I’ve been slowly pulling together a post about the Iban alphabet, a rather convoluted form of written communication that is nonetheless making a comeback in a small corner of Borneo. In researching the esoteric matter, I came across this excellent illustrated document regarding the funerary rites of the so-called Sea Dayaks, who really know how to say farewell to their dear departed. This aspect of the ceremony struck me as the most touching:
Minta Manok—The Begging of Chicken: After the ngeretok comes the time for the families to beg chicken again from the neighbouring villages whom they intend to invite for the Gawai Antu. The act of begging chicken is a traditional custom during Gawai Antu. It has been in existence since the ancient time of Kedawa, who lost his way and found himself in the other world while following this custom. The host family must carry out this tradition even though they have enough chicken for the occasion. If the host family fail to follow this tradition, they will be criticised by their relatives as an insulting act.
So it’s basically a matter of pretending like you’re suffering far more than you really are. That struck me as odd at first, because my assumption is that a family would wish to show its prosperity during a time of crisis. But then I remembered there was an obvious Western equivalent: the ritual of bringing over heaping plates of food to the family of the deceased after the funeral. It doesn’t matter how well-off that family is—they can’t help but accept many, many casseroles of dubious flavor and quality, for which they are expected to offer the utmost thanks. It’s not begging, exactly, but it’s a subtle exchange of goods in which both sides acknowledge that they still need each other, even if ties of friendship or kinship have been strained by death.