Gathering the Dead, Imagining the State? Examining the Practices of Commissions for Recovering Human Remains

Dr Lia Kent1

1Australian National University, , Australia

An increasing amount of scholarly attention is being paid to the significance of family-led practices of recovering, reburying and honouring those who died during the 24-year Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste dead (Bovensiepen 2018; Viegas and Feijo 2017; Grenfell 2012; McWilliam 2008; 2011). Less attention has been paid, however, to the practices of local ‘commissions’ for the recovery of human remains (Komisaun Rekoilamentu Restu Mortais). These self-described commissions have been established at various scales – municipality, posto (administrative post) and suku (village) – and tend to be led by individuals who were once prominent figures in the armed or clandestine resistance. A key aspect of their work is searching for, and exhuming, the remains of those had been involved in the resistance. Remains are then stored in ossuaries or temporary protective houses (uma mahon) to await burial in one of the state’s Garden of Heroes cemeteries. In this paper I draw on de Cesari’s (2010: 625) concept of ‘non-state governmentality’ to examine the commissions’ practices. I show that, to some extent, the commissions are reinforcing the official discourses and practices of ‘valorisation’ promoted by the state, in which those who died while resisting the Indonesian occupation are deemed to be ‘martyrs’ who belong to the state and should be buried in designated Garden of Heroes cemeteries. At the same time, the practices of the commissions speak to the existence of needs for the present and hopes for the future that point to radically different imaginations of statehood (cf Fontein 2006). Specifically, they underscore the imperative of responding to the demands of the powerful dead for the viability of families, communities and the nation-state.


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