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Six feet under: Ancient burial rituals and practices in the Pacific

Updated: Oct 30, 2021


Photo coyrtesy of nz.stuff.com

By Raquel Bagnol


The way people mourn and bury their deceased loved ones reveals a lot about the culture, spiritual beliefs and history of a country.


While we are getting ready for the observance of All Souls Day, let's look at some of the interesting ancient burial practices around the Pacific islands.


Mariana Islands: The ancient people of the Mariana Islands buried their dead under the floor or the front yard of their dwellings—either homes or caves.


In his 1961 article published in the ScholarSpace by the University of Hawaii, Ichiro Yawata quoted the notes of Hans G. Hornbostel, who did an archaeological survey of the Mariana Islands between 1922 and 1925.


Hornbostel's excavation of 18 sites showed a large number of the dead buried side by side, with most of the corpses laid in dorsal-extended positions. The faces of the dead were almost always turned to the left side, while the feet faced the beach or river shore.


Many skeletons were laid in fire holes on the ground. Parts of skeletons, such as skulls or long bones, were occasionally missing.


Ancient Chamorus in Rota: The hair of dead lower-ranking villagers were cut and the bodies wrapped in new mats, according to Dominica Tolentino, Guam Museum executive director and former Guampedia content editor. She cited the accounts told by Spanish friar Fray Juan Pobre de Zamora, who lived among the Chamorus in Rota in 1602.


Two of the deceased’s female relatives, usually the oldest women of the village, laid pieces of tree bark or painted paper over the dead body.


The women sang and cried, calling the dead by name, asking why the deceased had forsaken them while repeating the chant for more than two hours.


The body was buried in front of the house of the most prestigious relative.


Afterward, they returned to the deceased's house and everyone drank from a mortar filled with ground rice or grated coconut mixed with water.


The Jesuit missionary, Fr. Diego Luis de San Vitores, reported that the Chamoru burial practices in the early years involved “with many tears, fasting and a great sounding of shells.”


The mourning period would last about a week more or less, depending on the social status of the deceased.


Funerals for high-ranking Chamorus were more elaborate. The streets were decorated with palms, arches and other funeral structures. Coconut trees were uprooted, homes burned and canoes destroyed. People hung torn sails in front of their houses as signs of grief.


Marshall Islands. In the mid-1870s, the limited land in the Marshall Islands did not allow space for burials, so the dead were buried at sea.


In a 1982 article published by the Johan Wolfgang Goethe-University in Frankfurt, Germany, Dr. Dirk Spennemann, associate professor of cultural heritage management at the School of Environmental Sciences of Charles Sturt University in Australia, wrote that prior to the introduction of the Christian burial, the dead were wrapped in mats and thrown into the sea on the second day. The deceased was buried with a couple of stones to sink the body underwater.


For the next two nights, there were mourning dances and lamentations at the house of the deceased. The closest relative, particularly the brother of the dead, received gifts.


The funeral for the deceased village chiefs, whose remains were laid at home, involved a two-day wailing by women. While the ceremony went on, six men dug the grave three feet deep. The dead body was tied in thick sleeping mats and laid in the grave with the head pointed towards the setting sun.


Visitors brought gifts for the grieving relatives and stayed with them for six days. The pit was then leveled off and coral gravel spread on top of the grave. By this time, the deceased was believed to have left and gone to a different plane. Six grave diggers kept watch and kept a fire going for three more weeks to ward off evil spirits.


Palau: The funeral arrangements in Palau were usually done by the women, while the men prepared the food.


In their article titled "From Limestone Caves to Concrete Graves: 3,000 Years of Mortuary Practice in the Palauan Archipelago, Micronesia," S.M. Fitzpatrick and G.C. Nelson for North Carolina State University in 2008 pointed out some interesting burial practices for the early Palauans.


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After death, the funeral and burial usually took place immediately. The dead body was purified by fragrant water mixed with leaves and lime, then rubbed with turmeric and coconut oil. The deceased was then put on a platform with the head situated near the doorway and covered with a layer of bedding.


If the deceased was a male title holder, people symbolically offered tied branches of the croton tree and young sprouts from a coconut tree, or a frond of a taro plant to sanctify the responsibility of the “dui,” which referred to either the head of a family or village chief.


The body of the deceased was then placed in the grave. Mourners took turns throwing soil into the grave. The traditional grave was waist-high.


The women stayed at the house after burial for five to 10 days. After the mourning period, they bathed in the ocean to purify their bodies and ate only grilled foods such as taro, refraining from eating seafood.


In modern times, we have our own burial rites and practices. Though they may not be as elaborate as the ancient customs and traditions, they’d still be a subject of curiosity for future generations.




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