I also plan to post some more lively matters within that time as well.
It is quite noteworthy the extent to which black persons in Trinidad with Bajan roots gravitated towards the establishment of funeral homes. Just think of legacy building, public service and wealth acquisition in Trinidad and Tobago and right away the mind goes to Belgrove’s Funeral Home. But there have been several others. I was hoping to share a few old news clippings to demonstrate this point, however that would delay the uploading of the post.
Most residents of Arima may not be aware that Armstrong’s of King Street also has Bajan roots and that Junior Armstrong is at least the third generation involved in this activity. Now you can find out that and more.
Julien Beresford Armstrong was the father of Israel William Armstrong. Julien was born in Tunapuna to a Bajan father and mother. I can’t remember their names. Julien was a contractor building houses. He later went into the funeral business. It was located on the main road. The Warden Office was opposite and the Library was to the side.
We later sold the property to Barclay.
At age twenty two I and my father could not see eye to eye. He had the money. From a boy of seventeen I worked with him but he never wanted to expand and improve the business. He only had old time vehicles. At age nineteen (approximately), I went to work with Simpson’s in Port of Spain to get more experience and independence. I drove for him. I dressed the boxes, prepared the bodies. I worked for twenty dollars per week. Sometimes I slept on the premises. The week we did not get much work, the boss did not have much money to pay. When he got work we got the money.
After funerals people gave me five dollar, even ten dollar tips.
I would buy three to four hundred pounds of ice to freeze the body in the ice boxes.
Simpson’s was at Park Street, close to Charlotte Street.
The first place I really worked was at Hayne’s Clarke. Clarke & Battoo had not joined as yet. Clarke was a Bajan. Simpson was born in Barbados. When Clarke died, his daughter joined up with Battoo, an Indian.
I worked with Clarke for one week. Then Simpson saw me and asked me how I could do him that, and he asked me to join him. He was a poor man trying. He and my father were friends. I went across and joined him. I stayed there a couple years and then when I found I had enough money saved – three hundred dollars – I came to Arima.
Arimians did a lot of business with my father. When I came I rented a place at Queen Street – KFC is there now. Barracks were on both sides. I cannot remember the owner. This was 1954. Before I opened the funeral home I was already living in the barrack. Hicks, Leo and Packos were the other guys in the barracks. Leo had a parlour. Packos had a tailor shop. Hicks was a tinsmith. He did soldering and made cups and guttering.
The room I got was previously rented from a lady who sold coals. There was a yard in the barracks where I constructed a shed. I built a wooden box and bought ice from the old factory to refrigerate the bodies. About three or four times the Sanitary Inspector charged me and took me to Court. They did not close me down, but I had to stop. I then began to use the hospital fridge and would dress the bodies there. Afterwards when there were charges, I continued building the boxes on Queen Street and carried the boxes to the hospital. That went on for three to four years.
When I first came to Arima the people walked to the church from their home with the body in a box. In those days people still built their boxes in the yards and carried them by donkey cart as well to the church. There were also a few jitneys and these were also used.
When I first came, I was only selling boxes. People were placing devil grass on the belly of the corpse and they placed coffee or kerosene in their mouths. This prevented the tummy from raising. The coffee also served to cut the scent.
In 1955 I purchased an English Super Saloon car. It was a big, seven-seater car. I – that is the welder really – cut out the trunk and converted it into a hearse. I drove up to the two miles on the widest part of the Arima-Blanchisseuse Road to test it out.
In 1955 the Arima-Blanchisseuse Road was just gravel. The road was very dusty.
I moved from Queen Street to Sorzano Street. From year to year there were changes. I was renting there.
I then bought a lot of land here more than forty years ago. I am now eighty four years old. I was born 1924. I got married when I was thirty years old. I came to Arima in 1954 but it was in 1955 that I really started the business. In 1954 I was building boxes at the back. A box took me two hours to build. I bought wood from Rudolpho and from Mansingh in D’Abadie. Also from a sawmill on the Bypass.
After the War there were many American soldiers at Wallerfield. When the soldiers died, they sometimes buried a lot of them in steel caskets in the cemetery at Wallerfield.
In the old days the Head Teacher, the Priest, the Inspector of Police all walked around and introduced themselves to the people.
Where the Velodrome is located was the horse racing area. They kept the horses by the paddock. O’Laughlin was a black guy who had a horse and carriage burial service. O’Laughlin also sold boxes. He had workmen making them.
Queen Street was pitch. This road was a gravel road.
In the early days, the dearest funeral was sixty dollars.
I went to Florida and had a day of questioning about my experiences and I got a Funeral Director’s Certificate.
After the days of the dry ice, we began to use formaldehyde and embalming fluid. We imported it. When Fernandez began making – I believe – formaldehyde, they introduced it to us. We still use formaldehyde. We also use hardening powder and embalming fluid. The importing companies introduced us to it.
I grew up “not afraid of dead” by my father. My father’s workers tried to frighten me, but I stayed up and watched a dead. I never saw movement from a dead body.
At Simpson’s I used to canvass the family of the dead.