Beyond the call of duty: Paul Dennett

One day, as I was preparing my blackboard towards the end of lunch recess at Nanu River school, some kids came to announce that one of their number had collapsed on the playground.  However, very soon afterwards, he had regained consciousness. Alois was in Helen’s class, a popular, good-natured boy of about twelve. Apart from having a clammy brow he appeared to be OK except that he seemed anxious about not being able to focus on the ‘snakes’ that he kept seeing in the periphery of his vision.

I had him take a few pills, the usual aspirin and chloroquin, and arranged for him to lie down on a stretcher affair in the office that was kept for the frequent malaria cases we had. After an hour or two he had not improved and had developed a high temperature so I decided to take him up to Kaugia Mission quick smart so that the resident Australian volunteer Maternal & Child Health nurse there, Jill, could attend to him. Her diagnosis was possible meningitis. Jill gave him a couple of shots and we called up a mission plane from Wewak for a medical emergency flight. But before it could come, Alois fitted and died.

Alois’ mother had also died just six months before him and his father was away working on his resettlement block down in the Gawanga territory, a long way from the village. The deceased’s relatives agreed with me that it would take a couple of days for his father to get the message and return, also that it might not be a good idea, for obvious reasons, to delay the funeral till then. Because he had died ‘on our watch’, so to speak, I felt some responsibility to arrange his burial. An additional consideration was the seeming reluctance of the relatives to become too involved. Did they fear the absent father’s wrath? Did they think that two deaths in the same family indicated sorcery? They were reticent.

The teachers got to work at fashioning a coffin for him and Helen produced a covering for the body, a shroud of white cloth with a cross in green. We took these up to the village and watched as Alois’ body was prepared for burial. His exercise books, ruler and pencils were laid beside him in the coffin. His schoolmates assembled with the flowers they had prepared. They said some prayers, lead by me, before the coffin was lowered into the deep hole and the grave filled in. It was a simple but moving ceremony. As I write this, he would have now been a man in his late 50s had not death claimed him so soon. The Australian Assemblies of God pastor south of the school had been told that I had put money into the dead boy’s hands as he lay in the coffin. I told him that this was not so. Despite this denial, I had the feeling that the personnel of this Mission were very suspicious about my involvement in the funeral. Conversely, Fr Carmon at Kaugia Catholic Mission, now a retired bishop in New Orleans, had no problems with it.

Later we moved into Maprik town and I took over the larger-than-usual school there that catered for the majority of its child population. Maprik was the centre of a populous sub-district with a resident Deputy District Commissioner and the headmaster of its main school was regarded by most as, amongst other things, the unofficial representative of the Department, the father confessor, the general Mr Fixit, etc.

One weekend, I was looking forward to a relatively peaceful two days off when on the Saturday afternoon a ramshackle Landrover pulled up noisily at the back door. It was driven by William, the half-Sepik/half-Chimbu headmaster of a government school some way off, who told me the story of how his Highlands brother-in-law had been killed, over 24 hours before, by falling back as he was helping push a vehicle up a steep track. In his rush to get out of the way of the vehicle he had stumbled badly and cracked his head on a large rock.

His body was now in a lidless coffin on the back of the Landrover and William wanted my help to deal with the protocols for flying the body back to the Highlands. As I went closer to the vehicle it was obvious that the body wasn’t going to make the journey without some serious attempt to seal it up properly. I consulted with the DDC who was about to hit off for the third hole on the airstrip/golf course and he advised in the circumstances, a Maprik burial. After viewing the corpse and conducting a mini-coronial hearing with the concerned village people who had witnessed the accident and accompanied their headmaster to Maprik, the DDC duly provided a death certificate that was a prerequisite for a burial within the town.

William worriedly wrung his hands imagining the concern of the deceased’s family. Their hearing of the death of a family member was one thing but, but not being able to give the body a customary burial in its native place was another. However, he was soon convinced of the practical and financial advantages of a local burial and gave his approval. I can’t remember if there were any repercussions from the Highlands for his decision.

We had a coffin without a lid but I was sure that the laplap/shroud they’d provided would do as a cover. We needed an approved place to bury him, a grave, and a minister of religion to conduct the burial. The DDC took me to the town cemetery—until then I didn’t know it had one—and the village people who had come down on the Landrover made a start digging the grave. I drove round the town as well as going out to Bainyik Agricultural Station and spoke to the few highlanders I knew of. A strapping Gulf man and a tough Melpa fellow, equipped with crow bar, spades and shovels, came with me to the gravesite. Although the dead man was a Lutheran, and because the nearest mission of that persuasion was in Madang, our Catholic parish priest from ‘Bawston’, Fr Mike Hughes, agreed to come along for the obsequies. At the appointed hour we awaited the priest’s arrival. Soon a Morobean Lutheran pastor appeared on the scene. He just happened to be in town for the monthly Lutheran service the next day and had been told of the burial. Some Highlands women came up from the compound with beautiful wreaths they had made from local flowers. Word had obviously got about.  Father Hughes arrived and the two clergymen conferred and conducted a joint service to send the deceased on his way. Some were weeping at the end of the simple ceremony. I’m sure that the dead man’s kinsmen, had they been there to see, would have given our efforts some measure of approval.

We covered quite a lot at Malaguna Teachers College, Rabaul, during our six-month E Course teacher training, but arranging for burials of the dead was not one of them.


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