Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Burial on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands

This blog is an account of fieldwork Monika Winarnita and I have undertaken, with our kids, in 2011 (for two weeks), 2014 (for six months), and 2016 (for one month). Here are photos and notes from a burial in 2011.
Reading prayers graveside

My friend, Nek Su, is a repository of many Cocos Malay traditions. He instructed us and others in Cocos Malay dancing. He also catches fish to order--his wife, Ayesha--simply requests one kind of fish, and Nek Su goes out to the lagoon and catches. 

2011 was a time of deep bereavement for Nek Su as his father, aged in his 90s, passed away. As Monika and I were undertaking our first fieldwork visit, I took some photos and asked questions to learn about mourning in a Cocos Malay community. 

I was told that there is a committee which is responsible for washing the corpse at funerals and has duties at other festivities.

Prior to the burial, the corpse is washed. This is an Islamic cleansing ritual called "wudhu".

Then the men make a "payung" (shade, umbrella) This is sprayed with water. I asked one of the mourners why, he responded "I don't know, maybe our ancestors did it that way" ("tidak tahu kenapa mungkin nenek moyang begitu").

Before leaving for Pulu Gangsa

Then corpse is then transported to the cemetery Pulu Gangsa("The Island of the Geese"). Actually this is no longer an island, as the name "pulu" [island] would suggest. Pulu Gangsa it now connects with Home Island. So the mourners used the local form of transport, 4 wheelers and golf buggies, to take themselves and the corpse to the cemetery.

Men, dressed in white, and shading from the heat with umbrellas, perform prayers graveside.

At the graveside, the mourners recite a prayer for the spirit of the dead ("bacakan doa arwah"). I observed that, like cemeteries in Indonesia, frangipani had also been planted, and a mourner explained that "Frangipanis are [used?] but that's not religion, it's tradition" ("Kembamg Cambodja dibawa bukan ugama, tapi adat").

A mourner takes some time out.

The corpse, wrapped in a white shroud, was placed in the grave and then covered with soil, in accordance with Islamic practice.

Mortuary rituals

Anthropologists call funerals and other ceremonies associated with the dead "mortuary rituals". In many cultures, the final disposing of the body can be delayed for days, weeks, months, or even years. The 'disposing' varies; the corpse can be burned, left to decompose, parts of the corpse might be consumed. In other cultures (Jewish and Islamic) the body should buried as quickly as possible. Aside from 'disposing' of the body there are usually attendant rituals both before (think of the Irish wake, which comes before the burial) and after (in Java people celebrate the 1000th day of bereavement with a ritual meal.

Mortuary rituals as rite of passage?

Generally, we understand mortuary rituals as a kind of rite of passage. Rites of passage, it will be recalled, change a person's ritual status from being, for example, unborn to born; or unmarried-married; or child-adult; or undergraduate-graduate. All of these relate to what most Westerners would equate with physical life, so it might seem strange that dying is also thought to be rite of passage. 

One way to understand this is to look at it from the perspective of those involved. They understand that there is a spirit that still survives. This spirit needs to be transformed from being in a living body to another kind of body (possibly, we could say, a dead or decomposing body) or leaving the body altogether. The mortuary rituals, including a funeral, are part of that. 

Even in a Western context I am familiar with this. I have been to funerals with avowed atheists who say, "I think he [the dead person] is looking over us right now". 

Reasons for mortuary rituals

Even if we do not think of mortuary rituals as a rite of passage, there are obvious psychological functions (dealing with grief) and social functions (bonding the mourners together). 

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