All souls, or Matebian

For four years, I have been rather obsessively collecting lists of people killed in the shadow of Mt. Matebian. I began with a rebellion in 1959, then I moved to World War II, then I began to collect names from 1975 and 1978-79.

I began to have a feeling for the awful meaning of these lists in individual terms. That each of these people had a family, and that each person died their own terrifying individual death.

And yet I had little feeling for what all of these deaths meant in a more collective sense.

I knew about “good deaths” and “bad deaths”, and ghosts. I knew that funeral rituals are extremely elaborate and last over a year. Funerals are not cheap. I even witnessed a hakoi mate ruin ceremony in 2003, which was the transfer of people’s mortal remains from a temporary resting place from Indonesian times to their rightful, ancestral resting place.

I knew also that Matebian, in Tetum, literally means the souls of the dead. The Timorese believe that at death, a person’s soul returns to the mountain to its ancestors resting place. In this sense, death is a unification.

The whole time I was collecting these lists, I had no real concept about what the dead mean to Timorese.

I had no idea, for example, that in the Matebian region, there are very old ancestral graves called beli, which are carefully constructed rock terraces often over a meter tall, which serve as collective graves. I suppose I had seen these terraces, but I had no idea what they meant to people. Each lineage has its own beli in its knua of origin.

I brought this practice up with the brilliant Tio Martinho in Baguia. His eyes lit up. He ran in to fetch photos of his uma adat, his village’s traditional house. He had already shown me these fotos.

But the first time he showed them to me, I had not carefully noted the rock terracing that the house was built on top of. When I look carefully this time, I see the rock terracing sloping under the spectacular new uma adat. The terraces go up at least a hundred meters, hugging the slope of the mountain.

These are our ancestral resting places, he explains. We have some of the largest and the best around Matebian.

On Wednesday is the Loron Matebian, Dia dos Finados or All Souls Day. This is a major holiday in Timor. In some places it resembles the Mexican “Dia de los Muertos” where the family takes the party to their deceased loved-ones.

At Tio Martinho’s invitation, I am going to see the celebrations at his village, called Oekilari, which sits at the base of Mt. Matebian.

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