Huli Funeral Rites

by Ron Meshanko

Two Huli women in mourning, white signifying bereavement.
Two Huli women in mourning dressed in white as a symbol of their bereavement. (Photo courtesy of Ramdas Iyer)

Warriors and neutral victims who die in war are mourned by the entire clan. The men construct an open, thatched roof building called a “crying house: (duguanda). The corpse is washed and dressed in the best clothes available before it is placed on a slanted wooden platform in the center of the cry house where the women keen and wail until the body is interred the following morning. The high-pitched, loud shrilling and keening of the dead person’s immediate female relations attracts women from the surrounding clans. If the dead person is a big-man or other influential person, hundreds of women may come to wail over the body throughout the night. As the women gather close to the body, rocking from foot to foot, caressing the feet and bewailing their loss, the men solemnly prepare the coffin and grave. The men remain far away from the body and do not join in the crying of the women. They discuss the cause of death (sorcery, poison or murder) and just retribution from those held responsible for the death as they meticulously dig a symmetrical and perpendicular grave usually located in a garden a few yards away from the house of the deceased.

Some men construct a wooden coffin while others prepare wooden slats that will cover the grave. The coffin is carefully placed in the grave by pall bearers (homo kui laga) in such a way that dirt does not touch the coffin on any sides. Wooden slats and plastic sheets are placed over the grave opening and finally covered by a mound of dirt as the wailing of the women reaches a crescendo.

This form of burial was the traditional manner in which lepers and witches were buried before the government administration arrived. The government forced the people to bury all the deceased in this traditional way which was reserved for “undesirables.”

The skulls of warriors and ritual specialists are revered and feared by the Huli people.
The skulls of warriors and ritual specialists are revered and feared by the Huli people. (Photo courtesy of Max Haensel and Localiiz).

In the traditional manner of internment (which is now forbidden) the deceased was placed in a colorfully painted bark coffin (homali) measuring about eighteen inches wide and four feed long which was set up on posts about four or five feet above ground. The knees of the corpse were strapped to the stomach by vines and the hands were tied across the chest. A covering of leaves was placed over the body before the lid was put in place. The men then constructed a grass roof (homa wabuabe) over the box to shed the rain and dug a ditch around the grave to keep off the pigs. When the body had decomposed, the bones were polished with tree oil and then placed into an ossuary pen under the coffin. Men often return to repair the thatched roof and ditches and rearrange the bones of their dead ancestors.

Following the funeral, a mortuary feast is held. Many mourners bring pigs (homa nogo) for the feast to honor the deceased. If a warrior has died, the initiator of the war must pay several half-sides of pork to the dead man’s kin as an indication of his intention to pay full indemnity. Two to forty pigs, depending on the status of the deceased, are killed, prepared and cooked in the earth over oven pits. The cooked pork is then distributed in the following manner. A half side of pork is given to each man who touched the body immediately after the death as an indemnity for the risk of touching the dead. One pig is given to each corpse bearer. A portion of pork is also given to each donor of the pigs for the luari or indemnity payments. The rest of the pork is distributed to everyone present. The women and children leave the feast after they consume their pork, while the men remain to discuss revenge and compensation.

Huli grave on a PNG stamp

Widows and their immediate kinswomen don old grass skirts, tattered string bags, and grey seed necklaces and cover themselves with three different types of white clay as a sign of their sorrow. Widows dress in this fashion throughout their nine months of mourning. They also destroy their banana trees and uproot their gardens in a ritual display of grief.

Certain deceased men are shown special respect during funeral rites. The brothers of a warrior killed in battle daub the corpse with red paint and paint a stylized human figure on the coffin as a reminder to avenge the death. Skulls of the deceased ancestors are placed on the ground at the four corners of the burial house so the ancestors can observe the suspicious movements of persons who many have caused the death. The skulls of deceased liduali (tege pulu ritual leaders) are revered in a special way and are feared because of their power (gamu). The bones of the deceased warriors are revered and used in toro halaga divination rites.

(Photos courtesy of Ramdas Iyer and Max Haensel of Localiiz )