A few weeks ago, a woman who lived in Tongatapu died. Since, somewhere along her family line, someone lived in Ha’ano, she was to be buried in Ha’ano. And so began the story of my first Tongan funeral.
Had the woman, Sela, died in Ha’ano, she would have been buried within 48 hours. Without constant refrigeration, there is no way to preserve the body, so in Ha’ano, they hurry up and get people in the ground. Yet Sela was from Tongatapu, the “mainland,” so the family froze the body, and waited until a good time for the funeral. The secondary school entrance exam was that week, and there wasn’t enough time for proper mourning, so they postponed the funeral until the desired date: October 13.
(A short detour on the refrigeration of the body: A fellow PCV led a lesson on good food preservation practices for her elementary school class. She asked the class, “What do we put in the refrigerator?” She got common answers like fish, butter, ice cream, and then one girl raised her hand. “Grandma,” she suggested.)
Sela’s family and friends escorted the body from Tongatapu to Ha’apai on the Pulupaki, one of the two inter-island ferries in Tonga. The Pulupaki can hold probably 150 passengers and cargo, and it makes its stops in the main town of each island groups.
Except for the morning of October 13. At about 8:30 am, I stood out on my porch looking at the sea. “My, the Pulupaki looks like it’s getting close. That’s weird,” I thought. Turns out, they were bringing Sela’s body and entourage straight to Ha’ano.
Four boats from Ha’ano headed out to meet the Pulupaki just past the reef. The door opened from the Pulupaki, and people jumped from the big boat to the small boat. Eventually they transferred the body too. (I couldn’t see the jumping, but this is standard Pulupaki disembarking practice in the Ha’afeva Group in Ha’apai.)
The boats brought back perhaps 75 mourners and quite a lot of their stuff. The dock was an anthill. Half the people seemed to be preparing the bed of the pickup truck to carry the body from the dock, and the other half of the people seemed to be undoing whatever the first half had done. Eventually the truck was decorated with woven mats, fake flowers, lace, and a large picture of the deceased.
Slowly, the mourners made their way from the dock to the home of the family of the deceased. For the next few hours, I was in school, but I could hear their singing from my house.
School ended at lunchtime for the funeral, and I prepared to go myself. I don’t own a ta’ovala, the woven mats worn for special occasions such as funeral, and there weren’t any spares at my neighbor’s house, so I just wore all black, and headed over to the funeral. There were people everywhere: on the porch at the family’s house, under a tent outside the house, under the mango tree, under the fekika tree, under the food tent, and scattered along the road. I sat with some youth girls, waiting to see what would happen next.
The group of people under the tent at the house was singing songs the whole time. Apparently, sometimes, the funeral lasts all night, and this group keeps a vigil for over 12 hours.
There was a group packed around tables under another tent. This was the eating tent. In a Tongan funeral, the hosts are expected to feed everyone who attends. At this funeral, there were perhaps 150 adults and another 50+ kids, and about 50 of those people were crammed under that eating tent. They looked ravenous, and when the family started bringing out the food, they gobbled it up as if they’ve never eaten before.
The first wave of people ate, then they vacated their seats and a new group swooped in. I was crushed between the town officer and a friend, and the hosts passed out plastic baggies with manioke (cassava), hot dogs, chicken, and a hard-boiled egg. Soon they came around with a sugary-water drink. And after about 10 minutes, we all left, and the seats filled again.
It was time to process to the church. The body was carried out from the house and reloaded into the back of the truck. A long woven mat stretched from the truck out the back, and mourners followed, carrying the mat.
The church was fuller than I’ve ever seen. The bench I was sitting on actually broke from the number of people, but it didn’t break so much that we couldn’t still sit there. There was the usual singing, standing, sitting, praying, weeping as regular church, but this time there was a body in front of us.
After the service, the truck and followers processed to the cemetery. The Tongan cemetery is a small clearing with body-sized lumps of rocks often decorated with fake flowers and blankets. There were tapa cloths and woven mats decorating today’s gravesite. After more crying, singing, and praying, the pallbearers prepared to lower the body into the ground. They took off all the mats and lace from the box, and at this unveiling of the casket, I heard one woman say, “Oh, look, they have a coffin!” A friend told me that often they just put the body in the ground. Then, the pallbearers lowered the body into a shallow hole, all the men picked up shovels or wood, and they covered the box.
The group left the cemetery, climbing over the brambles and rocks to get back to the road. Then they all turned back to the area where we had eaten, sat down, and waited. Pauline said we were waiting to see what they were going to give. Give? To whom? The church? Oh, well, just go with the flow, Pele, and sit there with the Tongans.
After waiting about an hour, men started dragging out large coconut fronds and arranging them in a large circle on the grassy area. Soon, three men carried out an enormous pig on one of these coconut fronds. (These fronds are pretty impressive; the men were holding up a 150+ lbs pig with just the plant!) They arranged it neatly in the center of the circle.
Then they brought out the kumete – the kava bowl. All the most important men in the community – ministers, the town and district officers, and the noble – arranged themselves in the circle. The tou’a and her two assistants sat down opposite the noble. The husband of the deceased called out the actions. First, he called out thanks to people who gave the pig, and those seated around the circle responded. He called the son of the deceased (who is his own son), and the youth came and touched the pig and kava root sitting at the center of the circle.
Then the son sat down in the middle of the circle, and two men joined him. The two new men proceeded to butcher the pig to pass it out to those at the kava circle. With the first swift slice of the pig, I heard several people in the audience say, “My, that’s a sharp machete!” The continued hacking it up, then the son distributed the pieces. First, the huge torso piece to the noble. Then, the head to the husband. Then smaller chunks for everyone else. After everyone in the circle had received their pig bit, there were some more thank yous, and a member of the families came to remove the pieces of pork before drinking kava.
Since this is far more formal kava than I usually go to (I’ve only seen this kava once before, but it was a mock ceremony; the Peace Corps put it on for us the first day we arrived in Tonga), most of this was new to me. The tou’a used pieces of what looks like raffia to “strain” the kava into a coconut-shell cup. Then, one of her assistants carried the cup to the noble who drank, and the assistant carried the cup back to the tou’a to be refilled and continued around the circle.
After the kava ceremony, the time came for what all the guests were waiting for. They clustered around the back of the truck that was carrying gifts for all the attendees: a bag of frozen chicken and $10 pa’anga. It was the first funeral I’ve been to with party favors.
I asked a couple of Tongan friends why the family passed out cash. Apparently it’s a new practice done by families that feel like they didn’t give enough during the funeral. Maybe this family thought they needed to give more to the guests since they didn’t kill a horse or cow.
Here was yet another example of Tongans keeping up with the Joneses to the point of debt: there were about 200 people at the ceremony. Each got $10 pa’anga and a bag of chicken worth about $4. For those guests, the non-ministers, the family spent about $2800 pa’anga just on the gifts. For the 20 ministers, they each got $20 pa’anga, so that’s another $400 pa’anga. And that’s not considering how much the family spent on the food, transportation from Tonga, casket, and so on. And next Misinale, the church donating event, the family of a deceased is expected to donate several thousand extra pa’anga.
The funeral finally finished after the bedlam of distributing gifts. It was about 6:00 pm. The funeral lasted about 8 hours, soon after the arrival of the body on the boat. Some funerals last all through the night, with singers singing at the house in shifts. For me, the 6 hours I spent in mourning were quite sufficient. I had things to do that day besides wait around for the next phase of mourning. These funerals seem to take up so much of everyone’s time. With all this work that goes into dying, how does anyone have time to live?