By Judith Fein
Over the past few decades, I have been privileged to witness two births, a handful of baby-welcoming ceremonies, and many marriages. I also have accompanied more than one person to the final threshold of life. All the trivia of quotidian existence dissolved as I participated in the embracing holiness of these events.
Whenever I travel, I always inquire about family celebrations, religious pageants or observances, and pivotal ceremonies because it seems to me that this is where real life happens.
When I am fortunate enough to be invited to participate, I find myself interacting with people in a context that is meaningful and authentic. I am no longer a tourist. I am forced to be real, present, aware, and observant—and I am always deeply grateful for the opportunity.
A few years ago when I was on the island of Yap, in Micronesia—9,394 miles from New York and 6,883 from Los Angeles—I made a request of the locals with whom I spent time: “Do you know of anyone who just had a baby, is getting married, or has died and wouldn’t mind if I attended their ceremony?”
They shook their heads. Undaunted, I asked every person I met, but the answer was always the same. “How about the outer islands? Any life ceremonies there?” I asked.
I was informed that the outer islands were remote and largely inaccessible. Every few months, a boat named the Micronesia Spirit came to Yap to transport folks to the islands, but there was no fixed schedule. If you happened to hear about a crossing, you could book passage. Otherwise, no way. A few expats who lived on the island of Yap said they had never been able to visit the outer islands, even though they had tried.
Just as I was about to give up any hope of witnessing a life ceremony, the manager of the hotel where I was staying knocked on my door.
“There is a funeral ship going to the outer island of Mog Mog,” she declared, beaming, “and you are booked on it. Congratulations!”
When I told some locals of my good fortune, they turned ashen. “Hasn’t anyone warned you about the Micronesia Spirit?” they asked. I shook my head and laughed.
Two days later, at dusk, I was on my way. I watched as a coffin was solemnly carried onto the three-tiered boat and then I boarded the Micronesia Spirit with a rolled-up yoga mat, a sandwich, and two bottles of water. The ship, licensed to transport l50 mortals, was dangerously over-crowded with close to 250 passengers. It seemed that everyone but me had staked out a place to sleep, and most were already lying on overlapping woven mats or flattened cardboard boxes so that the decks were a human carpet. I’d been told that you never step over a prostrate Micronesian, so how could I walk around the ship without stepping over bodies? I stood still and plotted what I would do to get through the next 14 hours. Finally I decided to retreat to the lower deck and settle near the coffin. After all, I couldn’t offend the dead.
A group of women encircling the coffin sang all night as I was drenched by waves crashing over the side of the dangerously overloaded ship. Soaked and exhausted, I eventually climbed to the top deck where I found myself a wedge of floor space.
“It’s wet there,” warned a passenger.
“So?” I said. I was already wet.
“Where you put your mat,” he explained, “you’re next to the only men’s bathroom. People have been drinking and . . . they miss.”
Horrified, I grabbed my mat and contemplated my next move. It was late and the darkness was punctuated by choral snoring. After tiptoeing around the top deck, I finally found another spot, settled down and, as I unwrapped my sandwich, a palm-sized cockroach bolted across my legs. I dropped the food. Be calm, be centered, I told myself, and picked it up again. A roach the size of a regulation softball crawled onto the bread. I screamed.
A gentleman named Brodney approached me. “Do you need help?” he asked gently. Pale and exhausted, I gazed at him, and, smiling sweetly, he offered me a large loincloth. Was I supposed to strip and put it on as a prelude to swinging from the ship’s mast like Tarzan? I felt dumb and dumbfounded.
“Okay?” Brodney asked. I raised one eyebrow.Taking this to mean “yes,” Brodney deftly twisted the loincloth into a hammock which he suspended from two nails. Then he helped me climb inside. At last I felt safe, and I closed my eyes. Suspended above the deck in a gently rocking loincloth, I would finally catch some winks. Five minutes later, the rains came—pelting thick ribbons of water that drenched me and Brodney’s loincloth.
Fourteen hours after leaving Yap I arrived at Mog Mog, where I encountered topless girls in grass skirts and men wearing loincloths. Only the fourth outside visitor in a year, I was chided for changing my shoes on the steps of what turned out to be the sacred men’s house. I hobbled across sharp stones until my feet bled. A few locals took pity on me and invited me to their outdoor cooking areas where they offered me fresh fish, tarot, stew, and as much coconut water as I could drink.
Eventually, I camped outside the house where the coffin lay amid the ritualized crying of grief-stricken women. As they wailed, they also expressed their feelings about the deceased—which were not always positive.
A man from Mog Mog who acted as my translator said mourners may talk about the generosity of the deceased and also his drinking and abusive behavior. They can praise his skills as a storyteller and regret his periodic irresponsibility and lying to cover up for his wrongdoing. They can lionize or lambaste him.
At first I was shocked. Can’t they just leave the dead in peace? I wondered. But I said nothing, sitting and listening to the wailing and talk. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to understand.
During a Mog Mog funeral, people are expected to air all of their feelings about the deceased person publicly, so the negative emotions don’t fester.
The bad feelings are expressed, rather than repressed, and then they are buried along with the body. At a funeral, people unleash their true feelings, but speaking ill of the deceased outside of this context is taboo. And it is forbidden to bad-mouth the dead person once he is lying in his final resting place.
“It’s good,” I said to the translator. “It was worth traveling on the Micronesia Spirit. I learned something important today.”
He grinned and offered me one of two coconuts he had just climbed a palm tree to harvest. I looked around but there were no straws. He tossed his head back and sucked the coconut water from his fruit. I did the same. On Mog Mog, I quenched both my thirst and my curiosity. I had witnessed a very significant ceremony.
The funeral experience lingered with me for a long time. Perhaps the inhabitants of Mog Mog got it right. A person doesn’t automatically ascend to sainthood just because he has left the earthly plane. Maybe honoring a person for what he did right or wrong during his lifetime isn’t a bad idea. It may actually be inspired.
People are not perfect. They hurt others knowingly and unknowingly.
Perhaps we can honor a person just by being truthful about him.
We can allow him to be a human—with strengths and flaws, good behavior and bad. I wondered if it would bother me if people said the truth about me after I left the earthly plane.
Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist who has contributed to more than 90 magazines, newspapers, and Internet sites. She also holds the position of travel editor for Spirituality and Health magazine. This article is excerpted from Judith’s acclaimed new book, LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel. For more information, visit www.GlobalAdventure.us.