John Tyman's
Cultures in Context Series
Torembi and the Sepik
A Study of Village Life in New Guinea
PART SIX:  CEREMONIES AND CELEBRATIONS
Topic No. 21: Farewelling the Dead ~ Photos 423 - 432
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423. When people die in New Guinea the ceremonies marking their transition to the spirit world are more complicated than those adhered to in most Western countries. For example, the body of the grieving partner will be covered with clay as a sign of mourning. Men have their heads shaved and will not wash till their period of mourning is complete.
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 424. The body of the deceased is first buried on the outskirts of the village, with the food and personal belongings needed for the journey ahead -- clothes, bedding and mosquito net. The grave will be roofed over initially with planks and a thin covering of soil. The pole shown here would have been used to carry the body to the gravesite. During the next month or so the deceased will be mourned, as his/her spirit awaits escape from the body. (How long this period of mourning lasts will depend in part on the time needed to collect enough money to meet the cost of the next stage in the celebration.) 
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425. When sufficient time has elapsed the grave will be opened to check that only the bones remain and their spirit has been released. (Decay is swift in a hot and wet climate.) That evening the deceased will be mourned publicly in a ceremony held in darkness inside his/her house . . . with official female mourners covered in white clay. Men, meanwhile gather at the haus'n boi nearby to sing funeral chants. (Men at haus'n boi)
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426. An appropriate effigy will have been prepared the day before and set up in a screened-off area in the centre of the house. 
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427. The mourners bow before this, some bringing gifts, and weep loudly as an expression of grief, begging the ancestral spirits to comfort them.
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old 425
428. The next day there will be a symbolic cremation ceremony at which those personal possessions that remain are either burnt or at least offered to the fire. A funeral pyre was built near the deceased's house, and a number of his personal possessions were hung on a post nearby.  These included his private bilum and his personal mug. 
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429.  Gifts of money were also displayed beside the pyre for a while, but they were removed later.
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430. A few less valuable items were actually placed on the pyre Ö which was built from small branches and coconut husks. Since it was a damp day the fire only smouldered at first, but it eventually burst into flames.
431. As the fire took hold the deceasedís personal possessions were either consigned to the flames or, if they were of value, merely waved in front of the fire.
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432. In time, everything was consumed.  His widow remained to one side, apart from her relatives and friends, thinking.  The children, too, were comforted by the knowledge that their father's spirit had now joined those of his ancestors. It's believed that if the dead are not farewelled correctly they will not help their descendents and will threaten their prosperity.


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Text, photos and recordings by John Tyman
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Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University, 2010.
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