Attending an East Timorese Funeral

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Atauro Island

See that island in the photo? That is Atauro Island. You’ll find it 25km north of Dili, East Timor. It’s 25km long and 9km wide and about 8000 people live there. It has an interesting past. On August 11, 1975 the Portuguese Governor (East Timor was Portuguese ruled back then) fled to Atauro. On the mainland there was a coup occurring led by the Timorese Democratic Union to halt the ever increasing Fretilin party. The chaos eventually resulted in the Indonesian occupation which led to some of East Timor’s darkest times.  These days the tourists that East Timor receive (which isn’t many, in 2010 they had only 40,000) will venture to Atauro Island for that relaxation and beauty that a tropical island offers. The visited part of the island is a village called Beloi where Barry’s Eco Lodge is a favourite of travellers.

I on the other hand was at the last minute offered the opportunity to attend a funeral on the island. In fact the way it was phrased to me was, “How would you like to go to Atauro Island with a dead body?” My reaction was one of confusion and intrigue. “Is that an option?” I asked. I’d met an Australian family you see and a local friend of theirs had lost their young relative to a brutal bashing. This young man in his 20’s had died earlier in the week from this horrific event and the funeral was happening in his home village over on Atauro Island.

So, 5.30am I found myself on a small boat with a group of East Timorese people I didn’t know and I was the only foreigner in the group. Hardly anyone spoke English, but a guy called Tobias would eventually take me under his wing and try his best to fill me in on what to do, where to go and answer my many questions with his limited English.

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Picking up the coffin from the shores of Dili

The boat ride out to the island took 3 hours and was rough. The locals were throwing up, I was trying to not watch in fear of doing so myself and we were all drenched from the large waves crashing into the boat. I was relieved to finally arrive at the island. As we approached the shore I could see that the entire population of the little village (around 100 people) were waiting for us on the beach. I could hear wailing, see people crying and as we landed our little boats on the sand we were swamped by grief stricken friends and relatives. I felt unsure of what I should do, where I should go or how I should react. A group of men picked up the coffin carrying it high above their heads. The villagers continued to wail, moan and shriek as they followed the men with the coffin up the beach and into the village.

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Carrying the coffin up the beach to the village

I followed Tobias into the village where I saw that the coffin had been placed in a straw hut and the villagers were packed in and spilling out the doors. This was the viewing of the body. With so many people crowded around the coffin I couldn’t see anything. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see. I had no idea what to do with myself. The reaction of the people was intense. People were crying. A few young guys were very visibly upset and were removing themselves from the hut to howl and weep with a friend. I was completely overwhelmed.

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Hut for viewing of the coffin

After about half an hour of viewing the body it was time for a tea break. Tobias led me to someones house where I was offered tea/coffee, bread and biscuits. Everyone was quietly chatting away and everyone was giving me a little smile. I’d been told that the locals will wonder why I (a white person) was at the funeral and that they would probably think I was some sort of dignitary. Tobias asked me if I’d like to go for a walk along the beach. Tobias and I strolled along the rock and coral strewn beach. Tobias in bare feet walking freely and me in thongs walking in agony at the sharp and jagged terrain. We attempted to talk to each other and I tried to ascertain what the rest of the funeral would be. Alas, our communication was very limited and I was to be left wondering.

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Tobias

After our walk in was time for lunch. I was fed a gristly meat. I’d been told that the villagers on the island ate dog. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was what I was eating. I never found out.

After lunch it was time for resting. Tobias led me to a room that he said would be mine. I couldn’t help but think I was taking someone else’s room. It was simple – straw hut with a straw platform to lay on.

Hut I stayed in for two days

I rested for two hours escaping the extreme heat. At 4pm I heard wailing which I took as a sign that the funeral proceedings were starting again. Back at the hut it was time to view the body again. I noticed that the villagers were taking photos of the deceased. I noticed a gap in the crowd so decided that I would move forward to view the body. I wanted to see who it was we were saying goodbye too. Tobias noticed me and pulled me into the crowd taking me next to the coffin. The young man lay in the coffin dressed in a suit. He had typical Timorese features – large nose, full lips and fuzzy hair. Tobias indicated for me to take a photo, I politely declined as that did not feel like something I should be doing. I took one last look at the body. It looked like wax figure. I haven’t seen many dead bodies in my time. He looked peaceful though and I was glad to have seen him. During this viewing a different group of people were becoming overwhelmed with their grief. I found myself absorbed by the atmosphere that was being created by such real and raw sadness. Their honesty and public display of heartache was admirable. No one was ashamed of crying. There was a real sense of community grief and support.

When it came time to carry the coffin to be buried the simple wooden box was wrapped in a traditional Timorese tai. A wooden crossed with the young mans name carved into it was carried at the front of the procession and the entire village accompanied the coffin to the cemetery on the beach. A prayer led by the village paster was spoken, a song was sung and each person placed a rock into the grave. The grave was then filled in and the family placed flowers on the grave. Everyone was silent bar the people wailing with grief.

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Grieving friends and family

The last thing to be placed on the coffin was a large blue flower wreath. The family turned to me and pointed. I awkwardly placed the wreath on the grave. I felt honoured but also slightly uncomfortable at being seen as someone important enough to do this. Candles were then lit and placed around the grave. We all stood around the grave which looked out onto an incredible view of the ocean.

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Burying their loved one

The funeral had been very confronting. The grief of the loved ones had been public, loud and upsetting. I’ve been conditioned to be quiet and solemn at funerals. In the west we are taught to keep our emotion inside. Crying is for the privacy of your home. Why is that? When we loose a loved one why do we hide our grief? This funeral challenged my thinking on how to deal with grief. I saw a village come together, support one another and allow each other the space to be as loud and as distressed as they felt they needed to be. I’d watched as people had fallen apart with grief; screaming, crying, not being able to stand, faces covered in mucus. These same people would then eventually become calm, quiet and peaceful. Their grief realised, shared and expressed. I’ll be forever grateful for being invited into this experience. The funeral was beautiful, eye-opening and confronting. I’ll never forget it.

Saying goodbye

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