Seed mourning necklace

Collingwood Bay, Papua New Guinea

[b]Top:[/b] Collected by Rev. W. Abbot and purchased in 1901; 1901.65.42[br][b]Bottom:[/b] From an image taken by Michael O'Hanlon in 1986. Courtesy of the photographer.Top: Collected by Rev. W. Abbot and purchased in 1901; 1901.65.42
Bottom: From an image taken by Michael O'Hanlon in 1986. Courtesy of the photographer.

For the peoples of Papua New Guinea, death is associated with elaborate mourning rituals and specific mourning attire.

In Collingwood Bay in Oro Province in the east, mourning begins after the burial of the deceased. A man's widow goes into seclusion, sometimes for months. Less commonly, the widower might also do this. During this time she cannot be seen or heard by anyone else in the village although other women might visit her. If she leaves her home, she has to cover herself up in a large barkcloth. The end of the seclusion is marked with a ceremony and a feast, although other relatives of the deceased might abstain from certain foods. The widow leaves the confines of her home and throws away the barkcloths. In their place she put on a special vest (baja) that she has made during her seclusion and ornaments (kasi).

The most significant of these ornaments are large necklaces, often worn one on top of another. These are traditionally made of Coix lacryma or 'Job's Tears' seeds, which are strung in small loops on a larger fibre frame. These necklaces are removed one by one until the last one is removed at a ceremony called tepurukari, which officially marks the end of the mourning period. Other mourners might make payments to the relatives of the deceased at this ceremony to ensure they are free of any taboos.

In the Highlands of New Guinea the complex burial rituals may involve funeral songs sung by women in order to remember the dead. Here, as well as in Oro Province, the bereaved also coat their bodies and faces with white or yellow clay. The condition of the body, especially the skin, represents the state of wider social relationships. The image here shows men who have covered themselves partly with mud to mourn a clansman killed in war for whom they seek compensation.

Covering parts of the body with clay or mud is still used as a sign of mourning in parts of Oceania. Its purpose is to act as a barrier to protect the living against the potentially dangerous spirit of the dead person. Only after a ceremony in which the spirit is led to the next world can the mourning costume (mud) be safely removed. In some areas, a boys might be covered in clay after circumcision to convey the idea that he has 'died' during his initiation, but will be reborn as an adult when the clay flakes off.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England