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A different kind of funeral

Haus krai DWU
A haus krai at Divine Word University in Madang


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.


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Joe Herman

The haus krai concept has evolved and changed its spiritual framing over the years. My first childhood experience was the loss of my second mother.

She was confined in bed for several days from an illness. Having no access to medical assistance and not being responsive to the rituals administered, one night she finally succumbed to her illness.

The message of her passing was immediately disseminated by cousin Konabi shouting from a mountaintop.

Soon tens of friends and relative arrived, wailing and crying. The intense display of emotion went through the night and into the next morning.

Her body was kept inside overnight and it was laid on the front lawn in the morning. The mourners held and touched her, massed around her body expressing uncontrollable emotions. I was crowded out from viewing the corpse.

In the late afternoon, men took over the proceedings. Four men carried away the corpse on a board shrouded in a laplap, a cloth. The emotions intensified as we watched they disappeared and out of sight.

She was buried witnessed by eagles hovering high above inhaling her spirit. We remained at home and would see her burial site sometime in the near future.

During this period, we were surrounded by the clan members. They provided comfort, food, and firewood for cooking as the source of energy for the daily visits. We were present with each other.

Time stood still. Men talked into the early mornings. They reminded us of the auu piiu concept, a way of life and a guard rail that governed our lives, to give our hearts to each other and reemphasized how the spiritual world and daily lives were interconnected.

My family was aware that the community’s gesture would be reciprocated. The longer the grieving period, the greater the expectation. Yet, the gravity of this obligation wasn’t felt.

Being present with each other outweighed what might lay ahead. The community support eased some of the emotional sting of losing a loved one.

One of the unintended messaging from the new found Christian faith was that the dead and the living would be happily reunited eventually in heaven. Prolonged periods of mourning, wailing, or conducting funeral ceremonies were being discouraged as it was unchristian.

This took new meaning in scheduling such events and shortened the needs felt of an emotional and spiritual journey.

Yet, my father’s response was pira pii, let it be. The mourning rituals proceeded as always had been.

Gardening and all physical activities were suspended until after sufficient mourning period had passed. We immediately stopped using her name in fear of agitating the spirit. Instead, we referred her to as enda wambake, elderly woman, a reference of respect.

Gradually we gained sufficient emotional strength to resume our gardening and other community projects. We planted some tangets, a plant, in an oval shape on the burial site.

The plant was a physical reference point for the future. However, it was a symbolic connection between the physical and the spiritual life.

The vitality of the plant was a small reference to processing and making sense of the life after, a constant reminder that the spirit and the physical world were the same in tribal life.

Several months later, many pigs were slaughtered and distributed to everyone as a closure. We then regrouped and continued walking each other home until the next haus krai gathering.

Arthur Williams

Many PNG people tell how it is customary for families to look after ageing relatives and not ship them off like Westerners do to old peoples homes to die.

Regularly we hear reports of a haus krai being established for someone and this post tells of the expenses of them as well as repatriation often by plane.

Yet over the past 14 years the PNG newspapers have reported an average of 65 unclaimed bodies being buried in mass graves.

In 2016 (27 July) there was Public Notice in the press asking for people to claim their dead relatives from the 32 bodies in the Angau Hospital morgue. Almost half had no known cause of death nor even a name. So it seems another custom has died.( Pardon the pun.)

Incidentally in my will I have asked that my ashes be tipped into the Bristol Channel, content in the knowledge that a particle will one day be carried across the seas to Lavongai. (That is what experts allege about ocean currents!)

On a lighter note, Paul sent me a cartoon this morning. It showed crematorium staff speaking to a widow coming for her late husband's ashes. The official is asking her, “Why did you put fireworks in his pockets!”

Not specifically on Arthur's comment but an interesting sidelight. The latest Australian statistics show that, of the 2.5 million people aged 70 and over, only 6% live in residential aged care. Given the poor reputation of aged care facilities, that low number is probably not surprising. About one million people receive some kind of care in their own homes, which I believe is where we old folks prefer to see out our days if we can - KJ

Garrett Roche

Funerals and wakes (haus krai) are indeed significant events. These events can also be times when some people who have not seen each other for a long time do meet up again. I am not aware who supplied the photo with of the haus krai at DWU, Madang, or when that was, however I think I recognise the three men lining up behind the person in the black shirt to view the coffin, they are Joseph Lingawa (from Tambul) in front of him Oring Gom ( from Morobe) and in front of him Dr. Francis Hombhanje (from Sepik), and the lady in red on the other side of the coffin may well be Barbara Tseraha.

Daniel Kumbon

On page 160 of my new book, 'Victory Song of Pingeta's Daughter', just released, I have a photo of a an elderly woman sitting on the wrapped up body of a warrior killed in tribal war hung on a pole.

Other women mourn below her and the body. How she climbed up there, I don't know. There are no signs of men. They are all out fighting.

The photo was supplied to me by kiap Barry Taverner who served in Wapenamanda in Enga Province sometime in the 1960s/70s. He also sent me photos of men with bows and arrows and the corpse of a man just killed lying on the ground.

Now, many more men, sometimes over 200, are killed during a single tribal war involving high powered guns. Explosives have been used too in some parts of the highlands.

Each body is mourned, speeches are delivered and much cash, food (including cartons upon cartons of Coke), lamb flaps, live pigs and garden produce is heaped up.

So much wealth is generated by the death of that one person.

Politicians are always expected to contribute more cash. If they contribute less, they will be ridiculed. Votes will go to somebody else in the next election.

More wealth will be generated when final compensation is paid by both warring tribes. More speeches will be exchanged. More time will be consumed talking and negotiating to reach an agreement.

Often, more arguments between relatives of the deceased will erupt over who should have which pig or receive how much cash. Sometimes violent deaths occur. More mourning, more killing and more destruction.

Nowadays, its a common sight to see bodies received at airports with so much frenzy - talking, wailing, horns blaring, much noise....

In long convoys, the body is driven home where a special place has been prepared to place the coffin. More contributions of cash and kind. More wailing, speeches, distribution of the cash and food, arguments between relatives etc... The circle seems endless.

Modern haus krais have become a wealth generating venture.

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