This introductory chapter considers the diverse ways in which dead influence the living in the new nation-state of Timor-Leste. We argue that experiences of acute suffering, loss, dislocation, and protracted struggle are intensified by the spiritual dangers posed by the vast numbers of missing or unburied bodies and disrupted mortuary rituals. We consider how deceased beings perceived as ‘ancestors’ are thought to hold the capacity to influence the lives of the living. We also examine how the dead – especially those designated heroes or martyrs – are manipulated by the living to achieve certain aims. We argue that, because the dead continue to profoundly shape relationships amongst families, communities, and the nation-state, they must be understood as pivotal to ongoing processes of nation and state formation.
Keywords: the dead, mortuary rituals, ancestors, martyrs, heroes, nation-building
Over a century ago, Robert Hertz (1881-1915), a young French scholar, wrote a seminal article entitled ‘A Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representations of Death’ (Hertz 1960 ), in which he formulated an idea that has since become a critical topos in the social sciences. For Hertz, death has a double face: on the one hand, it is a physiological event that strikes individuals and removes them from the world of the living; on the other, it is a social and cultural phenomenon. As Hertz wrote:
Where a human being is concerned, the physiological phenomena are not the whole of death. To the organic event is added a complex mass of beliefs, emotions and activities which give it its distinctive character. […] Death has a special meaning for social consciousness; it is the object of collective representations. (1960, 27-28)
While physiological or biological death is generally a discrete, timebound event, social death is often a prolonged process. This is because, as Laqueur (elaborating on Hertz's ideas), writes, the dead are ‘social beings’: as such they ‘need to be eased out of this world and safely settled into the next and into memory’ (Laqueur 2015, 10). The requirements of this settling-in process vary according to historical, cultural and social factors. They often involve the transformation of the identity of the dead into some other form – for instance an ancestor – or their initiation into an afterlife, or into nothing.