WHEN IT COMES TO DEATH in Papua New Guinean culture we who are related to the deceased know we are in for more than a couple of sleepless nights. There is a whirlwind of events that take place.
I see that in western culture the death of a loved one is usually embraced by the immediate family and close friends, whereas in PNG, when a loved one is lost, it takes on a whole new perspective where not only do immediate relatives mourn the deceased but so do the extended family and friends who travel from near and far.
One must experience it for themselves to understand what a lengthy and sometimes complicated process it can be.
Also in western culture, the family of the deceased usually holds a funeral as soon as time permits. Burial or cremation follows shortly after. Then the family hosts a wake, a ceremony that often takes place in the house of the deceased. After these events, life for everybody, although sad, returns to normality.
The first stage after a death in PNG is deciding upon a central location where everyone can start meeting to pay their respects to the mourning family, whether in cash or kind or both. This decision is made by the immediate families themselves or, if family members are too distraught, they appoint a close family member to make the big decisions for them.
When the venue is finalised it is made known to family and friends as the haus krai, a word in Tok Pisin which means a gathering place to remember and mourn the loss of a loved one and friend.
The haus krai is cleared of furniture and any personal items, as it will soon be filled with people coming from far and wide to mourn with the immediate family. There will be relatives both immediate and extended, friends, colleagues and sometimes strangers attending the haus krai so it helps to be extra cautious and alert.
The most important place that is set up in all of the haus krai will be the kitchen. Most times it is set up outside the house to allow room for the girls and women to move around freely to organise refreshments for visitors upon their arrival.
The kitchen is usually made by using a tarpaulin to shelter the food preparation from rain. Cooking is done over an open fire pit with massive pots. Usually one or two ladies are appointed by the family to keep account of all food supplies going in and out of the kitchen and to ensure all visitors are well looked after whether it be with food or drink.
The normal procedure for a haus krai is that visitors and relatives alike bring a dish of cooked food that will help to feed all the people who have come but still some prefer to bring goods directly from the store as their contribution - items such as rice, flour, sugar, milk, teabags, coffee, bread, tinned food, and fresh meat.
In return these visitors, regardless of whether they are related or not, are offered refreshments whilst they take spend time with the family in mourning.
Choirs are arranged to sing at the haus krai, or sometimes the mourning family themselves prefer to sing songs that were known favourites of their loved one. It is such a sweet sensation listening to singing at a haus krai and one can really contemplate the feeling of loss in such an atmosphere.
The loss of a loved one is not always dealt with in exactly the same way I have mentioned, because obviously custom speaks for itself in different parts of Papua New Guinea. But in general they are all pretty much the same.
There are rules required of the family in mourning; such as ladies being expected to wear black clothes and being expected to cut their hair short, and men being expected to grow their hair and beard. But again, it all depends on the area you are from.
Common disagreements that arise at these times, from my observation, are about where the body of the deceased will be buried, speculation of suspected sorcery, mismanagement of financial contributions made by people to help with the haus krai, and, my personal favourite, complaints from relatives camping at the haus krai about not being fed enough and expecting more.
These days Christianity has such a big influence on our lives that there is always a funeral arranged for the deceased before the burial. The haus krai however is not always removed straight away but, given the demands of city life, most people are now removing it quickly to ease the financial burden on families. In yesteryear, the haus krai could carry on for a year.
Now people now know the importance of making the haus krai as brief as possible to allow workers and students to return to their tasks, while keeping in mind the minor restrictions of mourning: whether it being a guy not shaving or cutting his hair or a girl wearing black when out of her school uniform. These rules are expected to followed.
The ‘sending home ‘of a deceased person is very important to us and the majority of Papua New Guineans prefer to bring the body of the deceased back to their native land.
Unfortunately my own culture doesn’t allow us to bring bodies back as it is our belief that it will upset the spirits of the island. However I would prefer to lie with my ancestors on my own land when I’m gone.
That said, I have promised myself that if ever I should find out I am dying I will be smart and travel home in advance just to ensure that, when I die, I am home.
PNG is the land of the unexpected with its ever vibrant, ever giving culture and this practice of a haus krai is just one of them. Our ancestors who came up with the idea must have been pure geniuses because, at times like these, relatives, both immediate and extended, and friends we haven’t seen in ages, come together to show our mutual support for those mourning and it’s just an unexplainable feeling.
Death doesn’t tell us when it will come; it just hits and when it does at most times it catches families by surprise and, with most families financially constrained, having a haus krai allows them to get the financial assistance they need from the many people who show they care.
Another advantage is that a lot of people fall into depression when a loved one passes on, and having a haus krai gives one the assurance that there are people who care about their situation and, if they need somebody to talk to, there is immense support out there.
No matter where I go, Papua New Guinea is still number one in my heart. People may say we have a political instability, betel nut stained footpaths, littered streets, high crime rates and the list just goes on.
Some countries have lost their cultural beliefs and heritage with modernisation but we are so fortunate that ours still exists; therefore let us appreciate it and embrace it forever.