Funerals and Bis Poles

I hadn’t been to one in several years, but this week I went to funerals on Friday and Saturday nights: Friday night here in town, a colleague who was murdered, Saturday night in NYC, a relative, younger than me, who died suddenly.  It was very weird to be in that funeral space, literally and psychologically, twice in two nights.  (Sorry to my friends whom I didn’t have a chance to see in NYC — it was a quick and sudden trip.)

On Sunday morning I was up and had two hours before a family brunch on the upper East Side, and since I noticed that the Met opened at 9:30, I headed over there.  I didn’t have an urge to see modern art, but headed first to the Ancient Greek and Rome wing and the the sarcophagi, or “flesh eaters,” the name referring to the limestone that was thought to dissolve the flesh of the corpses laid within it.  In the mood I was in, all of the artifacts seemed death-obsessed, and I was thinking about how so much human creativity is dedicated to memorializing, commemorating, representing, and in these cases, even literally storing or housing the dead.

I wandered into the new wing of arts of Oceana, e.g.. the Pacific Islands.  I was floored by a lot of the art on display here, particular these Ancestor (Bis) Poles and canoes.

This is one of at least 6 or 7 displayed in a row.

The Asmat honored their dead with feasts and rituals, which both commemorated the deceased and reminded the living to avenge their deaths. The towering Asmat “bis” poles were made for these funeral feasts. The basic form of the bis is an openwork pole incorporating several ancestor figures and a winglike projection that represents the pole’s phallus.

In Asmat belief, no death was accidental. Each death was always caused by an enemy, either through headhunting raids or sorcery. Death created an imbalance in society, which the living had to correct by taking an enemy head. When a village had suffered a number of deaths, it would hold a bis ceremony, which consisted of a series of feasts held over several months. A number of bis poles were carved for the ceremony and displayed in front of the men’s house, where they formed the center of a mock battle between men and women. The poles were kept until a successful headhunt had been carried out and the balance restored. After a final feast, the Asmat abandoned the bis poles in the sago palm groves from which they obtained their primary food. As the poles decayed, their fertile supernatural power seeped into the earth and fertilized the sago trees.

I found these spectacular, deeply strange in form, intention, ideology, and belief system, and with a vertiginous sense of near-flight in the jutting of the inverted figures on top so boldly out into space.  There are the familiar ironies of these ritual objects, the entire raison d’etre of which depended on their instrumental use, ephemerality, and eventual decaying in the sago tree groves, lavishly displayed in the museum as art objects.  And the ideas about death, revenge, vital powers, aesthetic expression — all struck me as thrillingly alien.

The bis poles are upside-down sago trees — the phallic projection is created out of the roots of the trees.  A pole is a natural object taken from nature, aesthetically reshaped, inverted and placed back in the grove of trees once again to decay.  “Inversion” seems one of the primary gestures of these artworks: upside down men and trees, sticking up in displays of force.

They seem to be something like death clocks?  Until the death is avenged, they stand as a monument and a reminder of the revenge that must follow.  Once that occurs, they’re returned to the forest.

I’m not saying I think we should adopt the custom, but as funereal artifacts, the sarcophagi and bis poles seem more aesthetically and spiritually satisfying than the rites and objects we tend to come up with.  I was charged with making an ipod playlist to broadcast after the ceremony, which can’t exactly match up to the Bis Poles when it comes to ritual closure (although Marion Williams singing “I’ll Fly Away” and John Coltrane’s “Naima” are nothing to sneeze at for sorrow and grandeur, either).

At one of these funerals, a close friend of the deceased had made 1000 multi-colored paper origami cranes, which were displayed on the stage as people spoke: that was lovely, and did seem to tap into some vein of pre-modern death ritual.

Maybe what I find appealing, in theory if not in practice, is the idea that every death is caused by an enemy: someone to blame definitively, and something to do about it; no accidental deaths.

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2 Responses

  1. I’m craving (if not finding workable) the “no accidental death” policy myself. Otherwise it’s just objectless rage, which just means more calls to the vet for dog xanax.

    Also, do you know the band “Bis”? It’s weird–they’re Scottish I think, don’t know where they got the name.

  2. These poles are so very beautiful. I’ve looked at them often, this is the one room I go to whenever I visit the museum, whatever else I see. But somehow I never read the words carefully, or else forgot, the way these serve as death clocks.

    Also beautiful are the slit gongs in the same room, which I wish they would play, maybe at a midnight concert once a year.

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