Academic journal article Ethnology

The Afterlife of Asabano Corpses: Relationships with the Deceased in Papua New Guinea (1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

The Afterlife of Asabano Corpses: Relationships with the Deceased in Papua New Guinea (1)

Article excerpt

Before contact with the West, the Asabano of Papua New Guinea treated human remains differently depending on the type of relationship survivors planned to have with the deceased. Traditional methods included corpse exposure with curation or disposal of bones, disposal of corpses in rivers, and cannibalism. Following their conversion to Christianity, Asabano burned or buried their bone relics and commenced coffin inhumation in cemeteries. These practices left distinctive memories and physical records that served as means to alter, enhance, or terminate relations with the deceased who are biologically but not, according to the Asabano, socially dead. (Burial, funerals, death, mortuary, religion)


One of the most remarkable achievements of humankind is the belief that death need not end relationships. Ending or enhancing relations with the deceased is widely considered to be a matter of choice for the living. This article is about how this attitude is played out in a remote area of Papua New Guinea. How people there handle an individual's remains is thought to influence future relationships with the deceased, or even extinguish the life that people assume does not end with biological death. The case has archaeological as well as ethnological implications insofar as perceived distinctive relationships with the deceased leaves an identifiable material record (on the value of holistic anthropology for the study of mortuary ritual, see Chesson 2001).

The Asabano of central New Guinea say that formerly, when an important man died, the body was placed on a platform high in a tree. After a month or two, the bones were collected and carried in a feather-covered net bag to the sacred house, in which only men were allowed. Men carried individual bones for success in hunting, painted skulls to give them power in battle, and buried bones in gardens beneath sacred Cordyline plants to ensure a good harvest. The skulls of important women, who helped raise pigs, were hidden in net bags in communal houses, where families slept. However, the bones of ordinary women, children, and young men were left because they could not help the living. Slain enemies were spiritually destroyed by being cast into rivers or eaten. These practices were halted following conversion to Christianity in the 1970s, when these bone sacra were destroyed as a statement of commitment to the new god who had left them no relics but the Bible (Lohmann 2001). Since then, corpses have been buried

== rather than exposed, and relations with the deceased are attenuated and no longer involve bone relics. The various and changing fates of Asabano corpses correspond to the types of relationship with the deceased that survivors wish to maintain or extinguish. Such relationships are understood to continue beyond the grave, and appear to the Asabano to be mutual.


"Becoming dead," Humphreys (1981:263) remarked, "stretches from the decision that a person is 'dying' ... to the complete cessation of all social action directed towards their remains, tomb, monument or other relics representing them." Between these two points are rites of passage marking the deceased person's altered place in the group (van Gennep 1960), and an ongoing relationship between survivors and the deceased, who are regarded as not truly dead. It is anthropologically useful to also define death in social terms as a point at which social interaction with the deceased becomes impossible, given prevailing cultural models of reality. With death the nature of survivors' interaction with the deceased is changed and eventually ended. This end is social death, as the deceased person moves beyond memory or is willfully excluded from society. For many, personalities of the deceased are not utterly cut off from the living. People often perceive further communications from the deceased through dreams, successes attributed to ancestral blessings, or simply poignant memories. …

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