Tuesday 9 April
Death, that one common factor in us all, is celebrated in a variety of ways depending on the country. The Kingdom of Tonga, an island steeped in family hierarchy, tradition and rituals, looks at death as a time of great mourning for their lost one. The grieving can last over a week and involves the wearing of black clothes and traditional ta’ovalas (mats).
We attended a funeral this month for the father of a work colleague. This highly emotional event required Kina as the son of the deceased to wear a huge ta’ovala. These magnificent mat garments indicate where your status sits within the family hierarchy and it is all so symbolic and everyone knows (except us) what these things mean.
Our day started with a walk to the college for a rendezvous with teachers and students. Tina had ta’ovalas for Kotoni and I. A few hundred dollars had been gathered in a week-long pass the hat around. Funerals are expensive for families as there are lots of obligations.
We piled into vans with amazing floral tributes and headed to the house where we sat on palm fronds waiting to be welcomed through the talking chiefs. After about an hour of sitting beside the house listening to wails, singing and sermons we filed into the lounge room where the body was laid out. Often visitors kiss the deceased but thankfully this was not the case for us.
Food is an enormous part of Tongan culture and a funeral is no different. Back outside we were corralled into an area seating about 60 people at a huge long table… and others sitting around. We were provided with a cordial drink and each visitor given a takeaway container of food: chicken, sausage, taro and fish. Sister Annuncia, Kotoni and I were given special status and provided with plates, large platters, bread and a fork. Visitors are encouraged to take food home with them.
Usually visitors bring certain gifts to the family… Mats are common. these are then redistributed in a complicated hierarchical system determined by the deceased’s eldest sister who also greeted us when we arrived, as is the custom.
We were dropped home for a couple of hours siesta before heading to the cemetery for another two-hour ceremony… More talking, singing and praying. Kina’s family had some kind of connection with the King so his church’s band played and choir sang at both the house and the cemetery. People just sat on and amongst the graves. Kina gave a eulogy which we unfortunately could not understand.
After the body was wrapped in more mats it was placed in the grave and then certain men in the family sealed the grave there and then with cement mixed on the site. A very tiring yet moving day.
Tuesday 9 April