garamut, phone, death, dead, papua new guinea, sepik, iatmul, fieldwork, moesgaard museum, ethnography, collections

Talking to the dead: The ’Bridge Phone’

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Oceania

Imagine being able to talk to your dead loved ones. No, this is not a rhetorical question; try to imagine actually being able to answer your mobile phone and talking to your dead husband, mother, wife, or child at the other end of the line.

Among the West Iatmul, living in Sepik in Papua New Guinea, this is not just the wishful thinking of the grieving: it is reality. When anthropologist and PhD student Christiane Falck went to live with the West Iatmul, she met several people, who kept special phones for the dead, so called ‘Bridge Phones’. These must not be confused with ‘Ground Phones’, which you use to speak with the living. Christiane explains it thus:

The Alcatel model (EA912-0025) is called bridge phone with which [a] widow can talk to her dead husband. The woman was instructed by the spirit ‘Thomas’ to buy a new phone to get into contact with her dead husband and to use the Bridge- or Heaven Phone solely for this purpose. If she would use the phone to call living people, on the ground, the contact would be cut off – for ground people are sinful people. Therefore the woman kept a separate phone, a ground phone (Nokia model), to talk to the living”.

There are so many different ideas around the world, as to where you go when you die. Among the West Iatmul, you do not go to Heaven, into oblivion, or get reborn into a new infant within the same group. Instead, you go to the ‘West’ and become a white person. So somehow, ideas about the West, white people, and technology has become an integral part of the conceptions of the realm of the dead. A realm which is then very much a part of the world of the living; it is merely separated by a few thousand kilometres and a couple of plane rides.

Consequently, Christiane, when she arrived in Sepik, a fair-skinned German woman, was considered to be a dead woman returned, and continually asked to hand over the phone numbers of the dead. Apparently people became somewhat annoyed, when she was unable to put them into contact with their dead relatives.

Who are we to say what is true? In many ways, being the new incarnation of a dead person from Sepik seems just as plausible to me as the possibility that I will be reborn as an animal or another human, depending on how I have lived my life… or that I will go to Heaven (or Hell?)… or that I will descend into Helheim and sit at Hel’s table and eat off the plate called ‘Hunger’ with the knife called ‘Famine’ as was told in the old Norse sagas.

But having the possibility to still call my family after I am dead and gone, does not seem like too shabby an afterlife to me.

//Sophie Seebach

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