#6 The Kaliai: Good Death, Bad Death
     (David R. Counts and Dorothy Ayers Counts, 1983-1984)

A good death—or a bad one—may be either voluntary or involuntary. Volition is not enough in itself to be definitive. Involuntary deaths, like those that have an external cause, may be either good or bad, while, with the exception of suicide, voluntary deaths are good ones. Widows who were ritually killed, for instance, died voluntarily and were considered to have had good deaths.

The quality of death is determined by the related conditions of whether the process of dying takes place slowly enough to permit the dying person and his or her kin to control the situation and prepare for the break, and of whether the death results in social disruption. Ideally, a person who perceives death approaching begins, in concert with kin and friends, to bring closure to the set of social relations that entangle him or her in the society of the living. The person has time to terminate ongoing business, to take leave of loved ones, and to withdraw from active participation in mundane life. He or she controls the beginning of the transition from the category of living being (iavava), to the category of recently dead ghost which may be seen by and interact with human beings (anunu), to the most remote category of spirit being, distant ancestors who may not be seen by humans and who seldom become involved in human affairs (antu). When a dying person does not have the opportunity to set in motion this process of withdrawal and transition, it must be done for him or her ritually by the survivors, and it is especially important that the termination of relationships with the living be completed through elaborate and dramatic mortuary ceremonies.

In general terms, for the Kaliai a good death is not socially disruptive. It is foreseen, there is time for the dying person and his or her kin to prepare for it and to publicly conclude any outstanding business, and there is public participation in the first stage of the transitional process that is death. If, however, the death is socially disruptive, the survivors suffer the agony of unanticipated parting, and they react with anger and a desire for vengeance. There is no peace either for the living or for the dead, for the spirit of the person who dies a bad death wanders and appears to his or her kin until the death is avenged. If the death was a suicide, the spirit never joins ghostly society but remains eternally separate and alone, perhaps to become the familiar of a conjuring sorcerer.. . . .  

. . .Obviously suicide is not a good death for the Kaliai. It is a death which permits neither the dead person nor his relatives peace, it is untimely and unforeseen by the community, it is socially disruptive, and it results in the eternal alienation of the suicide’s spirit from the society of the dead as well as of the living. Why, then, would a person voluntarily choose such a death?

There is no clear answer to this question. Kaliai informants almost always explained that a person who killed him or herself either had suffered intolerable shame or had been enchanted by sorcery. Another explanation given was that by controlling his or her death, the suicide re-establishes some control over the social environment. . . .

. . .It is recognized in anthropological literature that suicide may be committed to punish someone else. This kind of suicide, termed revenge suicide or samsonic suicide by Jeffreys, is part of the cultural pattern of Kaliai.

. . .While suicide is not an everyday happening, it has great emotional impact on the community when and where it occurs. It is also a recurrent theme in the oral literature of northwest New Britain. Whether it takes place in story or in fact, the pattern is the same. Both men and women kill themselves during a period of strife between sexual partners or cowives, or directly following an episode in which they were shamed or abused by their affines. The act follows known rules and can be expected to have predictable results within the community where it happens. Customarily, suicides choose one of two methods; they either hang themselves or drink tuva, ‘fish poison’ made from the derris plant. When the Kaliai speak of self-killing they say ipamatei ‘he killed himself’; they describe the method by which death was caused (he hanged himself; he drank tuva); or they attribute responsibility for the death—tipamate eai ngani posanga “they killed him with talk.”

A person who contemplates suicide has the reasonable expectation that his or her kin and neighbors will respond to this act in certain predictable ways. The phrase “they killed him with talk,” and the cry of Agnes’s father “why did you kill my child?” are evidence that the Kaliai consider self-killing to be a form of homicide, an act for which another party is culpable. A person may expect kin and friends to hold someone else responsible for his or her death. The suicide places on his or her kin the obligation to avenge the person, and they expect that his or her spirit will continue to appear to them (as does the spirit of any victim on homicide or sorcery) until the obligation is met. There is no notion that the spirit itself has any malevolent power. In death, as in life, the suicide must wait for others to act on his or her behalf.

Revenge suicide is a political strategy available to otherwise powerless persons because of the element of culpability associated with it. The suicide makes certain that others know why he or she has taken his life and who is to be held responsible for the unbearable situation. Once they are apprised of these facts, the suicide may expect that his or her shamed, grieving, angry kin will avenge the death upon the tormentor. Note that the kin of the suicide are themselves shamed by the death. . . .


[#6] David R. Counts and Dorothy Ayers Counts, “The Kaliai: Good Death, Bad Death”, “Aspects of Dying in Northwest New Britain,” Omega 14(2), 1983-84, pp. 101-110.

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