During the Fête des Morts, the islands of New Caledonia bloom with the scent of cut grass and plastic flowers. In urban cemeteries, at tribal tombs and the lone cross by the highway, the living gather to honour the dead. Families arrive en masse, others filter in dribs and drabs. People crouch to tend the earth, the stone, the timber. Long bleached by the harsh tropical sun, graves rebirth in bold colours. Symbolic fabric binds some, others display a portrait. From above, the refulgent cemeteries recall the fabric of the local women’s mission robes. Up close, one might chance a lit cigarette on the edge of a headstone, a whisper of smoke lingering in the humid air.
“It’s about everyone, living and dead, who—here in the French Pacific—are caught in a rip between culture and politics.”
Cliché has it that “dead men tell no tales”. Sometimes though, it pays to listen. Take a moment during this celebration, the first weekend of November, and one may find that not only do dead (wo)men tell stories, they ask us questions too. Where are we going? Where have we been? And, what does our relationship with the deceased show us about the living? The Fête des Morts, known in English as ‘All Souls Day’ or ‘Day of the Dead’, is a commemoration of the deceased. But it is also a moment to question the pasts, presents and futures of communities and individuals. It’s about everyone, living and dead, who—here in the French Pacific—are caught in a rip between culture and politics. A large part of my life in New Caledonia has been spent among the dead. An Australian anthropologist of material and visual culture, I work amidst their photos, their graveyards and their memories. As the spouse of a Melanesian, celebrating the Fête des Morts has become something that I do. While inside the culture, I am also an observer; this is a place permeated by secrets and silence.
As a French territory hurtling towards a 2018 independence referendum, New Caledonia is entangled in politics. The Fête des Morts is no exception. It’s widespread popularity today is rooted in colonialism and its famous three Cs: Christianity, commerce and civilisation. While Christianity traces “All Souls Day” back over thousands of years, its adaptation here is relatively recent. Captain James Cook “discovered” the islands back in the late 1700s. Finding little to exploit but coconut beaches and rugged mountain ranges, the British “gifted” the islands, and its Melanesian population, to the French. The Missionaries arrived first, followed by the penal colony. They met pagan people who lived by the calendar of a sacred yam. Consumed by their notion of culture, French colonialism sought to assimilate its subjects. In the name of both God and the state, the missionaries educated people perceived as a “primitive”. These Indigenous Kanak were clothed, schooled in French language and catechism. Along with disease, Christianity spread fast and wide, engulfing much Indigenous culture with it. The Fête des Morts became a date on the new calendar. But this practice of praying for the faithful souls departed inevitably melded with the beliefs of those converted.
Prior to the Europeans’ arrival, the various cultures (now unified under the name Kanak) had also adhered to complex funerary rituals. These practices of honouring the departed differed according to one’s clan and region. In certain parts of the north, maternal uncles buried the cadaver with the head above soil. They guarded the decomposing body, all the while blowing the soul from the flesh. If custom was incorrectly followed, the spirit wouldn’t join the realm of the ancestors and instead haunted the living. Regardless of the practice, a communal notion of the importance of death united, and unites, Kanak cultures. After birth and marriage, death is considered the final great event of life. The Kanak person, dead and alive, is forever bound by a complex and communal social web. Once detached from the body, the spirit as an ancestor becomes a venerated and ever-present being. Now, burial is predominantly Christianised. But for many Kanak Christians, a dualism exists between power of God, the ancestors and what comes after life.
Culture is an all encompassing body in flux. And like all culture, the Fête des Morts is a shapeshifter. Though today more than half of New Caledonians identify as Christian, this percentage is mirrored in the Kanak population who count for almost half of the total population. The various religious denominations and cultural communities of New Caledonia have adapted the Fête des Morts according to their beliefs.
Since colonisation, the islands have become home to various peoples of former French colonies and French islands such as Algeria, Vietnam and Wallis. Amidst this diversity, the signposts of Christianity continue to dominate the visual landscape: iron, neon and cement crucifixes peak atop mountains; churches centre tribes; rosaries adorn anything from people to pick up trucks. But these Christian icons exist alongside the evolving symbols of Kanak and Oceanic culture—totems, sculptures and traditional huts. While the capital Noumea attests to the success of commerce and civilisation, there are tribes along the winding roads of the eastern coast with huts, houses and cathedrals face nestled against one another, facing the ocean. Coconut palms that sprout from verdant fields of banana, taro and yam, frame them. Tombs bear crucifixes as well as totems; some a crown of thorns made of roses, others are nothing more than a pile of sacred stones.
“Religion and culture are not mutually exclusive and other people forsake the mass to pass the day in the cemetery. They clean, garden and speak with the deceased, but not too long for fear of disturbing them.”
For the majority of New Caledonians, the Fête des Morts is a personalised negotiation between religion and culture, modernity and tradition. Many Catholics will attend a mass, their Churches transform in colours of the dead, the father leads a sermon. Families and friends, strangers and enemies, pray for the trajectory of the souls recently departed. These services differ according to the church. In the smaller island of Lifou, a friend of mine recounts the story of a bold priest who once lead the congregation to the cemetery. He recalls one windy morning amidst tombs by a transparent sea, when the father named each person beneath each headstone and their deeds. Religion and culture are not mutually exclusive and other people forsake the mass to pass the day in the cemetery. They clean, garden and speak with the deceased, but not too long for fear of disturbing them. Traditionalists may also recognise this date. But rather, by tombs public and private, present and forgotten, the Fête des Morts becomes a moment for them to connect with the ancestors. The weeks after the Fête des Morts, graves rejoice in a sea of hopeful gesture. Commodities such as flowers, money, food and favourite things, like flags and sports-wear abound.
If the flip side to hope is disbelief, and remembrance is forgetting, the Fête des Morts is not without either. Critics argue that its increasing popularity among atheists signifies its commercialisation. As a commercial event, not unlike Halloween, the act of buying “things” forsakes meaning or reflection. Unsurprisingly, the divide between the more communal North Provence and the individualised capital city in the south, illustrate this. The now unified (formerly racially segregated) cemetery of Canala provides a pertinent example. After the white people and French loyalists were exiled from the village during the 1980s civil war, it is a region in the Northern Province that provokes fear in many locals. Despite its violent reputation, one remarks that during the Fête des Morts people there will tend the graves of the “whites” and other deceased, even if the friends and family of these dead have not returned. In Noumea, by contrast, the public Cimetière du 6eme kilomètre swarms with commerce during the Fête des Morts. Trucks jam surrounding roads selling products “Made in China”. Despite the masses of people who pass for the Fête des Morts, they tend mostly familiar graves. Among the gated, sprawling hills, routed by street signs and directories, the paid groundskeepers leave many a “resting place” derelict.
The emphasis on commemoration through a physical site, such as a grave or chapel, evokes other concerns. All that is present recalls absence. In a place that counts only six generations from European settlement, countless traces of colonial encounters have been lost or effaced. Unbeknownst to many, are the sites of traditional cemeteries, of massacres and mass graves from Leprosy or guillotining. And, if the body needs to have a “place” for the spirit to “rest”, be it as an ancestor or in heaven, what becomes of those whose bodies are still in transit? Thousands of Kanak heads, skulls and body parts, trafficked in the name of science, remain scattered through European museums.
Criticisms considered, during the Fête des Morts in New Caledonia one thing is certain. In the face of a globalised, mass culture that estranges death in pursuit of immortal youth, a day that leads us to question who we’ve been and what we want to be, can only be constructive. What we, the living, do with and for our dead, speaks of who we are.