Rudi Alfons Jean Feyens resigned from the Belgian Navy in 1991 to travel the Pacific and experience the island lifestyle – and he fell in love with Cook Islands.
Cook Islands is also where his heart stopped. And this is where he is buried, unknown, forgotten, an unmarked grave beside the Panama Catholic cemetery in Rarotonga.
This summer, his sister Ingrid Feyens arrives in Rarotonga to visit his last resting place. And ahead of this, she put out an SOS to Cook Islanders for helping finding out how and where her brother had died, and where he now lies.
Ingrid remembers her brother as an optimistic and adventurer’s person.
Rudi was a Sergeant, a sonar and radio technician in the Belgian Navy from 1982 to 1991, and he loved diving and photography.
Ingrid Feyens said before arriving to the Cook Islands, Rudi stopped over in Australia and New Zealand. But to get the real experience of the Pacific, he visited Fiji and then the Cook Islands.
He later returned to Belgium, home in time for the death of their mother. But he couldn’t stay away, and in September 1992 he returned for the Cook Islands.
He died here at the age of 28, on January 27, 1993.
Little is known about the circumstances. The death certificate reveals he suffered a heart attack while snorkelling in the Titikaveka lagoon. Without family – but with newfound friends at the side of the grave – he was buried on February 11, 1993.
Ingrid Feyens says Rudi had no wife or children, and he was the oldest brother of three siblings.
“I could always go to him for a conversation about minor or major problems. We had a good relationship which made him my witness at my marriage – he was my best man.”
She had asked him to be her daughter's godfather, but says he did not do this because he knew that his heart was in the Cook Islands and he would not stay in Belgium.
“At that time there was no social media,” she recalls.
“Telephoning to the Cook Islands was still very expensive at that time. I sent him several letters and he wrote me some postcards saying enjoy life ... we did not have a good childhood but he looked at life positively.”
Rudi was born in 1964, his mother a nurse and his dad, a soldier.
Ingrid Feyens – who is now a nurse – says their father was still alive when Rudi died and arranged everything for his funeral.
Rudi was already embalmed to transfer to Belgium but both she and her brother Johan did not want to take him back to Belgium.
“His dream was to be in the Cook Islands. My father has never clearly communicated about this with me or my brother, as a result of which we actually knew little. Only that he was buried in a public cemetery,” she says.
It was on January 8 this year that the first email from Feyens was sent to the Belgian embassy in Canberra, asking for information on his whereabouts. The embassy contacted Infrastructure Cook Islands but, after several emails, they still did not know where Rudi was buried.
The embassy advised her to consult the Facebook page of the Nikao cemetery restoration project and so she messaged Cate Walker, Paula Paniani and William Tuivaga.
“They were fully committed and there were so many reactions in a short time that they found his burial place in a few days.”
Feyens acknowledges the team who leapt into action.“It was a very emotional to experience that they were so committed. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Meanwhile, Walker who spearheaded the Nikao Cemetery restoration project hopes that Rudi’s resting place can be built in time for the arrival of Ingrid and her husband Francis in Rarotonga in February.
Walker says when their team got together in 2016 to start cleaning up and clearing the Nikao cemetery, it quickly became obvious there was a big problem with identifying unmarked graves in the Cook Islands. There is no official grid pattern or plot number, just the name of the village and sometimes the cemetery, such as Nikao Cemetery or Titikaveka or – in Rudi’s case – Panama Catholic Cemetery.
“We would have had a huge problem with identifying the 65 graves of the 1977/78 Milan Brych cancer patients if it was not for the foresight of the late Mr Gordon Sawtell who drew a map which showed who was buried where in the cancer patients and tourists’ section of the Nikao cemetery.
“I have lost count of the many people from all over the world (the USA, Italy, Albania, Romania, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand to name a few countries) who have contacted our team via social media looking for the grave of their loved one,” she says.
The work gives them an enormous amount of satisfaction to locate the grave, and in some cases, rebuild the grave and place a memorial.
Another example is the grave of Cook Islands WW1 returned servicemen Private Namiro Mauore who is buried in the Nikao cemetery.
Walker said it was on March 4, 2017 Paula Paniani from National Archives Cook Islands, found the grave of Cook Islands and fortunately, whoever poured the concrete for his grave had the good sense to carve the name into the concrete.
“We then put out a call on our Nikao Cemetery Facebook page and the family contacted us. They are absolutely thrilled that his resting place was located and the descendants of Pte Namiro Mauore have now confirmed that his military headstone will be unveiled in the Nikao Cemetery on Anzac Day 2020 with family members flying in from New Zealand, Australia, Tahiti and Hawaii,” she said.
Walker says the Nikao cemetery has now become a tourist attraction and continues to bring people together from all over the world.
In 2016, she decided to add as many of the Nikao cemetery burials onto the Find-A-Grave website, because unlike many countries in the world, there are no online cemetery burial records.
And since then a number of foreign families have contacted her in the hope they can find out where their loved ones are buried.
She said many relatives do these searches on significant days (such as Mothers or Father’s Day or their relatives’ birthday and an example is Mrs Barbara Wilbur’s daughter Carla who searched for information on her mother on Mother’s Day this year and found Barbara’s online listing on “Find-A-Grave”.
“She quickly organised a memorial for her mother to be manufactured in New Zealand to be shipped to Rarotonga and booked her trip to Rarotonga to coincide with our visit last month.”
Walker says it is impossible for foreign families to organise grave rebuilds and the placement of memorials and headstones without the help of volunteers such as Paula and Bobby-Ryan Hansen.
“I know how helpless I felt when I stood in the Nikao cemetery where my mother Gloria Walker is buried in December 2014 and saw the mess in front of my eyes.”
“It wasn’t until June 2016 after we cleared the jungle beside the cancer patients’ section and uncovered the largest group of Cook Islands WW1 returned servicemen buried throughout the Cook Islands that our team’s personal mission expanded.”
She said they then became quite intrigued by the Cook Islands WW1 story and wondered where they were all buried and started to locate and document them all.
“It was during this time that we noticed that a number of these soldiers had passed away before August 31st 1921 (the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cut-off date) from what appeared to be illnesses (mainly tuberculosis) which they had either contracted or was aggravated by their war service and ultimately led to their deaths.
In October 2017 we submitted a Commonwealth War Graves Commission submission. This took thousands of collective hours of research by myself, Paula Paniani, Bobby Nicholas and Howard Weddell (author of the book “Soldiers from the Pacific”).
She said it gives their team an enormous amount of personal satisfaction to help anyone looking for the burial site of a loved one in the Cook Islands.
“There are MANY Cook Islanders (especially the younger generation) who are interested in their family history and genealogy who we have helped. They are all so grateful.”
She said Paniani has now restored headstones (both military and private) throughout the Cook Islands.
Earlier this year, Raina Boaza, a Cook Islander living in Australia wanted to pay their team to restore some family headstones in Titikaveka, however Walker said they had said that they do this work on a voluntary basis as a community service and they are happy to help.
She added that this week she received a message from Raina offering a generous donation toward building Rudi’s gravesite.
Walker expressed her gratitude to the Police Commissioner and members of the Cook Islands Police Service who continue to maintain the grounds of the Nikao cemetery on a voluntary basis once per month and the former New Zealand High Commissioner to the Cook Islands Peter Marshall as well as the late High Commissioner Tessa Temata.
“We love this voluntary project and we won’t be giving up any time soon,” Walker says.
“For me personally, I have seen our project bring together people located all over the world.”