‘Sit, Cook, Eat, Full Stop:’ Religion and Rejection of Ritual in Auhelawa (Papua New Guinea)
The Auhelawa people of Normanby Island (Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea) typically observe the death of an individual through a series of feasts in which the lineage of the deceased and its lateral relatives exchange food and perform rituals of mourning. Recently, a number of people have decided to reject all forms of “custom” in favor of a practice of “Christian custom” in which no food is exchanged and no rituals are performed. This paper examines the way people view custom and its Christian alternative. It argues that the basis for Christian forms of mortuary feasting is a shift away from thinking of feasts in terms of reciprocity and towards thinking of them in terms of traditional customary rules. In this context, active church members have begun to represent the absence of markers of custom as itself a marker of an alternative Christian custom. I argue that this reformulation of the relationship of custom and change is meant to give concrete form to the value of Christian individualism as the basis for sociality. The paper then concludes that in order to explain historical changes in ritual systems, the study of ritual needs to examine ritual in relation to the values that underlie it.