The late Bermudian writer Ann Williams (née Zuill) was also a
raconteur and would delight many people here and abroad with her
Bermudian stories. Arguably, her best and most famous, which she told
in the St. David’s vernacular of the 1930s, complete with w’s being pro-
nounced as v’s, was about a St. David’s funeral. Unfortunately, a family
recording of the story has been lost (temporarily, it is hoped) but a less
lively version is recounted in Carveth Wells’s Bermuda in Three Colours,
published in 1935. The story is a good illustration of how St. David’s
Island’s isolation had a direct effect even on funerals. Wells explains that
in Bermuda at the time “there was a law the sun may not rise and set
upon a corpse.” So if a person died in the evening his or her body had to
stay in the house until after sunrise the following morning. He goes on
to tell the story:
Some years ago, the rector of St. George’s received a telephone call
from St. David’s asking him to officiate at a funeral at 2: 30 in the after-
noon. Just as he was about to start by boat for the island, the telephone
rang and he was asked to wait for an hour.
At three thirty the rector again was about to start for St. David’s
when again he was requested by telephone to wait another hour.
Knowing that the burial could not take place after sunset, the rector objected to any further delay, so the party on the other end of the
telephone told him to come on over and promised to explain matters
when he arrived.
After the burial was over, one of the St. David’s Islanders explained
that the delay was due to an unfortunate accident to the coffin. It appears the coffin had been ordered from Hamilton whence it had arrived
safely by carriage. It then had to be transported to the island by boat,
but during a sudden gust of wind, the coffin had been blown overboard,
where it immediately filled with water. Try as they would, they were unable to get the coffin back into the boat, so there was nothing to do but
tow the waterlogged coffin through a rough sea to land.
The first delay had been asked because the coffin had not arrived and the
second because the coffin had to be dried out before nailing up the body.”
The rector would have served St. Peter’s, the parish church of St.
George’s, and would have crossed St. George’s Harbour in a boat, land-
ing at Church Wharf in St. David’s and walking to St. David’s Chapel
of Ease round the corner. ( The term “chapel of ease,” dating back to
the sixteenth century, refers to a chapel built for the convenience of
parishioners living a long distance from their parish church. St. David’s
Chapel of Ease, then, was well named since, for St. David’s Islanders,
attending St. Peter’s meant crossing the water.) In his Life on Old St.
David’s, E.A. McCallan explains that the lack of functional roads on St.
David’s made hearses and carriages impracticable. Nevertheless, he says,
the funerals had a simplicity possessing “a finesse and solemnity which
are lacking in the undertaker-conducted funerals of the Main.” Because
there were no telephones or radio, generally a messenger would be sent
round the neighbourhood with two black-edged papers giving details
of the funeral. “One paper was addressed to carriers and bearers and the
other to relatives and friends. Relatives were required to sign the paper
addressed to them lest they later claim they had not been notified, and
family feuds result.”
Friends would walk to the house of mourning, the men dressed in
black, the women in black or white, and there would then be a proces-
sion to the church which could last as long as an hour. “Because the
metal handles were considered insecure when a coffin was to be carried
over a mile or more along rough paths,” McCallan explains, “white
linen cloths or napkins were held under it and the ends carried by
opposite carriers.” In front, two young men walked carrying two cedar
coffin stools for rests and changes of hands if the journey was long.
Sometimes the coffin and followers were brought to Church Wharf by
boat. Jean Foggo Simon remembers attending funerals at the Chapel.
“We also attended funeral viewings in the schoolroom, and after lining
up behind the coffin by age and of importance in the family, we walked
the distance from the schoolroom to the church for the services.” As for
weddings, the traditional Bermudian horse and carriage ride for bride
and groom was also impracticable so that the bride might also arrive by
boat and then walk to and from the church.
The Chapel was built in 1848 to replace Mission House, a private
house called Mount Airy that was bought by Bishop Spencer, who used
it as a place of worship, dwelling house and a Sunday school. Susette
Harriet Lloyd once taught there and described separate rooms for black
and white students. St. David’s Chapel of Ease was consecrated by
Bishop Feild in 1849 on a stormy day. He and other clergy were rowed
across the harbour to Church Wharf by the rector’s four sons. The annual tradition of “blessing the boats” gathered in St. David’s, still carried
out by the rector of St. Peter’s, goes back to this day of consecration.
In his Bermuda Journey, W.E.S. Zuill recounts how St. David’s
Islanders’ sailing expertise could impact their reaction to biblical narratives. When one visiting preacher in St. David’s had prepared a sermon
about St. Paul, one member of the congregation apparently said to him,
“‘ We doan want t’hear about Paul. He run his ship ashore tween cross
seas. Paul weren’t no criterion.’” (See Acts of the Apostles 27: 41.)
THE STORY OF
CONTINUED FROM OUR WINTER ISSUE, ELIZABETH JONES
EXPLORES THE CULTURAL HERITAGE, COLOURFUL CHARACTERS
AND UNIQUE FLAVOUR OF THE EAST END COMMUNITY