20 October 2012

Timor-Leste: Respect for the Dead - or Disrespect for a Culture?

Uma Lulik, Timor-Leste

ETLJB 20 October 2012 - (Updated 24 October 2012) A commentator on East Timor recently wrote an item under the title “Better to look after those alive than worry about the remains” [of the dead”] in which he said that “[i]n a poor country like East Timor, there is huge investment in revering remains.  In early years after liberation, whole villages might combine and hang tough to save the money for a 'suitable' burial.  Coffin making, while giving some employment, was excessive in manufacture and cost, but to suggest less was to invite outrage.  Not sure right now that people are wealthier, probably costs are proportionately higher.  And a lot of good wood wasted.”
The writer of these observations clearly has no knowledge of the centrality of the ancestors in East Timorese culture and in the everyday lives of the people and communities and does not understand why such efforts and sacrifices are made to bury the dead. To relegate the efforts and resources put to the reverence of the dead in East Timor to “a waste of good wood” would, as that writer notes, invite outrage. And for good reason - because even a cursory glance at the literature informs us of how important the ancestors are in East Timor and elucidates the behaviour which he finds so problematical.

For example, an article on the Mary MacKillop East Timor Mission in East Timor website [1] recites the words of Jose Ramos Horta when he was sworn in as Prime Minister July 2006, who stated:

“Timorese people are deeply spiritual.  Their lives are inspired and influenced by the spirits of the past and supernatural beliefs fused with Christian beliefs.  We must not impose modern secularism or Europeanism to disturb the symbiotic relationship of Timorese animist and Christian beliefs.”

The article on the Mary MacKillop Mission in East Timor website goes on:

“This symbiosis is shown in the traditional animist practices and beliefs which are still strong in Timor.

Prominent among these is ancestor worship, devotion to the souls of the dead. Matebian, second highest peak in Timor, is the Mountain of the Souls of the Dead.” (emphasis added)

Pre-Christian beliefs in Timor include “the concept of lulik, an all-pervading and powerful force, not easily classified by those outside the culture, and one which operates in the lives of many Timorese people even today.”

As Josh Trindade explains in his paper "Lulik: The Core of Timorese Values"* "lulik refers to the spiritual cosmos that contains the divine creator, the spirits of the ancestors, and the spiritual root of life including sacred rules and regulations that dictate relationships between people and people and nature." (emphasis added)

Trindade writes further that "[t]he main objective of lulik as a philosophy is to ensure peace and tranquility for society as a whole, in which it can be achieved through the proper balance between differing and opposing elements. As an example, Timorese believe that peace and prosperity can be achieved through a proper balance between the real world and the cosmic world. In this case, people in the real world should follow the rules and regulations set by the ancestors. These rules and regulations can be a harmonious relationship between individuals within family, clan and wider society. (emphasis added)

Lulik also recognizes the spirit of the ancestors (the deceased). Timorese believe that the spirit of the dead can positively influence people in the real world or curse them in negative ways if disregarded.

That is why Timorese treat the deceased with high respect."(emphasis added)

Another example of the importance of the ancestors in East Timor is manifest in a recent article published by Fundasaun Mahein and entitled “Impunity and Respect for Our Dead?” [2] which discusses the problem of impunity for crimes committed during and after the occupation of East Timor by Indonesia. The opening paragraph of that article reads:

“What do our ancestors think of us? Do they smile with pride, or do they cry with shame?”

Megaliths are also a manifestation of ancestor worship and are a feature of pre-Christian belief systems in East Timor and parts of Indonesia which have been traced back 6500 years.

The following extract which primarily focuses on Sumba but references East Timor as well emphasises the importance of megaliths related to, among other things, funerals for the dead and the maintenance of connections with the deceased ancestors.

“Customs or traditions that produce large stone artifacts or structures related to ceremonies or funerals are megalithic traditions. These artifacts are related to attempts by the leaders, chiefs, kings, or heads of clans to maintain their reputation and prestige. Societies that uphold megalithic traditions believe that the souls of their dead ancestors still live in the world of the spirits. They also believe that their lives are influenced by the spirits of those dead ancestors as health, safety, fertility, and prosperity of the people are decided by their attitudes towards the dead. Good treatment of their ancestral spirits therefore protects them against all and any kind of danger.

Almost all Indonesian and East Timor megaliths are used to maintain closer relationships with the spirit of dead ancestors. Marupu, or worship, of the powerful invisible forces is a prevalent element in a megalithic culture and inseparable in the daily life of many such societies [3].

But the most prominent and obvious example of the centrality of the ancestors in East Timor is the uma lulik itself. David Hicks eloquently describes the process and significance of uma lulik in East Timor in Afterword - Glimpses of Alternatives the Uma Lulik of East Timor. Hicks writes:

“[T]he construction of uma lulik not only calls for the raw muscle of up to 100 men and women for weeks on end, but also requires the attentions of skilled craftsmen, who devise the building’s architectural form, as well as input from local ritual specialists, whose duty it is to ensure that form and function correspond to ancestral-sanctioned fiat. In erecting an uma lulik , traditionally oriented families are acknowledging the authority that their ancestors command and are making a public statement of their own special and distinctive history, one that distinguishes them from other families in their neighbourhood. 

In addition, the huge amount of labour involved in building such a massive edifice pro-claims that the house and its diverse associations is one of the central driving forces in their lives. In this way, the fruit of these labours defiantly reaffirms the commitment of descent groups and families to a past when alternatives to ancestral authority were few, in contrast to the present time when, with villagers well aware of the sceptical attitudes of their more educated fellows toward all things lulik and increasingly familiar with the diversity of values they learn from their encounters with agents of NGOs, they have come to understand that there exist alternatives to traditional ‘beliefs’ whose premises may differ radically from those bequeathed to them by their ancestors.”

And so who, armed with this knowledge, would go into an East Timorese village whose residents were preparing for the funeral of a deceased member of their community and say to them: "Don't waste that good wood and your limited resources on that. It is better that you look after the living than to worry about the remains of your dead". In the end, what such observations fail to appreciate is that that respecting the dead is in fact a critical aspect of looking after the living and that failing to look after the dead is to act contrary to the inherited cultural norms. In its broader cultural context, the attention and resources that are deployed to bury the dead in East Timor can be understood as a acts that have a profound spiritual dimension that is an integral componenet of the indigenous culture.

*   Paper presented at: Communicating New Research on Timor-Leste 3rd Timor-Leste Study Asscociation (TLSA) Conference on 30th June 2011. Paper also presented at Creative Industry Conference on 16th July 2011.
[1]  http://www.mmiets.org.au/about/culture/animism.html Accessed 10 October 2012
[2] http://www.fundasaunmahein.org/2012/10/15/impunity-and-respect-for-our-dead/ Accessed 20 October 2012
[3] http://pareraz.blogspot.com.au/2011/02/sumba-megaliths.html Accessed 20 October 2012
[4] http://www.scribd.com/doc/49944272/The-Uma-Lulik-of-East-Timor Accessed 20 October 2012

Author: © Warren L. Wright BA (Soc &Anth)/ LLB Photo: Warren L. Wright © 2004

1 comment:

Bill Soares said...

Reading the first lines, I thought the author of this piece is a Timorese.

I couldn't agree more Warren for the arguments you presented. It is indeed a thorough insight of the timorese culture and believes