A Pauper’s Burial in Papua New Guinea

A Pauper’s Burial in Papua New Guinea

By Fr. Philip Gibbs SVD

From_morgue_containerPeople in Papua New Guinea have a great respect for the dead. Relatives and friends feel obliged to attend a funeral even at great expense.  When a person dies in a distant location far from their home, relatives will look for ways to bring the body “home” so that it can be buried close to them.  The intentions are admirable, though at times there is a sense of fear also, lest the spirit of the dead be offended and return as a ghost to haunt people or even to cause them to get sick or die.

As is common throughout the world burial of the dead is an important ministry for the Church. Parish priests will celebrate a funeral mass and officiate at the burial. Where a priest is not available, which often happens because of the large parishes with many “outstations”, the catechist or another lay-minister will offer prayers during the burial.

A recent trend, particularly in larger towns is a “pauper’s burial” arranged through the local municipal council for bodies left unclaimed at the hospital morgue.  This would have been unheard of in the past, but times are changing, and some people who are struggling to make ends meet, find they just cannot afford to bury their dead relatives.

Unknown_2Recently I was invited to offer prayers at such a burial.  A public notice had been posted two weeks before asking people to come and claim the bodies of their relatives and give them a respectful burial.  Those that were not claimed were being placed in simple plywood coffins, ready to be transported to the city cemetery.  Where a deceased’s name was known the workers would write the name with a marker on the lid of the coffin. Otherwise they simply wrote “unknown”.

I wondered, what must have happened for people to die in such a lonely way.  Some died from AIDS, and because of stigma, relatives did not want to come and claim the body. Others were tiny babies that had died at childbirth or shortly after.  Most probably the mother was overcome with grief and wanted to distance herself from the experience and the cost of burying her child.  Grave plots cost K165 (around US$60) and caring for relatives at an official funeral would cost even more.  The city morgue charges K10 (US$3 per day), so after several weeks, if a body has not been recovered, the morgue changes will be too much of a burden on a poor family.

Mass_burialWe drove out to the cemetery with the coffins lined on the back of a truck. Cemetery workers had dug a large hole with a backhoe on a tractor. They arranged the plywood coffins for 13 adults and 11 babies around the hole, some on top of the other.  Then I had the opportunity to offer prayers before the mass grave was filled in using the tractor. There was little emotion shown.  I suppose the workers were doing their job, burying bodies of people they never met during their life.  I felt extremely sad, especially to see people being buried as “unknown.”  It seems so tragic that an adult would have no one they had known to bury them, or for the bodies of nameless babies to return to the earth in such a way.   It seems to me that the new experience of paupers’ graves (now over 200 per year in the capital Port Moresby alone) is a sign of a growing separation of the wealthy and the poor and that persons such as these are symbolic of desperate poverty for some people in Papua New Guinea today.