YUNGABURRA, QLD - As I get older the frequency of funerals for close friends unerringly increases.
On Tuesday another friend from my early days in Port Moresby passed away in Cairns. So sad, but a funeral is always an opportunity to reconnect with friends and wantoks.
Most Papua New Guinean funerals are celebrated with a prolonged haus krai leading up to burial. And there is often debate over where the body is to be buried.
After the burial the haus krai is removed. At some stage the family of the deceased will most likely put on a feast to say thank you to all those who contributed to the haus krai and burial.
Huge sums of money are spent on all this. Arrangements to fly the deceased back to the province and transport the body to the village are costly in terms of both time and money.
It is even more difficult to repatriate bodies to remote villages where the airstrips have been long closed and roads non-existent.
The companies I worked for in PNG had a policy of contributing to the cost of funerals for deceased employees. We would provide a coffin, and a sum of money for funeral expenses.
Employees would also contribute through payroll deductions and donations of food for the haus krai.
Higaturu Oil Palms had a company cemetery although there was no map of plots, so grave diggers had to be careful not to disturb earlier graves.
One day, when I was doing an inspection at Sumbiripa plantation near the cemetery, I saw a crowd around a newly dug grave and asked who had died recently as I wished to pay my respects.
The plantation manager explained they were burying the amputated leg of a diabetic employee. And there he was, sitting in a wheelchair beside the grave.
At Higaturu I was in charge of the oil palm expansion project on the Popondetta grasslands between the Girua river and Oro Bay.
This area is the most northern habitat of the Eastern Brown Snake. Death Adders and Small Eyed Snakes were prevalent in the plantations to the west of the Girua.
These species usually slept during the day under palm fronds and each year we would have for or five cases of snake bite when plantation workers inadvertently stepped on a hidden snake.
Polyvalent anti-venom was held at Popondetta General Hospital and at Kokoda Health Centre. Victims would soon recover after treatment and a short stay in hospital.
However, the venom of the Eastern Brown snake is much more toxic.
The workers for the new plantations in the grassland area were recruited from the local villages. They underwent a training and induction program and we supplied first aid kits to the supervisors and managers.
A worker from Siremi village near Buna was on his way home from work when he was bitten by what we assumed to be an Eastern Brown. He ran for help but soon collapsed and died.
His body was taken to Popondetta Hospital where a death certificate was issued stating the cause of his death as snake bite. The death certificate was required so the family could receive the employee’s superannuation contributions and, if eligible, workers compensation.
As usual, the company provided a coffin and some funds for funeral costs.
My general manager, Mike Scott, and I decided to personally contribute food for the haus krai and we drove to the village to show our sorrow to the family.
On arriving, we were surprised to be greeted not by mourners but by a family celebrating. They greeted us with traditional dancing in true Oro style.
Mike and I were not sure what we had done but soon learned that this man was the first in their clan to be buried in a coffin and they were extremely grateful.
Funerals are very expensive affairs in modern PNG. It sometimes seems like a competition to see who can provide the most elaborate funeral and headstone.
It is also rare for Papua New Guineans to have a will. In cases where the deceased had no will and owned real property, the transfer of title to the family is incredibly bureaucratic and expensive and open to abuse in the Public Curators office and the Department of Lands.
Invariably there are disputes over ownership which cause great hardship for the widow(er) and the children.
Other cultures impose limits on the period of mourning. Islam requires that the body is buried within 24 hours. Jews are allowed seven days for mourning. Cremation and the scattering of ashes in a favourite place is a common practice in Australia and other western countries. But I am not aware of a crematorium in Papua New Guinea.