Marshall Islands Chronicles: A Death in the Family

Marshall Islands World Teach

My son Chuck with some of his students in the Marshall Islands, 2012-2013.

I’m sharing this post written by my son, Chuck McKeever, who spent 2012-2013 teaching in the Marshall Islands through the WorldTeach organization. It’s from his blog, 

Marshall Islands Chronicles, Post-Script: Pissing on the Dead

The Marshallese, being a family-oriented society with little in the way of available land space, almost always bury their dead at home. Just about every house you see there has two or three dusty white headstones in the yard, high rectangular graves with rectangular markers rising from one end. My host family’s home was no different — there were three gravestones on their property, the closest being maybe six feet from my bedroom window. Nothing says, “Welcome to your home for the year” quite like three dead people to share your personal space with.

Their presence at first presented me with one of my more serious ethical dilemmas — others included “Should I eat this endangered sea turtle that’s been served to me?” (guilty) and “Is it morally defensible to tape two seven-year-olds together who won’t stop brawling, in the spirit of teaching them a lesson about cooperation?” (doubly guilty). Anyway, the dilemma presented by the three deceased housemates was, namely, whether or not it was okay to just piss out my bedroom window at night despite my proximity to their final resting places.

The alternative, mind you, was to try to make my way through the pitch dark in an unfamiliar house with a full bladder, undo a series of knots that functioned as a lock, and take care of business before negotiating the same process in reverse. While also trying not to step on the sleeping forms of my three host siblings, who used the floor as a shared bed. Mind you, Marshallese dark was not like American dark. There was no light pollution there, no headlights going by, nothing. Once it was dark you better have known where you were.

Marshall Islands

Turtle egg cache, Marshall Islands.

As so often (unfortunately) happens, convenience trumped my moral platitudes in this case. I decided a few weeks into my stay on Aur that I would just let fly out the window, so to speak, should a middle-of-the-night situation arise.

This system worked out just fine for me from August to February, with a few notable exceptions. These usually involved me grossly misjudging the time of night (having gone to bed at 8:45 for lack of light or social options) and thinking it was a lot later than it really was. I would assume I was in the clear and proceed with my nightly micturating, only to have someone in my host family come around the side of the house and witness a thin stream emerging from the dark conspicuous frame of my window–it being, say, 10 pm and not 2 am as I had imagined. To their credit, they never once mentioned it to me. This I took as early evidence that we were going to get on just fine.

(PSA: this longwinded story is about to go from lighthearted to soul-crushingly bleak.)

As I said, my system worked well into February–a full six months of urinary freedom. But on the morning of February 16th, a Saturday, I woke up to the sound of men shouting and shoveling right outside my window. I was pissed off at the chaos for about three minutes before getting up to see what the commotion was. I didn’t pull back my window curtain; rather, I got dressed and went out the door and around the house. What I saw felt like a sucker punch to the gut, a complete reflex that occurred before I had even finished processing what I was looking at.

A group of the men had dug a shallow trench, maybe six feet long, in the earth directly under my bedroom window. Lying in the trench was a woman, and it was immediately clear that she was no longer alive. I went out of my head for about ten seconds, just not processing or hearing anything clearly. When this wave passed I sprinted over to my school’s principal, standing among the men, to ask what in God’s name had happened. He explained that she had been sleeping in one of the small tin outbuildings on the next door neighbors’ property, and an enormous breadfruit tree had collapsed and crushed it.

Breadfruit trees generally run pretty big, with sturdy and visible roots, but there had been a colossal windstorm the night before and it had come loose. Help had come to her too late, and she never woke up. She died in the little trench as the men attempted to minister to her with medicines both modern and traditional. I should selfishly mention that my cot rested against the 1/2″-thick piece of particle board which served as a wall of the house, meaning that their ministrations and her death had happened less than a foot away from where I was sleeping. I probably don’t need to explain how that made and still makes me feel.

The woman in question, Kathleen (pronounced Cat-a-lane by the Marshallese) was the mother of two of my students and the aunt of about nine others. The gut-punch I got was clearly nothing compared to the one received by the entire community, who had known her for her entire life. Everyone is family on an islands like that, in both a communal and biological sense, so when someone dies everyone loses a neighbor, a friend, a grandmother, a child. It is a strange, strange feeling to be a relative outsider in the midst of such deep-seated grief.

Coconut tree in the Marshall Islands.

Coconut tree in the Marshall Islands.

From the events that transpired following Kathleen’s passing, however, I learned two very important aspects of Marshallese culture. These simultaneously made me feel like part of their communal family (because they let me into something intensely personal and emotional), and like even more of an outsider (because I could not in the least relate to how they were handling things). Allow me to explain.

The first thing I learned is that the Marshallese, despite their passionate Christian beliefs (thanks to generations of missionary influence), are afraid of nothing except ghosts. They swim with and kill sharks, climb limbless 50-foot coconut trees, and sail vast expanses of ocean in canoes that look like they barely float, all without batting an eye.

But the possibility of a ghost–a timon (bastardized from demon)–puts them right over the edge. They cannot cope. This particularly applies to the children. After Kathleen passed away in my backyard, the kids of Aur basically foreswore the whole property for weeks. It became taboo. It took more than two months for any of my host siblings to even sleep in the house again, and only then with a solar flashlight running all night. I was regarded by my students as some mixture of crazy and heroic for continuing to sleep in my room and using that side of the house at all.

For my part, I mostly just felt terrible for Tammy and Darrel (Kathleen’s kids, my students) that their friends had turned their mother into the village bogey-woman. Despite all their charms, kids are occasionally just as capable of being shitty to each other as adults are.

The other thing I learned was the process by which the Marshallese grieve. Funerals are just about the only time you will ever see an outer-islander exhibit any kind of sadness. Marshallese adults simply do not cry, ever, with this one exception. It’s a cultural sticking point that I really can’t identify with in the least. The kids, like kids anywhere, cry all the time over hurts real and imagined, but by the time they reach age fifteen or so the ability to act on that impulse is almost entirely gone.

The Marshallese are also not an outwardly affectionate people in the physical sense, ever, so it was beyond bizarre for me to be at the house that day and see upwards of forty people milling around in the presence of a dead body without a single hug being issued or tear being shed. We often forget how thick the American lens through which we view the world is, and this was one of the times that my cultural bias was readily apparent. It was truly surreal. My clumsy attempts at comforting Tammy and Darrel made me feel even more out of place, like I had just stumbled into a meeting that I wasn’t supposed to know was taking place. They all just sat there, looking kind of dazed.

Like I said, there was zero crying before the funeral. What we would call “calling hours,” the Marshallese call the ilomeji. That word literally breaks down to “I see dead person/people.” Eat your heart out, Bruce Willis. The ilomej went on all afternoon the following day and a vigil was kept over the body all night, until the next morning’s funeral service and burial. Just before the coffin was lowered into the ground I saw my first adult Marshallese tears. It was chilling. To see such reserved women absolutely lose it, all at once, was hard to watch. It wasn’t so much weeping as it was screaming. Kathleen’s family pounded the lid of the coffin as they mourned, clinging to it until the last possible second.

Marshall Islands

Classroom in the Marshall Islands.

What sprang to mind as this was all happening, as I was handed a shovel to help with the burial, was a crystal-clear memory of twelfth-grade AP Latin. The year’s task had been translating Virgil’s Aeneid, and the entire class had struggled with the parsing of a passage describing the sacking and burning of Troy. Our teacher, the brilliant Dr. James Hunt, told us that in English the words we couldn’t grasp referred to something called ululating.

Dr. Hunt said that he could explain what it meant, but we probably wouldn’t truly understand because we had no cultural frame of reference for it. American women display grief in all manner of ways, but generally not with the ululations, rending of clothes, or pounding of the breasts in sorrow, as these Asiatic women had done in antiquity and the Marshallese women were still doing today. It is a gesture suited to the most unspeakable sadnesses possible. Speaking of Latin, Seneca had a saying for this: “Light griefs are loquacious, the great are dumb.”

It’s worth noting that the whole process, from death to burial, was over in about twenty-six hours. Being on island time (as they will proudly tell you), the Marshallese typically don’t put on a shirt without three days of hemming and hawing, delays, and schedule changes, so the fact that something as momentous and important as a funeral could be pulled off so quickly was a borderline miracle.

Perhaps this speaks to the hard life of the Marshallese throughout history, a catalogue full of short lives and unpleasant deaths in an impossibly unforgiving setting. I was and am humbled and grateful that they deigned to give me so much of themselves throughout the year. This particularly comes to mind when reflecting on how they were all so accommodating and thoughtful in the midst of their mourning–at a time when they had every reason to be resentful of the intruder on their grief, they still insisted on feeding me before themselves, giving me a seat of honor at the funeral, and allowing me to help shovel the earth that put Kathleen in her final resting place.

From that day forward I figured it was only right that I should never again piss in the presence of their honored dead.


About Jim McKeever

Writer, father, runner, advocate based in Central New York.
This entry was posted in American History, cemeteries, family, Irish Investigations and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Marshall Islands Chronicles: A Death in the Family

  1. Wow. The apple does not fall far from the tree in terms of humanity and writing. This is amazing, Jim. Thanks for sharing it with us.


  2. markbialczak says:

    Thanks, Pops, for sharing Chuck’s insight and worldly experience.


  3. Thank you for sharing your son’s story and part of his journey. Wonderfully told, and wonderfully taught.


    • Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you very much, Colleen … Chuck’s year in the Marshalls was quite a journey indeed, and it has shaped him in many ways. (And yes, I’m very proud of him and my two other sons!)


  4. Jim …
    Your son, Chuck, tells a beautiful, compelling story. The story he painted was so vivid. It gave me a view of a life and culture I’ve never experienced. Thank you for opening up my world.


    • Jim McKeever says:

      Thanks, Judy! It was a life-changing experience for him (not that he needed to change that much!). I know I wouldn’t have been able to do what he did, no matter how young/old. I’m hoping to pay a visit to the Marshall Islands one of these days …

      Liked by 1 person

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