On 21 May, 1981 BOB MARLEY was laid to rest in the village of Nine Mile. In his casket was his red Gibson Les Paul guitar, a football, a Bible opened at Psalm 23, and a stalk of ganja placed there by Rita Marley.
On the day before the funeral, the coffin was placed on lit de parade allowing the public, an estimate 100,000 people to file past and get a final glance of The Gong. Marley’s long locks had been replaced with a wig as his own hair had been lost during cancer treatment in New York, Miami, Mexico, and finally the Bavarian clinic of Dr Josef Issels, following the diagnosis of a malignant melanoma four years earlier.
The Rastafarians told the mourning people that there was no reason to grieve as death meant nothing. Bob had not gone anywhere – he was still among us.
The day of the funeral began with an hour-long service for family and close friends at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity, presided over by His Eminence Abuna Yesehaq, the church’s archbishop in the western hemisphere, who had baptised Marley in New York the previous November, just after his last triumphal concerts at Madison Square Garden. Bob’s baptismal name was Berhane Selassie – Light of the Trinity.
At the culmination of the service, his coffin was taken to the National Arena, where the 6,000-strong congregation were assembling along with reporters from around the world. A huge banner above the entrance proclaimed Funeral Service of the Honorable Robert Nesta Marley, OM. The Order of Merit had been bestowed on him a few weeks before his death.
White-jacketed guards of the Jamaica Defence Force carried the casket into the hall. Bob’s music was playing inside and out in the street for the large numbers of people who had arrived without invitations. For those who could not get in, the ceremony was relayed by the loudspeakers.
Bob’s coffin was resting on a trestle table in the middle of the broad stage and covered with two flags, the green, gold and black of Jamaica and the red, green and gold of Ethiopia. The balconies were open to the public, and filled up quickly, but on the floor the rows of chairs were marked with signs: Family, Government, Press, Twelve Tribes of Israel, Musicians.
Bob’s mother Cedella, Rita and some of his children, including his sons Ziggy, Steve and Robert Junior, Julian, and his daughters Cedella and Stephanie took their place. The formal guard of the Ethiopian church took their places around the coffin and the center of the stage was soon filled with the church’s elders, in robes of varied and vivid design.
A little while after the scheduled hour of 11 o’clock, the service began with an Anglican hymn, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”. The governor-general Glasspole read the first lesson, taken from 1 Corinthians: The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. The congregation sang another hymn: Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee/ How great Thou art, how great Thou art. Former Prime Minister Michael Manley read from 1 Thessalonians: Therefore, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith/ For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord.
Then, to the delight of the Rastas in the balcony, it was the turn of the dreadlocked Allan “Skill” Cole, Jamaica’s finest footballer and one of the Marley’s closest friends. Cole was wearing the raiment of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, with whom Bob had long been associated. He had been scheduled to read from Psalm 68, which bears the subtitle: To the chief musician, a psalm or song of David.
Instead he delivered passages from Corinthians and Isaiah particularly dear to Rastafarian hearts. Consternation among the church dignitaries on the platform were answered by sounds of delighted approval from the congregation.
The annoyed Archbishop recovered his composure in time to read the Beatitudes – Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – and to lead the Lord’s Prayer before Prime Minister Edward Seaga delivered a eulogy, memorable only for its closing benediction: May his soul rest in the arms of Jah Rastafari.
The Archbishop rebuked Skill Cole in a direct address to the Rastas in the hall. Why advocate repatriation to Africa, he demanded, when it would profit them more to work together for a better life in Jamaica? They shouted Jah! Rastafari in defiance as he spoke.
Then The Wailers and The I-Threes took the stage and performed Rastaman Chant. Cedella Booker closed the service. Accompanied by two other women, she delivered Amen.
Then the musicians put down their instruments, carried the coffin on their shoulders through the hall and out into the roadway, where it was placed in a hearse, for the 50-mile journey to the place where Marley’s life had begun.
As the cortege left Kingston, it passed by the house at 56 Hope Road. On South Camp Road, outside the Alpha Boys School, pupils sang No Woman, No Cry as the procession headed towards Marcus Garvey Drive and out of the city.
The convoy arrived in the mid-afternoon at Nine Mile where, on 6 February 1945, Cedella Booker had brought Bob Marley into the world. 36 years later, Bob had come home for his final rest.