Friday, 18 September 2015

The ‘why?!’ of death

In any community death causes grief and raises questions. How we express that grief and how we answer those questions varies widely. The wailing I have heard associated with a haus krai (house cry) in PNG bring tears to my eyes, but it is the questions and methods of answering that cause me ongoing discomfort.

After returning to the village from the funeral of a relative, a man commented to me that everyone had heard whispers and sounds from the coffin and that these sounds were the deceased telling everyone who was at fault for his death. It was a younger man, so people wanted to know who had caused it so that they could, well, even the score.

I’ve not looked into what a body is like three days after death in the tropical heat…and neither do I want to… but  I suspect decomposition may have something to do with the sounds. There was no doubt in this man’s mind, a respected church elder, that it was the dead man talking. I look for scientific answers for what caused a death while others are looking for spiritual answers as to who caused the death.

Part of looking for the guilty person is looking at who attends the funeral. It is important to show one’s face at a funeral so that people know you were not involved. Apparently the guilty will not attend; as if they do something will point to them and their guilt. On a practical level this causes much disturbance as people take the time to travel great distances to show their face. On the justice level it is not a very accurate measure.

I feel for my friends in the medical field when the question of ‘who’ not ‘what’ comes up. I’ve had someone in the village tell me that when someone died in hospital that the staff ‘must have made a mistake’. There was no sense that sometimes, the staff do all they can but still cannot save a life. I know that it grieves my friends when they lose this battle, and having relatives blame them does not help.
These approaches to death are a challenge for me in the village. Being from a scientific society, it is hard for me to accept spiritual causes for physical things. Even though I’m a Christian, my worldview has been shaped so that science gives us cause and effect. I am being challenged to take the possibility of spiritual causes for physical events into account. I can theoretically accept it, but am not as good at it in practice.

Living in a society whose worldview assumes spiritual causes to physical events, it is also a challenge for me to bring the physical causes of events into conversations in a way that is respectful and helpful. I do not expect to make radical changes, as worldview and the practices it drives, are notoriously slow to change. What I do hope to do is start the conversation that will hopefully lead to a broader understanding for all of us.
A cemetery near East Cape, Milne Bay Province, PNG

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