Spirits of the Hereafter: Death, Funerary Possession, and the Afterlife in Chuuk, Micronesia (1)

Article excerpt

In Chuuk, Micronesia, recently deceased kin often appear as spirit visitors and may possess female relatives in order to provide comfort and guidance, and to deriver important messages from beyond the grave. These spirits are fully sentient beings who retain social and emotional ties with their earthly homes and families, and occupy a liminal space between this world and the afterlife. During this liminal period, spirits must learn how to "be dead," while the riving struggle to reconcile themselves to the corporeal death and new spiritual life of the departed. Spirit possession and other forms of spirit communication, including the popular use of ouija boards, help to facilitate the process of "becoming dead" on both sides of the cosmological divide. Traditional and contemporary mortuary rituals, death and the transformation of the soul into a spirit being, experiences of the afterlife, and interactions with the spirit world through funerary possession and spirit encounters are examined in order to understand death as a journey of becoming that is also marked by social rupture, ritual, and the problems of grief and attachment. (Spirit possession, death, cosmology, Christianity, Micronesia)

This article examines how spirit possessions that occur shortly after death in Chuuk, Micronesia, facilitate the process of becoming dead. In Chuuk, recently deceased kin often appear as spirits to their living relatives and possess women of the family to give comfort and guidance, and to deliver important messages from beyond the grave. Funerary encounters and possessions occur during or shortly after the period of formal mourning, when mortuary rituals are performed, and are marked by intense emotions of love/sadness (ttong), grief/loss (leetiipeta), and suffering (riaffou) shared by the living and the newly departed. Spirits of the newly deceased remain fully sentient beings who wish to be with their living kin. They occupy a liminal place between the worlds of the living and the dead, and hover invisibly around their earthly families and homes, as yet uncertain about their place and role in the afterlife. During this liminal period, the soul of the dead (nguun), in becoming a spirit of the dead (sootupw), becomes a new kind of Chuukese person and social agent in the world. At the same time that a sootupw learns to "be dead," those left behind mourn their loss while they wait and wonder about the fate of their loved one's soul. The spirit may initiate contact and provide answers through possession or encounters, or the living may attempt to communicate with the spirit by talking to the grave or "playing" ouija board, an introduction that is increasingly popular today. In this way, the living undergo their own process of reconciling themselves to the corporeal death and new spiritual life of their departed relative.

Most anthropological writing on this topic focuses on mortuary rituals and the attendant social and emotional aspects of death and dying, that is, on the beliefs, practices, and experiences of the living (e.g., Bloch and Parry 1982; de Witte 2001; Metcalf and Huntington 1991). Comparatively little has been said about the spirit world in terms of the parallel journey taken by the souls of the dead. This article approaches the process of becoming dead as one that occurs on both sides of the cosmological divide between the world of the living and the afterlife. I take seriously the beliefs of Chuukese/Mortlockese (2) in spirits, encounters, and possession, and endeavor to elucidate the processual journey of death and the afterlife in ways that make sense to them, not just to anthropologists. Therefore, traditional and contemporary mortuary rituals, death and the transformation of the soul into a spirit being, experiences of the afterlife, and interactions with the spirit world through funerary possession and spirit encounters, are examined in order to understand the process of death as a journey of becoming that is also marked by social rupture, ritual, and the social/emotional problems of grief and attachment. …

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