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St. Lucia Well Represented at Funeral of Dame Eugenia Charles

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She shaped her country’s history and dictated the terms of her burial


Prime Minister's Press Secretary


Thursday, September 15, 2005 - The Prime Minister of Dominica has thanked the Government and people of St. Lucia for being represented at the September 14 funeral in Dominica of the neighbouring island’s former Prime Minister Dame Eugenia Charles.


Minister of Social Transformation, Culture and Local Government, Hon. Menissa Rambally, represented St. Lucia at the funeral, which took place in the village of Pointe Michel, where Dame Eugenia was born.


A wreath from the Government and people of St. Lucia was also displayed inside the church and taken to the graveside.


Dominica’s Prime Minister, Roosevelt Skeritt and other top Dominican government officials, members of the island’s legal fraternity, as well as a host of local and overseas friends, attended the solemn ceremony.


Among Dame Eugenia’s closest friends while in office were former St. Lucia Prime Minister Sir John Compton and former Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Sir James “Son” Mitchell, both of whom were also at Pointe Michel to bid farewell to their departed former colleague.


Former St. Lucia Magistrate, Isabella Shillingford, also a friend of the late leader of her native isle Dominica, also attended the funeral, which was presided over by the St. Lucia-born Bishop of Roseau, the Most Reverend Gabriel Malzaire.


Following the funeral, the Dominica Prime Minister thanked Minister Rambally for attending and asked that she conveyed “the deep appreciation of the Government and people of Dominica to Acting Prime Minister Philip J. Pierre for his earlier message of condolence.”


Terms of Departure


Born in 1919, Dame Eugenia was a devout Christian who prayed and attended mass regularly. And as she did for most of her decisions in her political life, she dictated the terms of her funeral and burial ceremonies.


The Dame’s funeral was mostly a private affair – something she personally requested in a letter to a Barbados-based funeral home back in October 1997, outlining how she wanted “the disposal of my remains.”


In her letter to the undertaker, Dame Eugenia carefully outlined every step along the road between her death and her funeral.


She said if she died abroad, she would prefer her body to be cremated and her ashes sent back home in an urn for burial. But just in case she would not be cremated, she chose the dress she wanted to be buried in.


And she also chose the music to be played in the church and at her graveside.


On the day of her funeral, Dame Eugenia willed, she did not want her body taken to her home. Instead, she wanted her coffin to go “directly from the funeral home to the church for the funeral.”


She insisted the funeral service had to be at her village’s Catholic Church and that she be buried “at the family grave” in the village cemetery.


The Dame wanted a simply ceremony, with “no eulogy.” But she wanted “flowers on the coffin and grave.”


And she also dictated what should be marked on her gravestone -- simply her name and dates of birth and death.


Close friends say the late Prime Minister was moved to dictate the terms of her departure in 1997 for specific reasons that obtained at the time.


Two years out of office, her friends say today, the then ruling United Workers Party (UWP) of successor Prime Minister Edison James was discussing “whether she merited a state funeral.”


One such friend explained after the funeral: “Dame Eugenia couldn’t bear the thought of being buried by her political successors at the time, who had fought a bitter campaign for her removal by the electorate.”


Thus, they said, she expressly stated in her letter to the Barbados undertaker that she did not want a state-sponsored funeral.


She wrote in the letter of October 3, 1997: “On no account must Government authorities have anything to do with the arrangements for my funeral and burial.”


Instead, she wanted it to be a private affair – and she paid for it herself, a full eight years in advance.


A “Stately” Burial


But not all the Dame’s final wishes were respected.


She died abroad, but her body was flown home and met on arrival by an official Guard of Honour that also featured the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Ministers.


While the pomp and ceremony that attends a state funeral were visibly absent, governmental representatives and other official guests from home and abroad also attended the funeral.


And while she didn’t want a Eulogy, the barely shrouded political content in the Homily offered by her close friend, Catholic Monsignor Eustace Thomas, was considered nothing less.


Espousing what he described as his brand of “political evangelism”, Monsignor Thomas delivered a homily that attracted rounds of applause and affirmation by the scores of the late Prime Minister’s party supporters inside and outside the church.


Monsignor Thomas, who revealed that he had performed final rites on the Dame before she left for her Martinique operation, observed during his homily: “She did not want a state funeral, but she is being buried with a solemn service, in a stately manner.”


As per Dame Eugenia’s final wishes, however, only family and specially invited guests attended the graveside ceremony in the tiny cemetery near the church.


A Practical Politician


Dame Eugenia Charles, who died at 85, was Dominica’s first woman lawyer and first (and so far only) woman Prime Minister.


She served from 1980 to 1995, during which she became best known for her authorization of the invasion of Grenada in 1983. But she was also revered at home as a tough, no-nonsense leader who didn’t mince words in pursuit of her goals.


She was also a passionate defender of the right of small and disadvantaged countries to better prices for their commodities on the world market.


The Dame was called everything from “Iron Lady” and “Danger Lady” to “Lady Dracula”. But despite never being married or having borne a child, she was better known at home as “Mammo.” And, during her 15-year reign, the matronly, aggressive and defiant leader was regarded as the “Mother of the Nation.”


An unrepentant conservative and staunch ally of the United States during the Cold War, Dame Eugenia was also a practical politician.


Toward the end of her third term, when Dominica started trading with Cuba under her watch, she defended an earlier decision to export coconut-based soap products and conduct other trade with Cuba.


The Dame said: “I have always said that I’ll do business with the devil, if it will buy products and put money in the hands of my people.”


She explained: “I told the Americans. ‘I am not even going to discuss the matter with you because I can sell my soap to Cuba. You’re not buying a bar of my soap in America and my people deserve to sell their soap so that they can make some money.’ I’ll trade anywhere in the world where I can get money for my farmers.”


“It’s not that I’m changing sides,” she said of her decision to trade with Cuba, “I am looking after myself – looking after my people.”


Overworked, Underpaid and Misunderstood…”


When her party was defeated in 1995, Dame Eugenia took her first holiday in 15 years.


Without giving a single interview, she took a ten-day cruise to Alaska, saying she did so because she wanted to give the new government breathing space – “and because, in Alaska, no one could phone or fax me and ask me any questions about anything.”


During her three terms of office, the Dame (along with then Prime Ministers Compton and Mitchell) had unsuccessfully sought to have an integration of the smaller islands of the Eastern Caribbean, the OECS. When that failed they tried for a union of the four Windward Islands (Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Grenada).


Shortly after she lost office, Dame Eugenia searched for answers as to why the integration experiment had failed in the islands.


In her search for answers, she enrolled for a year at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies in Washington, where she studied the integration processes in the European Union, the United States and Canada.


She asked a reporter back then (of the failed Caribbean integration experiments): “How did the Americans get together and why didn’t we?”


But the Dame answered herself, saying: “Although we are similar, there are too many differences to achieve integration.”


Not one to mince words, the Dame also spoke plainly of what she thought of her period of service as Prime Minister. She said she was “overworked, underpaid and misunderstood.”


The Will to Live…


Dame Eugenia’s Dominica Freedom Party (DFP), which she led into office for the first time in 1980, is now part of the island’s governing alliance with the majority Dominica Labour Party (DLP) of Prime Minister Skeritt. But while she advised her party during her retirement, she eventually left the political scene as her health deteriorated in her latter years.


Dame Eugenia lived her latter years alone in a flat in the four-storey apartment building her family owns in the capital, Roseau.


She was still living alone and cared for by a friend when she fell off a chair on August 27, fracturing a hip in the process.


She was successfully operated on in neighbouring Martinique, but local press reports state she subsequently developed Pulmonic Embolism – blockage of an artery in the lungs by fat, air, tumour tissue or blood clot.


The Dame died on September 6, 2005.


Dominican historian, Lennox Honeychurch, said Dominica’s “Iron Lady” – who had broken a leg some years ago on a visit to Taiwan after falling off her bed – said Dame Eugenia “had lost the will to live” after her August 27 fall.


Dame Eugenia’s close friend and caretaker, Mona Piper, seemed to confirm Honeychurch’s conclusion. She said the Dame’s passing came as no surprise.


Said Ms Piper: “I was not surprised that she died. I was not shocked. She was ready.”

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