Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Under the big blue tarp

You may have read this elsewhere already, but here it is for a wider audience.

Death is something we encounter frequently in PNG. For all kinds of reasons (e.g. lifestyles, limited healthcare, and high crime rates), life expectancy here is about 20 years less than in Australia. Someone who is sixty years old is considered to have lived to a ripe old age. An eighty year old is a rare sight.

As missionaries, we often deal with death. Death is an ugly reality of life here – but it also provides doors for comforting the grieving by proclaiming the gospel. Without Christ, death is something that people are afraid of; but with Christ, we have great hope.

The way that people deal with death in PNG is in many ways very different from what is done in Western countries. Death is a regular reality of life here, and it is very raw. Whereas we Westerners often leave professionals to deal with the logistics of death (if I may call it that), that is seen as removed or clinical here. In PNG, family members and friends are very much involved from the time someone dies to the time he or she is buried.

But rather than describing this in a clinical way, I’ll do it the Melanesian way and tell a story. This is a fictional story, but a typical one; every element in this story is something we have encountered in our work here in just the past few months.

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My brother Beni passed away last week. It all came about rather suddenly. A few days earlier, he was fine, but then he got sick – fever, chills, horrible stomach cramps, lots of pain all over his body. We took him to the hospital, but they said they couldn’t do anything for him. So we took him home again. On Monday, things started to look really bad, so we called up the pastor, who helped take him back to the hospital and prayed for him. All the hospital beds were full (even the ones in the hallways), so they told Beni to lie down on a piece of cardboard in the hallway. And that’s where he died a few hours later. We wrapped him in a sheet.

We called my uncle, who works at a big company in town. He has a ute, so we asked him to bring the body home. We carefully put him in the back of the ute, drove slowly across town, brought him home, and laid the body on his bed. This would be his last night at home, in his house in Lae. 
An ambulance covered in red ribbons to indicate it is being used as a hearse. 
One of my cousins made arrangements to get a big blue tarp, and we hung it up to make a makeshift shelter beside the house. We call it a haus krai, a house of crying. We will all stay there, day and night, until my brother is buried. We’ll take turns sleeping, but at all times there will at least be a few people awake. There’s lots of room under the big blue tarp for everyone. It offers protection from the sun during the day, and protection from the heavy rain that falls at night.
We sit together under the tarp. We talk about Beni’s life. We grieve. The news about Beni’s death spreads quickly through the settlement, and more people come. They come to grieve. The women are very vocal about this; they wail loudly: “Oh Beni, my nephew, my son, my son. Beni, why did you have to die? Why could I not say good-bye to you? Oh! Last week I was angry at you and I did not make peace with you. Oh, Beni! Now I will never be able to be at peace with you. I’m so sorry! Oh Beni, my son, my nephew!”

My family lives in the city, but we have uncles and aunts who live far away in the Highlands. It will take a few days for them to come down to Lae. And we do want them to be there for the haus krai and the funeral. They have to be part of our discussions as we make arrangements.

The next morning we phone the pastor and he helps us bring Beni’s body back to the hospital, to the morgue. I and some of the other young men know what to do when we get there. Together, we prepare the body for storage in the morgue. Well, actually, the refrigeration at the morgue isn’t working these days and the money to fix it has been lost thanks to corruption. So the hospital employees give us masks and we put Beni in a refrigerated shipping container. There is no shelving in here; we put him on top of several other bodies heaped together on the floor. While the container door is open, all the women cover their noses – the smell… We close the door as quickly and respectfully as we can.

This is life – or death, rather – in Lae.
The morgue in Lae. Containers are on the right.
We head back to the settlement, back under the big blue tarp. Some more people have gathered – neighbours, friends, mates from school, and more relatives. The wailing isn’t as intense now, because the body isn’t at the house anymore. But still, when another woman hears the news, she also weeps loudly. As people gather, they bring food to help feed the growing crowd – sweet potato, cooking bananas, and greens from their gardens, or a bag of rice from the store; others slip my father a 20 kina note (about $10) to help cover funeral expenses.

At last, my uncles arrive from the Highlands. Now that they are here, we can make further plans for the funeral. The uncles want to take Beni’s body up to our clan’s village in the Highlands. It’s good to be buried in your own village, rather than on other people’s land in the city. But we’ll have to wait and see how much we receive in contributions; it’s quite expensive to send a body on a little plane to the village.

My uncles ask how Beni died. We tell them that he was sick and died in the hospital. But still, they say… he was so young! Strong and healthy young men don’t get sick and die just like that! Surely he had some enemy who used sorcery to make him sick, to kill him. Whoever did it needs to be punished. If nothing is done, the sorcerer might kill someone else soon. So we need to find out who did it, to keep the community safe. The uncles started suggesting possible sorcerers – maybe that old hunch-backed widow over there… maybe that crazy girl who’s always saying things no one can understand…

They spend a few hundred kina from the funeral contributions to hire a witch doctor from a neighbouring settlement. The witchdoctor pulls out some leaves and other objects; he performs some rituals. And he informs us that it was the old hunch-backed widow who did it. She killed him by sorcery in the night. Now we all get angry at her – why did she kill my brother?! Justice has to be done! There has to be payback! She has to die! We’ll have to put her to death this very afternoon!

I’ll never forget the moment my father came walking over as all of this was going on. He’s an elder in the church, and well-respected in the community. As soon as he came everyone grew quiet. In his strong but gentle voice he said, “Don’t make anyone else die today because of my son. His death causes me much pain. But I know that God has a reason for it. He’s in control of everything, and he won’t allow any evil spirits or sorcerers to harm us, if only we trust in him. So don’t touch anyone. My Lord died for me. I will not allow anyone else to be put to death.” We lowered our heads and shamefully nodded. But still, it was more out of respect for father; we weren’t quite convinced.

That evening the pastor came, with a carload of people from church. They led us in singing some songs – “There is no sadness in heaven, but only joy.” The pastor prayed and he preached. He said that death is not good, it’s not how God meant things to be. But death came into the world because people didn’t listen to him. Death came because of sin. But God is full of love. His own Son left his home (where there is no death) and came down to this world, and he even died to give life to all his people. Beni believed in Jesus Christ. We also need to believe in him. We should believe in him and not believe everything the witchdoctor says.
Singing at a haus krai
I don’t understand how that all works, but it does give me some joy again. I don’t need to be afraid of sorcery. I can have some hope that I can see my brother again, and that he’s in a happy place now. Beni was always doing church things, but I never really cared for that. I thought it was a waste of time. But now I see that he was right. He was right to believe in Jesus Christ.

The next day, we decided that we would bury Beni’s body at a cemetery in the city. There simply wasn’t enough money to fly his body up to the village. My cousin (who’s a real handyman) built a coffin out of plywood. That night, everyone stayed up all night – because the funeral would be the next day. In the morning, some of us young men went ahead to the cemetery to dig the hole. We came back just as the pastor was beginning a short funeral service. The preaching again made me think a lot, and encouraged me at the same time.

As the service finished, everyone had one last chance to pay their respects and file past the open coffin. Men sobbed, women wailed loudly, some kissed his face one last time. It was all very emotional. I’m a pretty tough guy, but when I saw Beni and knew that the lid would soon be closed over him, I even shed a tear or two. After the service, we loaded the coffin onto the pastor’s ute, and drove to the cemetery. The pastor spoke some more, and we lowered the coffin into the ground.

The women continued their wailing. We young men began to shovel dirt back over the coffin. Slowly but surely, people wandered off, back to the normal things of life. I stayed until we filled the hole, and then stayed a little longer yet. I’m never going to see Beni again, not in this life anyway.

So long, my brother! I’m going to miss you. But I’m glad you’re with Jesus now. I can’t wait to see you again in heaven!

A grave marked off with ribbons.

A grave, covered in mostly-plastic flowers.