We knew that joining the Peace Corps and moving some 4000 miles across the Pacific from home was isolating us from important events back home. After our cross-culture day (see previous post) concluded early Saturday afternoon we hitched a ride into Pangai to try to catch up on our internet correspondence, our only real link to news from home. There I learned my good friend Jack Dugan had died. While I knew this news would be coming it was difficult to process given the separation of both distance and circumstance. Jack went from being the picture of good health to a cancer death sentence over a matter of just a few months, and the irony was that this happened as he was finally preparing to retire from a successful college teaching career to move full-time to his other passion of building and flying airplanes.
So it was prophetic, I suppose, that an elderly woman in the village died Sunday morning, and we had our first opportunity to experience a Tongan funeral. It was amazing to watch how over the course of the day, a day on which nothing is supposed to happen in Tonga, all the elements of a proper Tongan funeral were assembled and constructed. By mid-afternoon a huge cooking fire and food preparation area was assembled in a vacant lot across the street from the family’s home, with stacks of firewood and lots of root crops. In the vacant lot next door to their house portable awnings were put up, tables and chairs arrived, and another food preparation area was created. Relatives and friends began arriving, and everyone was busy doing something, it all seemed somehow to be guided by an unseen hand. By evening hundreds of loaves of bread, dozens of cut-up chickens, and various other foods had arrived and were being prepared for cooking as the cooking fires were ignited. Meanwhile at the family’s home the body was prepared for viewing; she was dressed in her finest clothes and placed on a tall stack of tapa mats in a room that was decorated floor to ceiling with more mats and curtains.
Sometime after dark the family was ready for the ‘apo, the wake, to begin. We waited outside the home in the dark for it all to begin. The first groups to be admitted were from their church, the Church of Tonga; they left after a half hour or so and a large group from “our” church (the Wesleyan Methodist) was admitted next. Congregation members brought with them more mats, blankets, quilts, etc. from their homes to present to the bereaved family. As we entered the room with the deceased at the center we sat down and our faifekau (minister, also our host family father) led a prayer service that included several hymns that lasted a good half hour. At the conclusion a spokesman from the family thanked us for our prayers. As we left various people knelt by the body and did a fe’iloaki, the Tongan greeting kiss, done right cheek to right cheek. As we left we were led to the rows of tables where we were invited to partake in a light meal.
The procession of “mourners” through the home continued for some time; many people kept vigil, children were allowed to stay up, the cooking continued, and there was singing through the night. We went home to bed. In the morning we noticed at least a half dozen large pigs had arrived for roasting at the cooking fires. The deceased was buried at the adjacent cemetery sometime around mid-day, but because we were in class we were not able to witness this part of the funeral. Funeral activities have continued through the week, although most normal activities have resumed. Our host father has been doing faikava with the village elders the last three days as part of the funeral vigil process.
Since Sunday (I write on Wednesday) the family has been dressed in black and wearing very large ta’ovala (the woven mats Tongans wear around their waist). Everyone else in the community wore black as well (including all of us Pisikoa) until the body was buried. Much of the community and all of the family was still wearing black today and will continue to do so for a week or so.
The funeral process is a good example of how Christian practices and Tongan traditions and culture create something entirely unique to Tonga. Tonga must be the most overtly Christian nation on earth, yet so many of their practices bear little resemblance to how similar practices are carried out in the Western world. All the ceremony and process surrounding the Tongan death is so foreign to this Westerner. Yet Tongans value family and community above all else, and so death must be honored.
Once he knew that there was no treatment to cure him my friend Jack faced his fate with grace, and I am glad I had the opportunity to spend some time with him and say good bye before we left for Tonga. He will be remembered at a “celebration of his life” on Saturday. His friends and few remaining family members will gather to share their grief and remember him and to be together in his spirit. I will miss being there.