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Kosrae’s stratification and burial practices

Kosrae's sacred tomb. Photo courtesy of Travel Unlimited

By Raquel Bagnol

The line between the hierarchical levels in Kosrae, both for the living and the dead, created a well-defined web of social organization as noted in the burial patterns in the 1700s to the 1850s.

During European contact in 1824, Kosrae had four hierarchical levels- the ruler, high chiefs, low chiefs, and commoners. The burial ritual differences among the hierarchy statuses stood out like the ritual duration, number of people who attended the ceremonies and rites, grave features, respect, grief and mourning.

In his research titled “The Leluh Royal Tombs and Pre-Contact Mortuary Patterns on Kosrae Island, Micronesia,” archaeologist Ross Cordy pointed out the differences in the burial practices between the different hierarchical levels based on historical and oral evidence.

Here are some interesting mortuary patterns for each class.

The commoners

When a commoner died, the family showed grief by wailing, cutting their hair short, avoiding the use of cosmetics, and at times, women frantically running around. The women in the family prepared the body by cleaning and anointing it with coconut oil and turmeric. The body was displayed with flowers and ornaments, with the head facing east.

For two or three days, family and friends would meet at the house of the dead and sing mourning songs. Before the burial, the dead body was wrapped in mats and woven cloth tied in knots and then carried to the grave where the final ceremonies occurred. The body was placed in a shallow grave lined with mats, with the body in an extended position with the head facing east.

Minimal grave goods or possessions of the deceased were buried with the body, like food pounder, looms and adzes. A little open hut was usually erected over the grave.

From the wake to the burial, a feast called um srael took place. Relatives and friends brought food and mats. Long after the burial, periodic mourning might still continue.

Since Leluh had limited space, Cordy said a family shared a common grave. After each death, they dug up the bones and reburied them with a new corpse. Commoners did not receive sea burial like the rulers and high chiefs.


The high chiefs

More lavish ceremonies were held when high chiefs died. Aside from families and friends, those with status and political ranks also attend the ceremonies. The body of the high chief was mummified and covered in colored bandages before being displayed in a house for weeks. The body was frequently anointed with oil. A fire was kept constantly burning close by and never allowed to go out.

There was extensive feasting on piles of roasted breadfruit, large bunches of bananas, and huge amounts of kava, a slightly peppery earth-flavored drink that produces a relaxing effect. Visitors sometimes remained for weeks or months.

High chiefs were buried, along with their valuables, in shallow graves in courtyards within their dwelling compounds in Leluh. The graves were guarded to protect them from spirits. The body would later be exhumed for sea burial, the final ritual. The bones were dug up, washed and wrapped in mats before they were dropped into a deep reef spot in the harbor.

Sometimes, the bones were exhumed, wrapped, and hung up in a house as an alternative to sea burial. Feasting and exchange of gifts always took place during the exhumation rites.

Cordy said there were no burials of low chiefs in Leluh, so grave and burial practices were uncertain. Low chiefs were appointed by a high chief and they commanded some respect. Status obligations suggested that their burial rituals could be more than what commoners had.

The ruler

The ruler, called Tokosra, received the most elaborate and special burial treatment. Cordy said there were no records of a ruler’s death until 1854 when Awane Lepalik I died. Due to the influence of Christianity, the ruler did not have a fully traditional burial. His remains were not buried in the central tombs. There were no records of traditional royal burial.

Lepalik’s body was wrapped in valuable woven cloth and mats. It was buried with grave goods in a pyramid-shaped basalt and coral tomb in Posral, not in the ground and not in his dwelling compound. Cordy said expedition members were not allowed to visit the ruler’s tombs in Leluh because it was considered sacred.

Archaeologists cited sources who claimed that the tombs in Leluh were fake. According to legend, a ghost named Sepos was known for devouring the king’s body once it was buried in the tomb. To fool the ghost, they placed a coconut log wrapped in mats in the funeral house on the day of the burial.

While the festivities went on, the king’s body was secretly buried in his own cemetery. Like the high chiefs, the ruler's body was exhumed after a certain time. The bones were cleaned and bundled then dropped off in the deep reef hole considered a sacred place in Yenar islet, a man-made islet about 500 meters north of Leluh island.

Throughout the funeral, rituals and feasts occured involving the whole island population. At Yenasr islet, they prepared turtle and other food including breadfruit, bananas and seka.

In the late 1700s to 1850s, Kosraeans believed that burial was the end point of life, and the spirit of the deceased would travel east to the “realm of souls."

They also believed that the spirits could return after some time to impact daily life in both good and bad ways.

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