Monday, August 9, 2010

PNG Mourning traditions

I just recently returned from a trip to Papua New Guinea. It is one of my favorite places on earth, and each time I go I encounter something new.

On this trip, as I was leaving the Western Highlands Provence city of Mt. Hagen, I intercepted with a large clan awaiting the return of the body of one of their "bikpela" men (well educated, well respected man).

Truck load after truck load packed full of clan members tumbled into the airport parking lot to await the body being flown in from the capital.

Everyone was covered in orange clay, faces and hands thick. They had also painted all their trucks and cars in the entourage with clay hand prints and the deceased's name with the
words "welcome home".

As I stood on the periphery an eerie song started, a mourning song half sung and half cried. Other woman took the role of mourner by wailing loudly. The process went on for nearly an hour until the plane landed. I had a recorder with me and below is a 30 sec. snippet of their singing/mourning.

Taking some time to research this practice, I realized that painting the body with clay is something practiced all over the globe. Ancient Egyptians, Australian aborigines, many North American Indians and African groups are all among those who paint clay on themselves to mourn. They often leave the clay on for a prescribed amount of time as an outward sign of a the mourning period.

The idea of physically altering one's appearance to denote mourning occurs in many different ways. Historically, in the Jewish tradition, ashes and sackcloths were used and in ancient Rome, a black toga was worn. In the Hindu tradition, usually pure white will be worn in the mourning period and in the US and Europe in the 1800's people used to wear black dresses and suits for a certain length of time.

There are some noted extremes of a more permanent nature. In PNG as well as other cultures, individuals will in fact amputate a distal part of their finger as an eternal reminder of that person's loss. I saw many people during my trip with missing joints of their pinkie finger or first finger. I was told that in some clans there is a significance to which finger is amputated, i.e the loss of one's child vs the loss of a parent.

Historically and continually many cultures have outward displays of their grief. While we set aside time in the US for a funeral, I wonder if there is something lost without any lengthy period of outward display?

Below is the recording I took - note the song, but also the wailers in the background.

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