The wake goes on despite the rain

29 Sanuali Pulelulu

Funeral wakes take precedence over everything else here in Tonga and today was no different. The respect given to the grieving is so moving. We could learn a lot from the way they come together as a community to show they care. Today’s sad occasion was to support a student whose father passed away suddenly on the weekend. The rain came teeming down but the ceremony just went on regardless (just with lots of umbrellas).

The rain did not deter our community obligation to support our student.
The rain did not deter our community obligation and desire to support our student.
The church adorned with purple fabric signifying death

We headed out early in our little convoy laden with floral tributes to lay at the coffin which was set up in the church. A band and choir playing and singing hymns wafted out of the colourful church doors and louvres as we pulled up outside and navigated the puddle into the marquee erected just outside the side door.

The band and choir created a sombre moving atmosphere
Kotoni embraces Viola with our floral tributes in the foreground
Inside the church the coffin layer surrounded by beautiful floral tributes, tapas and mats

When someone in a family dies close relatives wear really big ta’ovalas. When you see someone wearing a big ta’ovala you know they were the father, mother, daughter, son or brother, sister of the person who has died.


The outdoor kitchen serving hundreds in the pouring rain. The wake is held before the actual funeral.

“If my father’s sister died my brothers and sisters and I will wear a big ta’ovala that goes down to our feet and over our head. If my aunties are alive they will cut the hair of my sisters. This shows they are lower than the dead person.” (From Tonga in My Heart an interesting little book by Shadrach – left here by Gold Coast Sally and written in 2005. It is a series of random thoughts and stories from a still active local marketi stall holder. His stories were carefully recorded and published by an American Peace Corp volunteer.)

Typical funeral feasting plate
Everyone is encouraged to take home what they don’t consume at the wake

After the thank yous from the appropriate family representative and some contemplation time both outside and inside the church, Viola (our student) escorted us up the road and around the bend to where another huge marquee was set up. We joined the rest of the well wishers and took seats beside an outdoor kitchen. We were served cordial and massive plates of food that we have come to expect at these functions. A healthy approach to eating has still a long way to go and funerals seem to always lean to the default diet of meat, meat and more meat.

Inside the’Ahopanilolo bus convoy heading to the church. Everyone is dressed in respectful black and appropriate ta’ovalas.
We assembled outside until it was our turn to enter the church
We assembled outside until it was our turn to enter the church

Encouraged to leave with leftovers in takeaway containers (another usual Tongan custom) we headed back to ‘Ahopanilolo where I ran my ‘giving effective presentations’ workshop finally kicked off around 10.30.

Tongans are terrific at speaking in public. Maybe because of church experiences? Anyway they never seem daunted by having to stand up and make a presentation at an event so I knew my task was not going to be too difficult. I just gave them some extra tips that could also be used in the classroom… like the importance of a dynamic and attention grabbing opening which they embraced and ‘got’ immediately. As we ran out of time I have given them homework to prepare a 2 minute talk for tomorrow to put some of the theory into practice. I am looking forward to seeing what they come up with as most are pretty creative thinkers. The afternoon was taken up with Cam, another Aussie volunteer who is making healthy eating TV programs and was keen to recruit some of our teachers. The timing could not have been more perfect after our earlier funeral feasting!

1 thought on “The wake goes on despite the rain

  1. It seems so sad that so many of your students have suffered the loss of a close family member since your arrival. These insightful images as well as descriptions of the funeral proceedings, will help all who read to understand so much more deeply the Tongan culture. Thanks again for all your efforts in sharing your experiences. XX TT


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