The heat of the day dipped one degree in Majuro as the sun set slowly, yet still burned hot and bright that evening of Tuesday 30th July 2019. Mourners had gathered quietly near the newly prepared concrete grave for 39-year-old Rayner Bill, who had tragically drowned several days earlier . . . his body found washed ashore.
I felt very honoured that Rayner’s grieving parents, Belita and Watak Bill, would give me, a stranger, permission to cover a Marshallese funeral and take photographs of the service as I learned about their culture and traditions.
The softly spoken Marshallese are an inclusive nation. When a person dies, a member of their family approaches one of the village’s landowners (an Alap). Permission to bury a deceased person on the Alap’s property is sought . . . and granted . . . usually where other people have been buried. No money exchanges hands. The Alap has the honour of addressing the mourners at the funeral and shares with them the good qualities and deeds of the deceased.
Many years ago, when heavy storms heaved huge waves onto the tiny land mass, waves would dig deep into the sand and lift the graves from their resting place and carry them out to sea. This was very distressing for the islanders, so the government decided to build sea walls to prevent that from happening.
The Marshall Islands are about 1200 kilometres north of the equator and throughout the year the temperature fluctuates a mere 2o - from 28o to 30o. Majuro is the capital and largest city of the Marshall Islands; the highest point on Majuro atoll is just over 3 meters (9 feet). The isle doesn’t have good soil; it’s mostly beach sand and in some areas, there are thousands of white stones.
Hundreds of white pebbles (representing pureness) are gathered prior to a funeral service and placed into handwoven baskets made from the fronds of coconut trees. The pebbles are available for mourners, as part of the service, to scatter around the newly made concrete grave.
This symbolic act is an outward expression to everyone attending the funeral, that any ill feelings that may have existed between the deceased and the person scattering the pebbles, no longer exist. All is forgiven – hearts are at peace – and their relationship is fully repaired.
Several people came up to me to explain the importance of the white pebbles. Clearly it is an important part of the ceremony. I was profoundly touched by the symbolism of the white pebbles and the deep reverence of those who scattered them.
Later that night I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could offer symbolic white pebbles to every person I had offended, intentionally or not. And–wouldn’t it be beautiful if I would accept a white pebble from everyone who had offended me. What a peaceful world I would live in.
This whole experience was a wonderful reminder to me to live my life as Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ intend me to – loving my neighbour as myself.