As the editor of the local paper, I get to step into worlds many of the whitefellas up here don’t get to experience, or at least not with the frequency that I do.
One of the more interesting cultural insights I have experienced a few times in the last five weeks is the tombstone unveiling celebration. This is the ‘Christianization’ of older Islander customs.
In earlier times when an Islander died, the family would place the body on a platform and allow the elements to reduce the remains to bones. When the skull naturally disconnected from the body it was considered the sign when the family was to collect the remains and place them in a sacred place. The skull was given to the spouse or next of kin of the deceased.
An Elder told me that Human heads were once used as a form of currency throughout the Strait as well as once considered to have magical powers. Often tribes would conduct raiding parties on enemy tribes to collect heads. They were often used in ceremonial dances as a show of a tribe’s strength or traded for permission to marry an Elder’s daughter.
Badu Island (Mulgrave Island), 60 km north of TI, in particular once had a feared reputation as an island of headhunters until the 1870s with the adoption of Christianity.
July 1 1871 is today the symbolic date Christianity was accepted as the dominant paradigm for religious faith in the Strait when the London Missionary Society landed on Erub island and ‘gave them the light.’ It’s celebrated every year as the ‘Coming of the Light Festival.’
So with the acceptance of the Christianity, Islanders began to bury there dead. But in true Islander style, they managed to merge elements of their older culture. The inlaws of the deceased would organise the funeral, as the family was busy in mourning.
Traditionally, some years later, when the coffin collapsed in the grave, the grave stone would be erected and the family would have a ceremonial unveiling of the tombstone and throw a big party, with singing, dancing and feasting.
Much preparation go into these events and family are expected to travel from all over the country to attend.
The grave sight is condoned off with palm fronds and a ribbon, to be cut by the priest after his blessings.
Inside the grave is covered with material and gifts, which are divvied up between the inlaws – it’s the family’s formal presentation of gratitude for their help while they were mourning. Some of the gifts included Dugong and turtle harpoons, cloth, clothes and toys. An Elder told me in earlier days money was also pinned to the cloth and the hall where the subsequent feast was held was decorated with more gifts for everyone who attended the feast.
It’s quite a heart-warming spectacle to watch. I do wonder though of the financial hardship they must create on the family, the granite tombstone, feeding 300 people, transport costs from all around the country, it must be a serious financial burden. I have heard of it creating tensions in some families for this reason.
One Islander told me, “In these modern times some people just want their cultural obligations to be over with quicker, its like everyone is in more of a hurry these days.”
It’s seems the ‘hurry disease’ that affects so much of the world is also permeating ‘Island Time.’