chapter  10
18 Pages

A Life in Words: History and Society in Saibai Island (Torres Strait) Tombstones

ByRichard Davis

Anthropologists and others have long recognized the importance of the dead in Torres Strait Islander culture, paying particular attention to the part of the mortuary rituals known variously as the tombstone opening or unveiling (FitzpatrickNietschmann 1980; Beckett 1989, 221; Wilson 1993, 25). The tombstone opening is the last of a series of mortuary practices that take place over about five years, longer in some cases, in which close family of the deceased commemorate the memory of their dead and conduct ritual observances to ensure that the spirit of the dead is appropriately cared for. The unveilings are often spectacular affairs where many dozens or hundreds of people gather to recognize publicly, for the final time, the person of the deceased and their importance in providing kin and status linkages between the mourners. The apex of the ritual occurs when the draped headstone, around which dozens of items of clothing, lengths of cloth and large amounts of cash are placed, is exposed. These goods and money, all of which are provided by


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guests, are then distributed to the ‘ghost hands’ (marigetal, or singular, mariget), usually drawn from a pool of potential in-law relations. Over the years, marigetal will have planned the funeral, including invitations to attend, and the construction of the grave and tombstone. When the tombstone is exposed, mourners are able to read the epitaph, which since the beginning of the twentieth century has dramatically changed from brief Christian and personal homilies to an extensive biography of up to 400 words. A common anthropological interpretation of the tombstone unveiling is that it is the definitive end of an extended period of mourning, in which the deceased move from the world of the living to the world of the dead, allowing their relatives to re-enter their daily lives unencumbered by the obligation to conduct a fitting funeral (Fitzpatrick 2000, 36). In this chapter, tombstone unveilings, particularly as they are organized by the members of the community of Saibai Islanders of north-western Torres Strait, are not treated as a final rite but as emblematic of a two-fold ambiguity revolving around simultaneity and exchange.1