Posted by: rlearmonth | June 18, 2008

The Way of Death

Santa Cruz Cemetery

A profound tragedy happened to a colleague and friend last week. As his family was gathered in his home celebrating his birthday, they were notified that his 16 year old son had been in a serious motorcycle crash. The boy suffered massive head trauma, far beyond the medical capabilities available in Timor-Leste, and died several hours later.

I attended the funeral, which included a procession following the casket from the Catholic church in Balide, near my office, to the Santa Cruz Cemetery, the site of the infamous 1991 massacre by the Indonesians that accelerated the end of the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste. There were hundreds of mourners, many of them young people wearing their school uniforms. Many were weeping, a few fainted. Inside the walled cemetery, we stood in the hot afternoon sun as a priest said a few words, none of which I could hear, and hymns were sung. It had rained briefly an hour earlier, and the humid residue added to the misery. As we stood there, candles were passed around person-to-person.

At the conclusion of the official part of the funeral, by custom, mourners threaded their way through the crowd and approached the casket, adding their candles to the growing fire beside the casket. The stricken family stood by the casket and received condolences from all who wished to express them. My friend, a dignified man in middle age, stood sweating in the hot sun and the heat from the fire of hundreds of candles next to his son’s grave, his face taut in a brave effort to keep his composure; the boy’s mother was inconsolable. I took his hand and mumbled something about how sorry I was, and joined the largely silent crowd leaving the cemetery back toward town. I do not know how long the family stayed by the grave.

Those of us who survived the teenage years, and those of us lucky enough to have children who survived them as well, may forget how fragile teenagers are. It only takes an experience like this to remember.

In spite of myself, as I stood in the cemetery I was struck by a grim metaphor of the cemetery and land and property issues that have come to be such a contentious part of traditional Timorese culture. The cemetery is not partitioned into grave sites, with orderly pathways, gardens and other facilities. It is simply a walled space, where families dig graves for their loved ones wherever they find a vacant piece of land big enough and not already occupied by a grave. So is is a jumble of graves, with stone or cement vaults haphazadley placed throughout. It is nearly impossible to walk through the cemetery without having to climb over or around various graves and tombstones. It is hard to imagine space for even one more burial.

The graves also tell a story of hardship: many are children, some have pictures cemented into the face of the tomb, showing worn, thin, serious faces. Considering its history and its accumulated sorrows, the Santa Cruz Cemetery seems to me a tragic place, and not one of poignant reflection.




  1. We always think that people in struggling nations must be worried for the safety of their children becaus of war crimes, poverty and disease. We fail to think about the common crises of accident that can take a child. Sad for your friend. Your description is very telling and moving…thanks Bob.

    Visited Susan this weekend and was so pleased to hear about the trip. Anna is now in southern Md. and we’re looking forward to a trip there soon.

    I have a lake dive coming up in two weeks, my firstsince Puerto Rico. so I’m happy

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