1 December 2003
-- Manatuto, East
People live close to death here. Not only is there a high infant
mortality rate, and a low life expectancy, but death is not
roped off, excluded, hidden away, or relegated to a distinct
Last Tuesday, I woke up with a strange feeling; the sounds coming
from the family's houses were not what I was used to. People
were speaking rapidly, a few calls, a scattering of people.
Then the sobs started. It was before 7:00. I began to dress
and heard Sra. Isabel coming up the stairs. She was carrying
Bocita, and crying. I knew why. I didn't need to hear the words:
"Desculpa, Sr. Miguel, Lina mate ona." I gave what
little comfort a half-dressed white guy can give to an elderly
Timorese woman carrying a baby, Lina's baby. Then I called Policarpo,
one of Lina's younger brothers living in Dili, to give him the
bad news (Sra. Isabel, asked me to speak to him as she was unable
to stop crying).
Thus began my intimate experience of death with this family:
I saw first-hand how people here live close to death. The process
really began years ago, when Sra. Lina consulted a couple of
Western doctors when she was pregnant with Bocita. These doctors
told her she should have an abortion for she could not carry
the child to term as she was terminally ill with internal cancer:
there was nothing they could do, the cancer had spread to various
organs and she would die within months (the description the
family gives is that her insides are full of cancer: laran canker
nokonu). It would come as no surprise to anyone who knows her
well that she rejected this advice. This woman carried a rifle
in the early days of the resistance to Indonesian occupation,
led the clandestine movement for Manatuto, raised eight children,
founded the women's organization, and ceaselessly worked to
benefit women and children of the area. She'd lost one elderly
brother to the resistance cause, and another during the '99
violence. No one could tell her to give up her ninth baby.
Taking local medicine, she completed her pregnancy and gave
birth to a very healthy, fully developed baby girl, Bocita.
The medicine was prepared each day by her husband who described
the process to me. First, each man in the family tried his hand
at making medicine, then would experiment with their medicine
by giving it to each other. Whoever could take the medicine
of the others and still see them, while they could no longer
see him after taking his medicine, had the strongest medicine.
Sra. Lina's husband, Domingas, had the strongest mixture. Each
day he gathers leaves, bark and roots, his sons grind it up,
make a tea out of it, and give this to Sra. Lina to drink.
They have done this for two years. Until a couple of months
ago, after I arrived here, Sra. Lina had been working regularly,
attending meetings, convincing diplomats to give more money
and resources to women, children, orphans, and widows here.
She stared down a parliament member, demanding that he deliver
on his promise of money for the women's group, and she fought
to make the government here listen to women. Because of her
work, there is a functioning network of projects helping women
here in Manatuto.
So, I called Sr. Policarpo, and he said he'd be on his way soon.
We called him a few more times, helping arrange for a coffin
and a blue dress for Sra. Lina.
For the remainder of the process, I was torn between wanting
to give support to the family, to these kids I know pretty well
and feel such an affection for, and wanting to stay out of their
way, not to feel like an awkward malae in their midst. Within
a few hours, Sra. Lina's body was dressed in blue and laid out
on a table in the front room of their house. Visitors, mostly
in black, began coming from all over the district, from all
over the country. They brought flowers, rice, candles, envelopes
with money. They filed into the front room, embracing Sr. Domingas,
exchanging looks of sorrow with the kids, offering what they
could. The immediate family sat for most of the day around the
table Sra. Lina was laid out on.
From my house, I heard the rising and falling undulations of
lamentation. Women would come from afar, and upon seeing Sra.
Lina, burst into a wailing cry for the loss of their friend,
their relative, their leader. The kids' emotions were raw. They
often joined in with the wailing women. I went in the room twice,
once with Mark, to offer a little, but felt rather useless.
Seeing Sra. Lina's body, laid peacefully on the table, her eyes
open a little, her hands crossed on her chest, I felt so little
connection. This was the body of the woman I'd joked with so
recently. Just last week, she'd manage a smile every time our
eyes met -- such positive energy, such will. This dead body
on the table was not Sra. Lina, it was just a body, but nonetheless,
it confirmed beyond any denial that she was dead.
Sr. Domingas was strong, crying, but able to embrace people,
accept their gifts, accept their condolences. The kids held
up, red-eyed and crying, but they remained composed for the
most part. Their mother was on the table before them. When the
emotion was too much for one of the children, they would get
up and go to another room and cry their sorrows. Women would
go and comfort them.
This went on for over 24 hours, all through the night. Occasionally,
I questioned the sincerity of the wails of sorrow, such as when
Sr. Domingas' family gathered in the driveway, chatting and
composing themselves, and just when starting forward, the family
matriarch let out a singsong wail crying Lina's name. But other
times, when I would look into the eyes of these crying women
who I'd never seen before, I couldn't help but feel their pain
was real. May be they personally didn't feel such tremendous
sorrow, but it was an expression of the sorrow felt by all the
family, all the friends, all the relations. The men were generally
reserved. The occasional woman who would cry out a wail of grief
was a trigger, allowing others to join her, to vocalize the
pain they felt.
The next day, Wednesday, Sra. Lina's body was in a wooden coffin.
People still filed through the room, giving condolences, expressing
grief. The emotions of the family were raw; they were tired,
they'd received hundreds of visitors, perhaps over a thousand,
in less than 24 hours.
I'd read an idea recently, in Terziano's book, A Fortune Teller
Told Me, that death is accompanied by complicated rites to give
people something to do, to distract from the otherwise overwhelming
grief. There was certainly tremendous activity here. Within
two hours of her death, the village had come together, erected
tents for a reception area, collected a truck-full of firewood,
brought rice, pigs, two cows, and vegetables. A few men slaughtered
a pig and a cow. Women from all over the neighborhood were cooking
rice and vegetables, chopping meat and preparing cakes. They
cooked more food than I've seen even at the biggest party I've
been to. They fed the hundreds of grievers. The family spent
nothing -- death is a time when the family receives money, cows,
goat, rice, and other things.
But the women and men busy with the preparations were not the
immediate family: they were freed from all this, to concentrate
on their grief, to spend the last few hours with their mother.
They would bury her within 36 hours of her death.
When it was time to move the body to the church for prayers
and a service, the wails and cries took on a higher, frenzied
pitch, almost of desperation. Standing to the side, I watched
the men carry the casket out of the room. I'd been listening
to the cries, not knowing who was wailing intensely when they
closed the casket. After them men carrying the casket came the
women and children. Suzanna, a niece, was beside herself, possessed
by grief -- hers and others' -- and wailing out of control.
Her cousin held her, kept her from rushing to and upsetting
the coffin. Mikaela, who I call hamnassador for she smiles and
laughs all the time, was beside Suzanna, in a frenzy of wails
equally intense. Her face was an expression of grief and desperation
I'd not seen before. Her older brother helped her move along.
Sr. Domingas' back was to me, but clinging to him, his face
to me, was Azeh, the five-year-old who I call Nakar for he is
often causing troubles; his face was stretched wide with grief
and tears poured from his eyes.
I ran to get a rose from upstairs and followed the crowd down
the street. They carried the coffin the mile or so through town
to the church. A crowd of people, mostly dressed in black, silently
followed. It was humid, stifling. Thunderclouds were overhead,
packing the heat down upon us. I sat in the church, listening
to the family's sung prayers for their mother. For half an hour,
the community prayed and sung hymns of loss. Then they sat and
waited for the priest. More than an hour passed. Some children
went outside, then some adults. We waited. A breeze picked up,
wiping away the oppressive air. Sra. Lina's children went outside.
I followed. The priest had been asked for the service they day
before, and he'd set the time of 3:00. Why would he make everyone
wait like this? Usually, services start right on time. Would
he come? Was he making a point? Was he punishing the family
for Lina's having children with another man? No one spoke of
the wait; no one seemed to mind.
Someone spotted the priest, and we all hurried back into the
church, taking our places. The service was ordinary. Sra. Lina's
niece and nephew gave readings. The priest blessed the coffin
with holy water. Men began to carry the casket down the isle
to leave the church. Thunder struck and a downpour commenced.
They carried her to the pick-up truck right outside the door,
and spread a tarp over the casket. The rain let up, and we all
followed the truck with the family in it to the cemetery. No
one spoke; we walked slowly. I felt the lightness of the air
freshly cleansed by the rain, and listened to the soft scraping
sound of many flip-flops on wet pavement. We walked along the
blue sea, by the white ruins of bombed-out buildings, and under
the shadow of dark gray clouds. A few of the candle trees, all
knobby branches with freshly sprouting green leaves, bloomed
a brilliant red. We passed the Chinese cemetery full of erect
grave markers for ancestor worship, passed the empty Muslim
cemetery of the Indonesian occupiers, and entered the quiet
of the crowded Catholic cemetery.
Leaving the car for the prepared grave, most of the family walked
quietly. Suzanna, who had lost her father to the violence of
'99 and taken a-hold of by her grief, wailed out that she didn't
want to go, they couldn't take her. She followed, though, with
only gently prodding from her cousin. Sra. Lina had looked all
over the island for Suzanna's father in the wake of the militia-enacted
violence, with no results. They heard a report that he'd been
shot on a dock on Dili, and his body had been thrown to sharks.
We walked to the grave toward the back left of the cemetery.
I noticed the grandfather's grave (Sra. Lina's father) nearby.
The priest had come, and he said a few words. A few men wrapped
stout rope around the casket. All the kids were crying at this
point. I'll never forget the picture of the three sisters, Mikaela,
Zhovania, and Dercia, together with their cousin, Suzanna, crying
out their grief, watching their mother lowered into the waiting
hole in the ground. I looked at all the faces of the family,
and for the first time, saw all nine of Lina's children together,
recognized the family resemblance, strongest between all the
boys, children of Sr. Domingas, and then amongst the girls,
children of another man, and saw the bond between them and this
whole extended family. There was no line between the direct
family and the extended family, it was all one, and they all
felt the loss together. The casket tipped precariously, the
men struggled but righted it. As soon as it was down, a few
men threw symbolic hand-fulls of dirt, and then two men with
shovels began filling in the grave.
Mikaela's older brother, Sandru, held her close as she cried,
giving her strength to stand. Suzanna, at some point, her body
overwhelmed by grief, and tired from the long hours of emotional
expression, feinted and was carried away.
Filling in the grave took a long time -- it was a full six feet
down. Men took turns, two at a time, shoveling the dirt back
in. The crowed stayed, mostly, watching in silence, or with
silent tears. The girls sobbed throughout. Sr. Domingas held
a brave face, and held Azeh for most of the time. One man scratched
a cris-crossed rectangle on a triangular stone, and placed it
firmly, point down, on the center of the grave. Then many hands
quickly covered the entire site with more stones, and placed
one long one for a head stone. The priest, who'd stood a distance
away during the dusty filling in, came back silently placed
a wreath of flowers on the grave. Everyone placed flowers, or
lighted candles. I threw my single white rose on the thick pile
of colorful, beautifully prepared arrangements. People slowly
drifted toward the exit. Sandru, now free of the need to support
Mikaela who'd left already, finally broke down and let out his
grief. His high-pitched wails brought a lump to my throat, and
later, Teresa remarked how impressive it was for him to have
given support for all those hours before expressing his own
Watching the whole event, I was struck repeatedly by the impressive
support system people have here. Family extended to hundreds
of people, and these same hundreds of people extended any needed
support. Any one individual was never over-burdened by the need
to support others, for always, there were ten waiting hands
to help out. Sra. Lina was one of ten children, and she had
nine of her own. Uncles and Aunts, cousins, and second cousins,
were little distinguished from direct family. Watching this
family bury Sra. Lina, it was only my familiarity with the people
that allowed me to know who was directly related and who distantly:
everyone grieved and felt together.
I thought of my own father's funeral. I am close to my brother
and sister, and we support each other unequivocally. But it
was an entirely different experience for a hundred people than
for a small nuclear family.
After the funeral, we all went back to the house, some walking,
some ridding in the pick-ups. The sun had set behind high, heavy
clouds, but the sky was a beautiful shade of gray, and the air
was fresh and light. People gathered in the front yard, under
the tarp, talked quietly. There was more food, but people didn't
linger too long. It was quiet soon.
The next day, Thursday, a fresh visitor would not know that
the gathering had been for a funeral. In every shady corner,
Sra. Lina's children mixed with their cousins and friends, avidly
playing "poker," a strange game of cards, betting
nickels and dimes. With the help of three of Lina's sons and
her youngest brother, I built a chicken coup for the small rooster
I'd been given by my old host family in Hera. I heard occasional
sobs from the girls in the back rooms, but for the most part
people were calm, relaxed, and somewhat playful.
I met the other volunteers in the 'safety' of Dili
for the celebration of the original independence day, Friday. We had a great Thanksgiving day
dinner thrown for us by our generous medical officer, and the next day I returned to Manatuto.
third day after Sra. Lina's death marked another ceremony, preparation
of flowers to put on the grave and a trip to place them there.
Sunday, the fifth day since Lina's death was another big day.
I had noticed the table on which the family had laid Sra. Lina's
body was still there, decorated only with a few flowers, candles,
and two pictures of Sra. Lina. I soon learned that they would
leave the table there for quite some time, either a month or
eight days. Sra. Isabel said she didn't know which. However,
she explained that on the fifth day, Sr. Domingas' family from
Baucau would come to consult: Sra. Lina's family would return
her husband to his family, giving him the option to stay with
this family, continuing to raise his children, or to return
to his own family in Baucau. If he chose the former, he could
not take another wife, or if he did, he'd have to move out at
that point. If he chose to go, this family would continue to
raise Sra. Lina's nine children. I wondered whom it was that
would assume primary responsibility for them? Sra. Isabel would
most likely continue to provide financial support, but who would
teach them, discipline them, comfort them, help them through
difficult times, and celebrate achievements with them? I guess
they'd get by just fine. Between their older brothers and uncles,
there were enough men around. Between their grandmother and
aunts, there were plenty of women around. It would be a family
effort, centered on this house complex.
But I couldn't imagine Sr. Domingas choosing to leave his children
behind. The image of him carrying Azeh when everyone was crying
stuck in my mind.
The men sat on the side of the house, drinking, smoking, eating,
while the women and children prayed and sang hymns. I sat in
back of the praying women for a while and then joined the men.
I couldn't help but feel bored, with nothing to do but catch
every-other word of men talking about inane subjects. Teresa
came over with her newly-affirmed friends at the women's group,
and this relieved some of my boredom. I was honestly quite interested
to hear what choice Sr. Domingas would make, but I didn't have
the patience to sit through another evening of sitting around
in a circle of men doing nothing. So I walked Teresa home, then
went to bed around midnight. I could hear talking, with voices
occasionally raised in laughter or sadness. I slept peacefully
and late, missing early-morning trip to place more flowers on
the grave. I was relieved to see Sr. Domingas out back, playing
Life continues. The girls' grieving is mostly done. We'll visit
the grave a few more times -- on the eighth day, after one month,
three months, eight months, and then, after a year, the family
will hold the kore metan, and no one will wear black anymore.
Every night, the girls have prayed, sending up a peaceful,
mournful hymn to their mother in heaven. The boys sit nearby
and listen or play quiet games. Earlier tonight, over the din
of my new housemate's Brazilian gospel music -- he's a missionary
for the Assembly of God -- I listened contentedly to the girls
singing their prayers. It is undoubtedly an outlet for them,
a chance to focus their thoughts, and together express their
grief. Afterwards, in the back of the house, the girls and I
spoke a little. They all said they missed their mother, and
asked if I did. I said yes, and that I also missed my father.
We didn't say much, but it was remarkable that they could speak
about their mother going to heaven with such clarity and simple
acceptance. Even Bocita, when asked where her mother is, points
to the clouds above, though sometimes she checks her mothers
bed to see if she really is gone.