Preservation of the Dead Bodies in Funeral Rites of West Papua


Meta Description: West Papua of Indonesia have several beliefs regarding death. One way they treat the dead is by preserving the body, especially the skull. 

Slug: Preservation-Dead-Bodies-Funeral-Rites-West-Papua

West Papua of Indonesia has rituals regarding death. Their rituals and view of death show their rich history. Melanesians have several beliefs about the soul after death. People usually believe that every living will return to the underground once they are dead. The earth underground is home to the dead. 

Since Melanesia is home to many volcanoes, the location of the underground is near the volcanic activity. In other parts of Melanesia, the dead come back to the islands after death (Rivers, 2017). 

Melanesian’s Belief About The Soul Of The Dead

Melanesian, inhabitants of West Papua, are also famous for their head-hunting culture. However, this action of taking the heads has nothing to do with social or religious aspects. There are various views about where the soul of death goes. Some believed the dead go to the volcano cave. And some believed that the dead returned to the sea. Thus, Melanesians have different views regarding where the deaths go (Rivers, 2017). Because of that, the people hold different practices. 

According to Rivers (2017), there are people who believe that the dead live underground and some believe they pass by the sea and move to another island. It is believed that the reason for this different view is the different people who brought it. Kava people believe that the dead live underground, while betel people believe that the dead goes to the sea and move to another island. There is also a probability that the belief comes from the interaction between the immigrant and indigenous people. 

According to Melanesia, the home for the dead is above or below the earth (Rivers, 2017). They also believed that the dead might go into the sea. The thought of the dead going into the sea is common among kava and betel people. However, this belief is the result of the migrant people who go back to their homes in the sea. 

It is also normal to think that migrants would want to come back to their home, which is outside the island. That means kava-people and betel-people did not create the belief that the dead return to the sea. Dual peoples were the ones who brought this belief because they were migrants. They would use the sea route when they migrate to the islands. 

Melanesians And Their Death Rituals

There are many ways and rituals for the dead (Rivers, 2017). Generally, Melanesian use methods such as inhumation, burial in caves, and preservation in the house. The practice ranges from laying the body on a mat and drying it until only skin and bones are left. This is called mummification. Some would lay the body on a canoe with fire beneath it. 

People believe that the head breaks off from the body on the fifth day. The practice lasted for a long time, and people would wrap the bones and place it in a secret place at the end of the day. 

According to Rivers (2017), Melanesians also treat the dead by throwing them into the water. The people would throw the body into the rivers or ponds. The practice of this model came before the people knew about cremation. 

There is a relationship between this practice and the death ritual by totemic clans. Apart from the river, the people also throw the body in the sea. They do it by placing the dead in the upright position. It is believed that this position is related to Melanesian’s cult about the sun. This cult of the sun is part of Melanesian culture and rituals.

It should be noted that the immigrants brought this cultural feature to the early inhabitants. At that time, the immigrants have a culture where they place the dead in the upright position. 

The Preservation Of The Dead 

Another method to treat the dead is by preserving the dead (Rivers, 2017). The people place the preserved body in the house or stage. The practice involves rubbing the dead with oil, drying it using fire, and puncturing the body. After the preservation of the body, the bones may be buried or preserved in the house. 

They can also remove it and place it in a secret hollow located on the hill. The people can also preserve the skull only and leave behind other bones. What is certain is that the society would preserve every body of the chiefs.

According to Rivers (2017), after the preservation of the body, the bones will be buried. The bodies are buried in the men’s house. The people would use a canoe as a coffin. The body is laid on the coffin with thumbs and toes being tied together. People do it to restrain the movement of the dead, so they do not move. 

This position is usually for the chief, while it is very rare for the chief to hold an upright position. This method of preservation comes after the inhumation method. The people usually preserve the skulls and bury the rest of the bones. They use the skulls as the basis of masks. However, it does not mean they use it as an honor or respect. This culture of treating the dead comes from the culture of the dual people. This shows the specialty of the indigenous culture. 


Rivers, W., H. (2017). The History of Melanesian Society. CUP Archive.