It was open casket.
Sidling in the doorway behind my colleagues, I tipped my vision over the rim of the coffin to peer at the old man who had passed away two days earlier. Carefully folded arms and covered with lilac gauze which lay shimmering over him. His body was incandescent. I thought back to the only other time I remembered seeing a body void of life. I was 5 years old and my cousin had passed away from an eating disorder that as a child I had no idea about. She would read to me and my other younger cousins, her legs tucked under, perched on the couch as we sat on the dusty tiles of a Karachi floor. Strung in a line like baby ducks, hanging off her every word. Then one day, her spirit vanquished, I peered from another doorway as her body was washed by my mother and aunties. I saw her pale arm lifted and held in my mother’s hands as she wiped her fingers one by one, her nails clipped and cleaned. Or maybe that is just a dream.
In so many cultures the body remains in the home where it is washed and mourned. A friend described the way his Tetum teacher was curious about funeral homes in Australia. What were they for? Late last year our landlord had asked how we felt about using one of the spare apartments to keep her mother’s body after she passed away for two days before her burial. Tia, her mind adrift with Alzheimers had been absent from her usual rounds behind our house. Picking through the trees, her bare feet clinking the pebbles beneath the banana trees. Collecting bottles and forgotten cigarette lighters. She had not been walking for over a month and her mother, our landlord, was sure she would pass away soon. I felt taken back. Shouldn’t a body be in a morgue? A hospital? Buried straightaway? Then I remembered my cousin’s languid arm, my mother kneeling on the bathroom tiles, and it did not seem so unnatural.
Death, mourning and grief in Timor-Leste is cocooned in ritual and politicized by history. Ancestors are invoked and consulted when resolving conflicts, during marriages and celebrations. They guide life. For Timorese, Catholicism fits neatly with ancestral beliefs, perhaps because of the identical notions of resurrection and remembrance. The rituals that remember Christ and remind of Mary and turning to them for help and guidance are not that different from the cultural invocations that solidify the role of ancestors. Remembrance of those who died and fought in the Indonesian occupation is a central feature of political organization. Current conflicts and tensions are in a way, over memory. Who is remembered for what, and whether they were really there at all. In the same way I can never be sure if my cousin read to me the day before she died, Timor is locked in hazy recollections of the past.
Two of the dead man’s daughters lay themselves over the sides of the coffin, gazing at their fathers face and crying. Quietly, a colleague began to sing as one by one the others joined her. The daughters paused briefly from the privacy of their grief to join the group in song. Their mother, now a widow, paused the deep wails that came from her sternum. Her son beside her massaging her hands, thin as branches, and limp with grief. Comfort. Touching as a way to soothe, applying a balm to the absence of him. I would buy cassava chips from their father a few afternoons a week. I knew him in life, and now in his death, his body beside me, empty of life, did not distract as much as his living, breathing daughters. Somehow death draws so much attention to life. The lushness, the fecundity of grief. It makes the air smell different. As though it is full of oxygen. It was them I was drawn to and not to any horror of his body.
His daughters will wear black for one year, and no one will ask them to dance at wedding parties. They will visit their fathers grave, talk to him, remember him, leave him gifts. There will be a financial burden on the family for a time, and possibly for the forseeable future.
Ritual and remembrance as in many cultures, comes at an earthly, material cost. With hospitality a steadfast value and collective living still the core of social relations in Timor, there will be many mouths to feed. There will be a slaughtered buffalo and pig, rice and water spinach, banana juice and Bintang. There will be Catholic prayers uttered in Tetum. More beautiful mournful songs. The same songs of struggle and sadness and the sacredness of land that wound around the valley floors during Indonesian times.
Sacredness in tradition and culture is described as lulik, adat or lisan in Tetum. Sacredness can bring joy and togetherness, comfort and solace. Sacredness can at times cause horror and grief, depending on who decides what is sacred and what is not. Globalization and it’s incumbent, capital, have their eager swords drawn. The question for nations like Timor on the precipice of enormous social change, is the place for sacredness. There are other deaths worth grieving too. The fragmentation of community. The grief of industrialization and the dynamiting of sacred mountains, sacred stones. If Tiu too becomes an ancestor, conversed with, consulted, what advice is there for the fragmentation that globalization, tech-solutions and capitalism may likely initiate?
Sacredness as an essential feature of social organization in many societies is humanistic development’s conundrum. If we are committed to sustainability, to ownership, to respect, inclusiveness and equality, then the sacred cannot be ignored, nor can it be essentialised. This is the grey space between cultural relativism and essentialism that takes time to unpack. It is complex, and deservedly so but there is space there to understand how meaning through tradition and culture work to bind communities in ways that are beneficial for wellbeing.