All of a Piece: Saint Anthony’s Statue and New Guinea Mourning Rituals



W 31st St & 7th Ave, NY, NY 10001

Neighborhood: Letter From Abroad

Every Tuesday when I was a small boy my mother would take me to visit a statue of Saint Anthony in Saint Francis Church on 31st Street in Manhattan. Saint Anthony of Padua is the patron saint of the poor. Curiously, he is invoked by those looking for lost things. Along with Saint Jude he is also sometimes called the saint of impossible causes. Given her views about the generally difficult, if not impossible nature of life, I think my mother had decided that if she were to pray to anyone or anything it would be to a saint who championed impossible causes. On Tuesdays she asked Saint Anthony for what she wanted and for what she desired for others. Some of these others were our family’s dead and what she wanted for them was for their souls to be purged or washed clean of their earthly sins. She believed that this could only happen through the prayers and concern of the living. Once this happened, she taught me, they could be released from Purgatory and ascend to Heaven. She, having intimate knowledge of all of our family members’ feuds, resentments and misdeeds felt that none of our souls were likely to go straight to Heaven from our death beds.

We would light candles for the dead and as we did so we said our prayers for them, an Our Father for Uncle Frankie, a Hail Mary for Michaela, my mother’s mother, a series of prayers for my mother’s brother Ralph. I believe my Mother felt that he needed a little extra help to get to Heaven, or perhaps she just loved him more than the others.

The alcove where we performed our rituals was dark, but not somber. Thinking back I feel its darkness intimated and conveyed a sense of mystery and sacredness, as if we were at a shrine, though the alcove held no relics. As a boy I got an eerie feeling when I was there. But I remember that the small statue of Saint Anthony seemed kindly, forgiving, as if the saint understood human frailty and understood as well that both the living and the dead were in emotional pain. And I think he knew this was not just because the dead were mourning the loss of their lives, and the living were mourning the loss of the dead, but because life and death were both emotionally painful affairs.

The statue was placed in a fake grotto of sorts. Water would drip down the sides of the saint’s alcove and collect in a small basin at the statue’s feet. I remember that the statue was also surrounded by some artificial vegetation that looked to me a lot like wet twine. The water and vegetation signified the washing away of sins, but also rebirth and hope. On an emotional level I believe they symbolized the hope that both the living and the dead would let go of all resentments, all the anger and disappointment they perhaps still felt toward one another. I see now the message that we could only help the dead purify their souls if we let go of our own negative feelings toward them, and thus became able to express pure and honest concern for their welfare through our prayers. So, in a sense, we were getting rid of our own sins, our negative feelings, as we lit our candles and said our prayers for the dead.

It was all of a piece doing things like lighting a candle for Uncle Frankie, or, before he died, visiting him and caring for him – my mother helping carry him to his bathroom, trying to sooth him as he suffered the agonizing pain of trying to defecate though the cancer was eating through his colon. Lighting the candles was of a piece with going to the weddings of family and friends, the baptisms of children and the wakes and funerals that one attended to show respect to the dead and to their families. It was all of a piece with being present at a nephew or niece’s first Communion or Confirmation, and at all the other life cycle rituals that at some point or other I just stopped going to. The concern shown for the living and for the dead was all of a piece.

Looking back on all this I believe I was learning that observing the continuum of life cycle rituals and remembering the dead were both about self-transformation. This was the bit of folk wisdom that was encoded in my mother’s religious practice. There are folk philosophers of mourning like my mother, and there are learned philosophers of mourning like Martin Buber. But I see that my mother and Buber, sort of an odd pair to think about it (one a Neapolitan-speaking Italian-American housewife from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, the other an intimidatingly learned Austrian Jewish philosopher and biblical commentator), were both concerned with mourning successfully.

Buber considered mourning to be successful if it resulted in an enlarged emotional perspective or in a deepening of the self. In his philosophy of mourning, outlined in his great work “I And Thou,” loss prompts an imaginative reaching out that leads to greater self consciousness and even, self transformation. But what is one reaching out for I asked myself as I read Buber. It is the essence of the person who has been lost – the deceased’s way of feeling about the world and her way of looking at it – a perspective that ideally could broaden and deepen one’s own emotional experience. The gift of loss and of mourning for Buber is ultimately then the gift of a wiser and more sympathetic self. In his melancholy ontology, as the scholar Roy Steinhoff Smith writes, “Loss is characterized by three fused moments: loss, imagination and recovery.”

Recovery, getting over the loss of someone dear, is made through the imaginative and feeling attempt to recover, or rather to create, one’s own understanding of the presence that has been lost. One recovers something of her essential humanity and somehow makes it one’s own. I believe that was what my mother might have been trying to do as she would light candles for the dead.

For me, recovering the valued essence of my mother has meant developing the sensibilities of an anthropologist. Ultimately, I think this is how I came to mourn her. Somewhat ironic, as my mother found my profession incomprehensible and could not imagine what possessed me to move to the far side of the globe for years of fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. I think she experienced my adventures as abandonment of her, although she and my father were outwardly supportive. She died suddenly when I was living in Hawaii, writing a book about ritual and religious life and trying to make sense of a mound of ethnographic data, a lot of it on mourning behavior.

My first cogent thoughts as a professional anthropologist reflected my mother’s belief that the dead have something of value to offer us, and that is the promise of a deeper, more feeling self. I was trying to understand why the dead should be so prominently featured during New Guinea initiation rituals. Why, I asked myself, should the dead be remembered during rituals that were ostensibly about forging the waxing strength of a new generation of youths? Then I perceived that the feelings of power and accomplishment of the senior generation as they celebrated a new generation’s coming of age were tinged with nostalgia, memory and gratitude. The contributions they were making toward strengthening and celebrating the clan’s youth could not have been possible without the contributions that the dead had once made to their own lives. Remembering the dead was in this instance also a celebration of the possibilities of the present. When I understood these rituals as representing the desire to incorporate the memory of a lost presence into the present moment, I was seeing through my mother’s eyes. Buber perhaps had given me the vocabulary to formulate my interpretations, but it was my mother’s sensibilities that brought me to the emotional meaning.

So, in a way this is how I became an anthropologist. This may seem a somewhat removed, perhaps overly aesthetic account of how I mourned for my own mother. It may seem removed from the brute fact of her death, from the depth of my feeling about her. But that is not how I would characterize the process of my grieving. This grieving certainly did involve that call I got from my sister telling me my mother had died. It involved my initial feelings of panic and disbelief at the news, my scream and my temporary madness.

There was the rushed trip to the Honolulu airport, my wife and I both breaking down as we explained to the ticket agent why we absolutely had to get on that plane back to New York for the wake. There was the month spent in New York at my father’s house trying to help him survive his grief, as we dealt with our own, and helping him adjust to his new and achingly lonely day-to-day. There was the unbearably sad return to Hawaii and to my writing. For me these experiences and memories were in fact too powerful to live with. I had to make something else of them. I made anthropology out of them, or at least my particular anthropological sensibility, a sensibility filtered through a memory of my mother. And this sensibility was my way of remembering the dead, incorporating the lost presence into the fact of my day to day life. My sense of my mother’s way of feeling about the world of death and the dead, and many other matters, does define me in a very real sense. But recovering, remembering, creating-however one wishes to put it-my mother’s sensibilities took time and a certain distillation or distancing of feeling. It took thinking and writing to put my pain into context.

As I think back now I see how thinking and writing about mourning during this time brought me back to the sorts of feeling I experienced at Saint Anthony’s shrine as a child. As I wrote I felt a certain fear, even a certain awe at confronting the poetry of another people’s mourning rituals-as at Saint Anthony’s I had felt a child’s fear of the eerie atmosphere of the shrine and a child’s awe of the rituals for the dead that my mother was teaching me to perform. Yet at the shrine there was the kindly image of Saint Anthony’s statue to give me a feeling of safety. As I wrote, the memory of my mother gave a similar feeling of protection and reassurance, as if she was telling me that I was going to figure it all out and not to worry. As in a dream I was brought back to my child self. And as in a dream I was continually brought back, as I wrote, to a memory of one particular mourning ritual that I saw in New Guinea.

One dawn during those New Guinea years I was startled awake by dramatic and powerful singing and by the first rays of the sun coming up over the Pacific. I remembered that I had been fighting sleep for the previous two hours as I tried to observe and record the mourning and song ceremony for Rauatio, a New Guinean man. It was one of many times that I had to stay up all night during those two years that I spent in the field. The singing for many of the ceremonies I was studying would begin at dusk and would last until dawn.

The man Rauatio had died the previous day after a lingering sickness. His clansmen had arranged the scene of the ceremony, placing a coconut frond awning over the corpse, covering the body with a pandanus mat and placing sweet smelling flowers and herbs on it. A space was cleared for the singers in the village plaza in front of the bier. Kin from Rauatio’s maternal line in another village were invited to come to the song performance. They sang the mourning songs along with the people in our village, their singing alternating with ours. The songs and the singing were powerful and beautiful, filled with nostalgia and reminiscence – alluding to the experiences one had shared with the dead in life. They seemed to represent a certain contemplative wisdom about the nature of loss and longing; their collective meanings and themes seemed to represent an example of successful mourning–extracting some element of wisdom and understanding from the brute, wrenching fact of death.

Yet as I listened to the songs that dawn and later, when I came to understand their meaning more clearly, I had the uncharitable thought that I really had not liked Rauatio very much when he was alive. I resented the way he forced himself on me, coming to my hut unannounced and asking me for gifts of various sorts, taking a very keen interest in my possessions and generally lacking social graces in his dealings with me most of the time. I felt that the ceremony was ennobling him in a way I might not have been inclined to do. But if my mother was present at that ceremony she might not have felt this way.

I remember that some of those my mother had lit candles for back in New York had not been the nicest people. Uncle Frankie drank a lot, cursed up a storm when he did, and was rumored to have slapped his girlfriends around every once in a while. Uncle Tony was just plain nasty a lot of the times – I was afraid of him as a boy. There was the rumor that he was even a little bit mobbed up and that was how he got his no show job down at the Brooklyn docks – he was a real stereotype, a stock character out of the Italian American experience. I was sure too that not everyone in my New Guinea village was so fond of Rauatio either. And yet there we all were singing and mourning for him from sundown to sunrise in this beautiful tribal ceremony.

One of the mourning songs describes a soul visiting his old village and sighing that the place was no longer his home, that it belonged to the living now. His nostalgia for life and the pain he feels at being separated from life make him a sympathetic figure for the mourners. They realize that, in Aeschylus’s words, “the sun is sweet”, that despite the difficulty of life, being alive, just feeling the sun on your skin can be the greatest joy.

The last song was sung as the dawn began to break. This tells of a conversation carried out between a ghost and his kin. The ghost asks his kin to take his possessions and to hold them as remembrance of him. His kin become angry with the request, wishing to avoid the pain of memory, of caring anymore for the dead, for their possessions, for the memories those possessions conveyed. But in the ceremony itself the mourners are made to take possession of some of these things, while letting go of others.

I think the idea being expressed here was the same one that my mother was expressing when she lit candles for Uncle Frankie and Uncle Tony back at Saint Anthony’s alcove. We shouldn’t ignore our responsibilities to the dead or to the living; we should make our peace with the dead by helping them along their way – by letting go of some memories we have of them and holding on to others – thoughts that both my mother and Martin Buber would basically agree with.

The next day Rauatio’s young son showed up at the door to my hut. He was grieving the death of his father and was out of sorts. He asked me for an old picture I had taken of his father some years before when I recorded and photographed another ceremony. The boy told me that he was making the rounds through the village and was asking people if he could take back from them some things belonging to or associated with his father. He told me that his feelings of sorrow and grief over his father’s death made him want to hold and to view these things. I went into my strong box and got out the old picture of Rauatio and gave it to him.

As I looked at the photo I remembered that Rauatio had been helpful to me at that ceremony, instructing me in a finer point of meaning. I also remembered him laughing at me good naturedly as I kept getting in people’s ways while I was trying to photograph this or that part of the action. And when I was just a small boy Uncle Tony had once dipped a piece of fennel in some home-made wine and let me nibble on it. He was glad to see that I liked the taste and that he and I were colluding together against my mother’s wishes that I not be given any wine. I had lit a candle for Uncle Tony, and I was glad that I had sung a mourning song for Rauatio. That had been all of a piece.

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