Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Tongan All-Blacks: Funerals and Mourning

When I was packing to come to Tonga, I clung to the Peace Corps suggested packing list. Among other things that made me raise my eyebrows was “several black outfits.” In case the king died, the Peace Corps wanted to be sure that we could immediately mourn like Tongans in a culturally appropriate way – by wearing all black for a year. I scoffed, thinking about the slim chance that we step out of the airport and the king keels over. (Upon looking at pictures from earlier Peace Corp groups’ arrivals, it seems one group was told to wear all black off the airplane, since the king had died within the year prior. Maybe Peace Corps was right.) Still, I dutifully brought a black shirt, skirt, and sweater, just in case tragedy struck the Kingdom. (It didn’t.)

I’m now learning more about the Tongan traditions about death, since a community member passed away a few weeks ago.

After I returned from Nuku’alofa, a friend came over. I was surprised when I saw her; hair was cut short – just below the ears. This was very unusual, since most Tongan women let their hair grow long and always wear it in braids or a ponytail. She was also wearing all black and an enormous ta’ovala – the traditional Tongan mat worn around the waist for formal occasions.

I knew her adoptive father (her real grandfather) was sick. He had gone to the hospital, but there was nothing the doctors could do, so he returned to Ha’ano. After seeing Mele – what she was wearing and her hair, I knew her father had died.

Americans traditionally wear black to the funeral, but here in Tonga the length of time “in mourning” (and thus marked by all-black attire) is dictated by the importance of the person who died. Since this is Mele’s father (by adoption and thus she sees him as her father), she will wear black all year. She will also wear the large, presumably uncomfortable, mat. (Imagine wearing a mat that is as thick as the sports section and reaches from your calves to your armpits and is bound with a rope.) For parents, the women in the family pull their hair into a ponytail and cut it off. (Furthermore, Mele and her family aren’t able to work, besides cooking, for a month.)

I’ve never been to a Tongan funeral, but I’ve heard from many other PCVs who have. There are many parts that differ from American funerals, but one particularly stands out. It’s tradition that everyone kiss the deceased on the cheek. Tongan “kisses” are more like slight sniffs on the cheek, so many PCVs cringed as they were urged to go sniff a corpse. (Or, as another PCV put it, “It was the first time I kissed a girl in 5 months.”)

Death in Tonga isn’t approached the same way as in the US. Tongans, though saddened by the loss of a loved one, don’t treat it like in America. I tried to be sensitive to my friend about the death of her father, but she seemed relatively unphased by his passing. I’ve heard from other palangis that this might be for a couple of reasons:

1. Tongans believe God takes everyone when it’s his or her time. Though this is also often the mentality in America, in Tonga, there’s absolutely no questioning God. Overall, to me, Tongans are far more submissive to a higher power. Why be sad when this is what the Almighty says?

2. For someone with an illness, there’s a limit to medicine in Tonga. Sometimes, after a certain point, doctors and traditional Tongan medicine can’t help, so Tongans might preempt the expectation that a patient will recover by assuming the worst, and, when that happens, they aren’t surprised. Tongan hospitals aren’t equipped to deal with many serious illnesses, like cancers, and, as Tongans can’t afford treatment in New Zealand or Fiji, many are left to let the illness take over at home.

Though I hope everyone in my community remains healthy, over the next two years, I expect to attend at least one funeral. Or, since it’s often an honor to have a palangi at an important event, I may be invited to one at another community. Either way, I imagine I’ll learn more about the traditional funeral and grieving in Tonga.


  1. Blair,
    Do you know what do they do with the hair after they have cut it off?

    1. the locks of hair is weaved into a belt (kafa) to hold up the tongan mats (ta'ovala) that are worn around the waist

  2. They usually put their lock(s) of hair in the coffin with the diseased.
    I'm a New Zealand Maori and alot of Maori do that too... for some reason more so when the person has died of cancer and lost their hair through chemo. I couldn't see the point in that personally and left my long hair. I shaved it off to raise money for child cancer instead :)

  3. I dont think they put it in the coffin because they do it after the burial sometime after ten days from when the person dies and whoever cuts their hair is an important and higher person then the person that dies and they receive money for cutting your hair.

  4. Mary Cook had it right the hair is cut off an is often used to create the rope as you may call it around the mat that they wear. Traditionally this was how it was made and is out of respect to the deceased

  5. Mary Cook had it right the hair is cut off an is often used to create the rope as you may call it around the mat that they wear. Traditionally this was how it was made and is out of respect to the deceased