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The Kanak are indigenous people from New Caledonia in the South Pacific. The word Kanak comes from the Hawaiian language “kanaka” meaning man, human being, or free man.

The Kanak customs come from ancient rites. They consider that there is a life after death, death is just a change of envelope, and the soul goes towards other horizons. The dead continue to play an essential role among the living.

Many of their oral texts, ceremonies discourses, or mythical narratives, place the land of the dead simultaneously in two places: in a hole of water and on the top of a mountain. That suggests a distant country, invisible and inaccessible.

Kanak men and women

The land of the Kanak’s dead is invisible but omnipresent, simultaneously distant and close, unknown and familiar. That other world is imperceptible but exists. The entrance into the land of the dead corresponds to a well-defined ritual of passage.

The oral tradition is an essential element for a successful funeral ceremony.
For the oral tradition ceremonies, the speaker uses the ascent patterns to reach the ancestors’ spirit, so they spread their blessings and favors to people. The speaker addresses both the world of the dead and the world of the living.

According to the Kanak conceptions, the manifestation of immanence, as an invisible force, appears through the communication between the spirits and the human beings.

The seniority of speeches, stories, and songs gives them all the power. The citations, the names of clans, places, ancestors, and the names of yams or other symbolic plants are strictly regulated and governed by strong taboos.

The speaker prepares himself several days in advance by respecting several food and sexual prohibitions. He chews some leaves to «untie his tongue» and to make his discourse «fluid»

The funeral is composed of several stages:
– the burial
– the benefit for the maternal family of the deceased
– the ceremony called “grill the yams” which represents the end of mourning

The traditional burial of the deceased varies across regions: the body is crouched down and tied up with two handles in a mat, the body is exposed on the ground, or transported on a pole by two carriers, the burial except for the head, the wearing of masks for a notable, the rite of capturing the spirit of death in a stone, the rite of the maternal clans raid.

Kanak ceremony

The paternal parents appoint the mourners. They remain in a sort of forbidden state during the whole period of mourning: they let grow their beard and hair (hidden under a turban), remain chaste, and respect some food taboos. They have to perform different rites, including capturing the deceased’s spirit. After death, as the soul escapes from the body, to maintain its new power within the clan, it has to be captured.

The spirit manifests itself when the corpse begins to feel in the breath of the wind. That represents the moment when the soul takes the form of a totem. The mourners grab and wrap it in a piece of bark and dip the package in the water. Later it becomes a stone, an abundance stone, or a war stone, depending on the status of the deceased.

The rite of capturing the spirit of death in a stone that incorporates all its power is necessary for the deceased departure towards the afterlife. It symbolizes a painful separation between the mind and the body and allows the dead and the living to detach themselves emotionally.
Long after, the mourners disperse the bones. The skull is cleaned and placed on an altar with the ancestors’ skulls.

In the Houaïlou region, the funeral lasts twenty days, split into four stages. The first two periods are examples of the elevation rite and rite of the status inversion.

During the first period, they select the mourners among the paternal lineage. The mourners have to watch over the dead body and capture his spirit. On the fifth day, they drop the body in the bush, in a taboo place marked by perches. Then they stay there until the complete decomposition of the body.

The first stage ends with their reintegration when they return to the village with the deceased’s skull. That represents a rite of status elevation because the mourners live somehow on the border between the two worlds and accompany the deceased’s soul on his path to the afterlife.
This period includes an accepted lowering, humbling, and pain.

The second period of mourning corresponds to a rite of status inversion. When the deceased’s maternal parents arrive for the ceremony, they traditionally feel symbolic anger towards the group of paternal parents because they have not been able to keep their close relatives alive.

Kanak men

During the rite of the paternal parents’ attack, the resentment has to be manifested institutionally. It consists in a ritual game where the group of maternal parents, armed with maces and sticks, physically assaults the paternal parents and insults them with provocative terms. These must defend themselves but are not allowed to hit the attackers. They may choose to jump in the river.

Then, following a specific rite, the maternal parents destroy with an axe the hut of their deceased relative and take ownership of his assets.

The third period consists of a succession of various rites, sacrifices, and exchanges of gifts with the maternal family. The clans express their splendor through speeches by mentioning the names of each clan’s ancestors.

Their visions of the afterlife are always images of chaos. The souls are dragged in a perpetual circular dance in a universe where the world is reversed.
Their accommodation is inhospitable and inaccessible. The smell of their decomposed flesh signals them to the living. Their food is composed of non-edible materials such as stones, rotten plants, or ringed worms.

Finally, in the fourth period, the mourners install the dead body in the forest, plant a pole at the path’s entrance to forbid access to the corpse, and decorate that pole with flowers and bark cloth.

These Kanak masks are associated with the end of mourning. The headdress is made of the mourner’s hair that they had grown as a sign of mourning.

Kanak danse

Sources :

Wikipédia Kanak (

Dominique Bretteville, « L’os et le souffle » Protocole et valeurs ultimes chez les Paimboas

Julia Ogier-Guindo, Le pays invisible, Représentations de la mort dans les discours cérémoniels kanak (Nouvelle-Calédonie)

Julia Ogier-Guindo, Étude d’un genre cérémoniel de la tradition orale ajië, le vivaa (Nouvelle-Calédonie)

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Spiritualité Autochtone