PP: There’s the Leper Tree in Malawi, we used to go there when I was younger. Well we went to the park it was in– I have to look it up, what it was called–
TK: Liwonde? I just googled it.
PP: That sounds right. It was this big tree with human skulls, skeletons in a kind of pit at the base of the roots, and we would have to look at them. If I remember right it was because one of the tribes that was living in the area had an outbreak of leprosy and they would put them in the tree, tie them up and make them stay there until they died.
TK: When was this?
PP: Honestly I think it was pretty recent, definitely in the last century. Maybe the 1930s? The worst part was they had a justification for doing it, they didn’t have the medicine or healthcare available to treat the disease and it was very contagious, so it was like this horrible quarantine where they said they were protecting the healthy people. It was for the sake of everyone else. But it was still a terrible thing to do.
THE INFORMANT: The informant is a woman who lives in America now, although she grew up in Africa and Ireland. While growing up in Africa with her family in the 1960s, because her father was a missionary doctor, they were often exposed to subpar living conditions, local legends and true stories like the one about the Leper Tree.
ANALYSIS: The Leper Tree is a very real place, not a legend, but has become part of the folklore of the country due to the gruesome nature of its existence. Visitors to the park who come for the wildlife and beautiful natural settings are often brought to the tree and asked to look down upon the skeletons of those who were trapped in it as recently as the 1950s. It is commemorated by a plaque on the trunk that says simply, “The Grave For People Who Suffered From Leprosy in the Past.” Burial and the proper disposal of bodies has always been a cultural hallmark– many cultures develop incredibly specific rituals around burial rites, which makes things like the Leper Tree stand out and be recalled even now for how barbaric and unrelated to traditional notions of respect for the dead it is.
This is a Chinese thing. After someone passes away, like Grandpa, Grandma, Mom, Dad, whoever, it’s like a very long two-week, three-week ordeal where there’s a ton of praying, there’s a funeral where you go to a funeral home and then you pray for hours. You have to do like a special thing where you like put your hands together and bow and nod your head, it’s very, just….culture. Culture.
Do you say things? Is it silent prayer?
Yeah you have to say like, I don’t know, my mom told me I forgot. Sorry. But okay so for the death thing, they’ll…I cant remember exactly but they take the body to like a temple where it gets burned…
Is this after the praying?
Yeah, there’s praying for like a week, not like a straight week, but like – get up, go pray, get up, go pray, get up, go pray. So yeah you pray for a week while everything’s being prepared, like all the ceremonies are being prepared. So then you go to the temple, and while the body’s actually burning in the furnace you keep praying, a ton of people are there, even the grandchildren. You keep praying while it’s burning, and then afterwards my mom told me that they took out the tray, or whatever he was on… There were still some bones left, because bones don’t burn unless they’re cracked, unless the heat from the fire cracks them open or something. So apparently my grandpa’s femur bone and like tibia or something was still left there, so the grandkids have to go and pick those up…and then I forgot what she said they did with them! Um, I’m pretty sure they burned them or somehow like, crushed them. So they eventually burn all of them. And then they put him in this little box, his ashes. And actually there might be some other traditional things in there, sorry I don’t know. So, I mean this is for my family, I’m sure if you’re richer I’m sure you get like a special temple somewhere like really nice, but he was actually a veteran, so he was buried in the veteran cemetery. And it’s way different than our cemeteries, it’s like green grass, it’s taken care of by caretakers every single day, it’s beautiful, it’s up in the hills kind of, it’s really nice. So the whole family was there, my cousin, uncle, aunt, grandma, and other family members, and one of my cousins put the box on his back, they strap it on so they actually carry it up the mountain, all the way up to where his gravesite is. And then you bury the box in the ground. Also I don’t think you wanna like, take pictures of this because it’s kinda like, you’re capturing the soul, and you don’t wanna do that cause then the soul wont be able to go up to heaven. Or like the Chinese heaven. So I mean they didn’t take pictures of the box directly, but they took pictures of like the hills and stuff. And then they just pray some more, like say their goodbyes at the grave.
This is a funeral ritual which involves a very lengthy and specific process for proper mourning, treatment and burial of the body and ashes, and symbolic acts. There is a specific time period of mourning, and even poses and physical actions in mourning; there are specific roles that different family member play in the ritual according to their ages; there are superstitions and beliefs regarding how the deceased’s spirit or soul gets to heaven, and how to do everything correctly so as not to interfere with that transition. The whole process seems to be both in support of the dead family member’s transition to the after life, as well as the family members remembering, honoring, and making sacred that person and their life.
“So what’s common in Jewish culture is that you’re not allowed to get tattoos, because should you get a tattoo, you’re defiling your body, and you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. My grandfather had this idea that all his children would be buried with him in a Jewish cemetery. And then my father got a tattoo and I got a tattoo, and my grandpa actually ended up getting a tattoo because he got heart surgery, and now he jokes about it and talks about how he can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery.”
My informant comes from a culturally Jewish household, but neither she nor her father practices the religion. The ban on tattoos can be found in Leviticus, but many modern-day Jews choose to ignore it, even though it means that they can’t be buried in consecrated ground. I was surprised that her grandfather, who she describes as religious, was willing to break the taboo in order to get a tattoo. It is an interesting dichotomy between what people see as an inarguable point of their faith and the way they actually behave.
(This belief comes from Leviticus: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28))
Informant: “We have this story in our frat, about the shark. So apparently, one of the classes back in the 70s had a full-grown shark in their house. Like they kept it in a tank or something, I don’t know. But it was huge. And when it died, they had to carry it down to the beach, down to here in Dockweiler, and they buried, a full-grown shark, right under those crossing palm trees over there. They had to do it at like, the middle of the night obviously, but can you imagine, just a bunch of guys somehow carrying a giant shark and burying it, and they buried it properly, like six feet deep and everything,”
Me: “Do you really believe that?”
Informant: “I don’t see why it can’t happen. Our frat was really crazy back in the day, you know. They did stuff like this all the time. Now our class just has to figure out how to have a shark.”
Me: “So this wasn’t some hazing activity, it was just what the frat guys did?”
Informant: “Yeah pretty much. And the actives in the house all told us about it, and this goes back for a while, but they always talk about it. It’s well-known history of our frat.”
Me: “Do the other houses know too?”
Informant: “No, I’d doubt that. It’s probably actually illegal, you know, what they did and all, so um, it’s just what we all know, in our frat. It’s our own history.”
My informant realized the implausibility of his story as he was telling it to me, but he wouldn’t admit that it was untrue. He was still firm in his belief that it actually happened. As a new pledge member to his fraternity at Loyola Marymount University, he proved to be very loyal to it, despite having just told me horrendous acts they had to do because of hazing. It sounds to me like a story the older members of the frat would tell the younger ones, in order to impress them, intimidate them, and ultimately initiate them into the house. Perhaps because the new members desperately want to believe they are joining an exciting and extraordinary organization, and that their hazing high-jinks will ultimately be worth it, the students willingly believe any such incredible story about their house. Additionally, maybe because I am not in the same situation as the members, I don’t often go to the beach where the shark is buried and I don’t personally know the actives who claim this is true, I don’t have the same contextual belief in the legend.
I was quite taken aback by how long this legend has survived. It’s obviously important they keep it a secret if it really did happen, and yet, through almost forty years of passing it on, it’s been contained to only this specific fraternity. They take pride in the fact that their brothers owned an adult shark of some kind and actually buried it on the beach. Incidentally, Dockweiler happens to host many of the frat’s meetings and activities, so the members have the opportunity to acknowledge the shark nearly every week, thus keeping the story in their memories. I wonder if there will come a time when the members try once again to house and potentially bury a full-grown shark, thus making a tradition of this legend.
Family legend of the piano box burial as told verbatim by informant (C. stands for a name to be kept confidential):
“My Great Grandpa C., who before people were really morbidly obese, Grandpa C. was morbidly obese. It’s like nowadays you see people that are three and four-hundred pounds all the time. But supposedly Grandpa C. was about 300 pounds, 350 pounds. (wife interjects and he answers) Yeah he was only about 5 foot tall. And uh he also, I’m pretty sure, also had congestive heart failure which means his body retained water. So not only was he obese but he retained a lot of water and you know at the end of his life he really could only sit in a chair and he could hardly walk and his legs would get massively swollen because of his bad heart. And uh the legend is that you know when he finally died, of course, he died sitting in a chair cause he couldn’t walk and he couldn’t lie down because he would get too short of breath when he would try to lie flat, um and so they had to lift him up, you know a bunch of guys lifted him up and he was way too big for any kind of casket so they had to bury him in a piano box.
My father told me that story. Usually when he took us out to dinner, to an Italian Restaurant of course. (chuckles) It’s it’s a family legend, you know. ‘We’re gonna eat a lot of food tonight but you know don’t make it a habit to eat or you’re gonna end up like Grandpa C.’ (laughs)”
Despite the fact that this family legend has an element of humor, the warning is very real. Since the informant’s family is Italian, a culture known for its obsession with food, by telling the story of the family member so sick and so fat that he had to be buried in a box meant for a piano, the pleasure of eating becomes an affliction—something to be wary of. Of course, that the informants father told this to his 8 children before dinner-out is a clever way of controlling their intake, and thus the bill. However, coming from the informant, who is a surgeon, the story took on a slow, somber note as his understanding of the poor health his great grandfather was in likely made it much more vivid. So, his telling had a naturally health-conscious air to it.