School leavers: Containing the blast
Mud Woman

Cash-craving relatives shun death traditions

The life and death of Imbakey Okuk
Segment of screenprint, 'The life and death of Imbakey Okuk' by Mathias Kauage (1987)


PORT MORESBY - At the dawn of time, all humans were born to toil the earth for sustenance until they grew grey hairs and died of old age.

But this is not always the case.

Some few dudes and lasses are born into a dome of privilege and have never have sweat on their brows before old age strikes and they dutifully depart.

The dictates of nature are fixed and both birth and death have their own cultural rites that the immediate family is expected to perform.

However, I will leave out birth for now and expound on death and its dictates and why diligently following funeral and burial rites is important for a family to thrive here, in this life.

The Tolai, Gogodala, Galkope and other ethnic groups all observe humane ways of showing respect to deceased family members.

Decent funeral and burials are an age-old tradition. The immediate family convenes with cash and pigs to give the deceased fellow a fitting farewell.

The funeral is a big rite of many different parts: the erection of the mourning house; drenching oneself in mud; profound lamentations; catering for the extended family; landscaping the burial site; burying the items the deceased used during life on earth; holding the lights-out feasts; and providing the head-pay to appease the mother’s bloodline.

In some cultures, the pain and grief is shown by means of a finger chopped off, or in the number of pigs slaughtered.

These actions of the immediate family being true physical signs of their heartfelt grief for the loss.

The immediate family does not abscond from these funeral duties, nor shove them off to an outsider, such as an MP or intending candidate, to fund.

Well, that was then. But today the vicissitudes of time have withered the family’s core responsibilities, and these are withering further by the day.

There is an creation story about what act it was that gave birth to this nere-tere (eat-vote) culture.

It is said to have originated during the 1982 Simbu provincial seat campaign when the late Sir Iambakey Okuk distributed 96,000 bottles of San Miguel beer in Kundiawa town to the various tribes, including 20 cartons for expatriates.

Since then, emptying MPs’ and other big men’s pockets to stage feasts, including funerals, have become a norm that has eventually led to stifling all facets of decency and filial love.

These days, most people leave a death in the village to the womenfolk, who fend off flies, or dump the body in a funeral home for months while they go on a fundraising mission.

The opportunity to make thousands in cash from such deplorable behaviour causes great salivation and most people nowadays choose to take that easy road, discarding traditional dictates in which the immediate family would contribute their hard earned cash and resources for the funeral and burial.

In the case of the people I know best, when a loved one perishes elsewhere in PNG, the MPs and intending candidates are put under immense pressure to ferry the dead person home to our Galkope tribal lands.

For a single death, the immediate family can make a fortune collecting cash and kind from the sitting MPs and many intending candidates.

When the final rite of lights-off is undertaken, the family use a large portion of the cash they have solicited to drink until they all forget their own names as well as that of the deceased.

In the old days, when one has nothing else to contribute, the individual would offer free labour such as peeling banana leaves or chopping firewood for the mumu (earth-oven). Maybe they would dig the burial site.

Sitting on laps and howling for others to contribute is the new magic that is pushing back the courtesy that traditionally bestowed on the deceased since time immemorial.

In this tradition, the afterlife is given serious consideration, because everybody aspires to go to the spiritual realm where their ancestors have gone before.

The Galkope culture teaches that death is not the end but the beginning of the journey into the spiritual realm where the forefathers dwell and from where they look back.

When they look back, the good actions bestowed on loved ones - whether in sick bed, at funeral or at burial - will be reciprocated when resting on the laurels of the spiritual realm.

With this in mind, it is essential to observe proper funeral practices of departing loved ones solely with the family’s own resources to retain the blessings that will come as an exchange from the spiritual realm.

But this other cargo cult-like behaviour by next of kin or the immediate family can spill the blessings and the MPs and the intending candidates will solely gain for their support of the funeral, burial and other expenses.

On the flip side, those irresponsible family members who aborted their duty to show filial love will forever be like the biblical Cain; cursed and deprived of blessings, eventually passing on this scourge to their children.

The 2022 Papua New Guinea national general election is almost a year away but you should know that the knocking on MPs and intending candidates’ doors has already been in full swing.

Death is inevitable and so are those modern-day immediate family members who shun tradition and transfer death’s associated duties to others.

They seem to feel it is much better that way.


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Dominica Are

Debts of Sorrow

Grief greeted me this evening all of a sudden
But still word spread fast and they came
To grieve with me
With truckloads of food
With bucketful of tears
With an handsome amount of cash
Blood relations, friends, they came
My loss shared communally

A time for mourning and sharing – it takes a while
we weep , we eat, we drink ,
we reminisce about the departed
a time for taking records of who came
and their contributions
Life goes on after burial
but still I carry a bag full of debts on my shoulder

All is not over, for there will come a time
when I will share the loss of those who shared mine
To them I will go
With truckloads of food
With bucketful of tears
With an handsome amount of cash

Till I fully repay my debts.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Exhibit one Andrew - the fabulous wealth of the Vatican.

Papua New Guinea is a very Christian country and I doubt that secularisation is an element in the way haus krai business is conducted.

I do take your point about the commercialisation of funerals in Australia though - burying a loved one ain't cheap. Just like in Papua New Guinea.

Andrew Brown

Given that most people in Australia are no longer religious in any shape or form and that most of the funerals I have unfortunately been to in the past several years have been secular "celebrations of life" on what basis does Phil make his claim about churches monetising tradition? Funeral parlors, crematoriums, graveyards and celebrants seem to take a hell of a lot of money. Is this not the same as PNG, old traditions are being subverted by the secularisation of community?

Philip Fitzpatrick

A very fine essay Sil.

If you take a cultural tradition and distort, is it still a tradition? Can cultural traditions evolve into new forms and still be cultural traditions? Is the 'haus krai mark two' that you describe a cultural tradition or is it simply a scam?

Maybe the churches know. They're very good at monetising traditions.

Philip Kai Morre

Last month we had three deaths in my area. The local MP supported us and a few other intending candidates also assisted.

We dug in our pockets to buy pigs to hold a funeral feast because we don't look after pigs. Then we faced another problem of head pay.

Then someone was blamed for causing a woman's death, witchcraft and a wild spirit from the bush.

I tried to resolve the dispute but I was overpowered. Even highly educated people believe in witchcraft.

Death has become a business and is draining people into poverty. Those three deaths came at a crucial time when some of us needed to find money for school fees.

We had to make a choice between two events and community pressure seemed to override our personal interest and choice.

Robert Forster


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