Late last Wednesday my collegue Alberto and I went to the village of Ililapa to find out who had died. A few hours earlier a truck had overturned on the steep mountain road going down into the village. Three people died instantly and a couple dozen more went to the hospital in Lospalos, about 7km away. We had heard that possibly one of the dead was a member of the small congregation in Ililapa but information was scarce. We got on a motorcycle and went to the village. When we got there, as we walked up the muddy road toward the grey concrete-block house, we could see a tent being errected out front, a sign that some kind of community gathering was imminent. People were busy cutting stakes, carrying firewood, coming and going. A bit further up we heard the haunting sound of women wailing.
When we got there we were saddened to learn that one of the young woman who’d died was Elsie, a member of the congregation there. Inside the house her body was in a dark, cramped room. Several men went in and moved her to a larger space so we could all be there together in one room. Elsie was only 14. Her thin body was wrapped tightly in the colorful tais that is common in this part of Timor-Leste. Only her face was exposed as her mother sat on the bedside weeping softly, holding a baby in one hand and caressing her deceased daughter’s wounded face with the other. We stood silently for several minutes and then prayed for the child and family. In the house children were coming and going; some with tears, others playing as if something very normal was happening. And it was. The Timorese were dealing with their dead.
Over the years I have been involved with Timorese people, one of the things I’ve come to appreciate very much is the way they deal with death. When someone dies in Timor, you do what humans have done for milenia. Some care for the body, while others dig a grave. Neighbors bring food, firewood and other supplies. Mourners come and sit in the house, light candles, quitely weeping or praying. People socialize outside. This may go on for several days. When the time is right, they have a funeral. And in that rite they tell the story of the decesed persons life within the framework of Timor’s blend of Christian and Indiginous sprituality. And then they bury the body in a dignified, solom observace of reality: one has died, but many still live.
Actually, what Timorese do with their dead is nothing new or special per se, in fact it’s what humans have done for most of history. But it’s a refreshing contrast to the recent trend, at least in American culture, in which a solemn observance of death with a dignified disposition of a corpse is replaced by a “celebration of life” wherein the body of the dead has already been whisked away, being viewed as either “just a shell” or simply an inconvenience that bums people out.
Tom Long and Tom Lynch in their book, The Good Funeral: Death, Grief and the Community of Care, caution against the wisdom of this recent trend. They note that, “The major religious traditions may disagree about many things, but on this one theme they all raise their hands in assent: we will learn wisdom about how to live when we care lovingly and reverently for the bodies of the dead.” Timorese get this. And by the blood, sweat and tears they put into caring for their dead, it would seem they also understand another thing Long and Lynch come back to again and again: “By getting the dead where they need to go, the living get where they need to be.”
Why does a truck full of people overturn on a steep mountain road? Why these particular people on this day in this place? Why a scary and early death for some and a peaceful death at the end of a long abundance life for others? There’s a lot we don’t know about death. But I can’t help but asking: why do some children get to ride safety-approved buses over well maintained roads en route to fully-equipped schools with highly qualified teachers while others have to choose between walking miles in blistering sun or riding in open bed trucks to get to schools with broken desks and no electricity or books? Accidents happen everywhere, I get that. But underneath an accident like this lie deeper questions about wealth and poverty and justice and who gets access to the “goodies” of life. But that’s another topic for another time.
I notice that Timorese have a very high view of the soverignty of God and that sometimes they find comfort in the notion when someone dies that “It was God’s plan.” Perhaps at the end of a long life or an extended debilitating illness that’s true. But I can’t accept that God plans for people to die young in tragic, scary ways. Indeed, “Blessed in the sight of the Lord is the death of one of his faithful ones” (Ps. 116:15). Nevertheless, I do believe that God can and does work in our lives to transform even tragic events into something redemptive (Rom. 8:28). At least I hope and pray that that happens with Elsie’s family.