The Rarotonga night sky and its surroundings are pure black like thick black oil paint. The sound of the ocean repeats. As the wind blows a sea of candles flicker, some blow out, others dance in the darkness.
This blackness is in stark contrast to the pure white we used to paint the graves earlier this same day. It’s a stark contrast to the hundreds of white flowers we threaded one after another onto ai’s which adorn our ancestors graves. It’s a stark contrast to the flickering of light that illuminates from these graves.
The whole day is spent preparing for Turama, an occasion in which we congregate to remember those who have past. Candles illuminate graves throughout the night; seeing through to the following day, All Souls Day.
Darkness falls and the procession starts. Father Freddy leads, adorned in his long white robe and purple and gold sash. People follow down narrow winding roads travelling to each grave. Some graves sit outside homes in amongst the garden, others are on the front lawn. Some are in small family cemeteries positioned among family homes, among family land. You can see some are tended to regularly. Others are old, weathered; so much so that one would hardly have known a cemetery were there.
With each stop people walk in the darkness and surround the graves; these graves adorned, covered with flowers, flickering with candles, or small lights.
At each stop song is sung, prayers are said; the deceased remembered. Father Freddy takes a leafy branch and dips it in holy water. He flicks this water over each grave.
The procession continues; continues throughout the night; till all souls are remembered.
The home we are staying in has a garden on the front lawn. This garden has inside it a small lawn area with a pile of old rubble and rocks. The area is flanked with a frame of rocks and small trees. It looks to be quite a pleasant garden. A nice area to sit.
Our son Jasper, 22months, walks over and sits for a moment on one of the rocks. It’s a rock that flanks the perimeter. He gets up and wanders back.
A cousin turns up hours later. ‘Stay away from there. Don’t go in there; it’s an old Marae’ she warns.
That night and for the rest of my stay I feel unease.
While in Rarotonga, and since returning home, I find myself thinking a lot about their burial practice.
About cemeteries on the beachfront and the ocean crashing before them. About cemeteries nestled on family land and in amongst family homes. About the practice of burring loved ones at home; on the front lawn, in amongst the garden. About the structures some build over these graves, structures that resemble a fale or home.
Land within the Cook Islands, in the most part, is not brought or sold but stays within family and is past on through genealogy. This not only tradition but also law.
One woman I was told has built her home over her loved ones grave. Built on stilts, the grave I imagine sits beneath; protecting those living above, or perhaps it’s the living protecting the dead, shrouding them with life and a home.
Another family I was told has built their entire home around/over a grave. The grave now resides with the family inside the home. ‘I think it’s in the lounge’ I’m told.
Someone I know in a financial battle lost some land. Part of this land holds the graves of some family. It has not been built on or touched since. She tells me the new owner is too scared.
Having a family members remains constantly there, entombed, in amongst ones everyday life would be ‘difficult’; ‘how could you move on?’. This a comment that has since come my way. Others I know find this comforting. For some, normal.
A friend once said to me ‘when I die, I do not want to leave any trace of my existence; I want it to be as if I was never here’.
Part of me understands this. Understands and agrees.
Part of me says “what are you thinking! … disagree; Renee you must disagree!”
Or do I? I’m unsure.
I start to find these thoughts difficult to stomach. I want to change the subject.
These thoughts flick to the ancient practice of ‘Damnatio Memoriae’. Translation “condemnation of memory”.
Damnatio Memoriae is an Ancient Roman practice in which a person must not be remembered. This was used as a form of punishment, as a form of dishonour; it’s intent; to permanently erase a person from history.
… I’m feeling uncomfortable. Heavy.
… “So how’s the weather?”
(Image above: Turama, remembering all souls; Matavera, Rarotonga, November 2016)