Monday, March 26, 2012

Funeral In the Family

This post is about the funeral of an elderly man who was part of my extended family.  I’m not discussing the emotions or loss but rather the burial process and the differences and similarities I noticed compared to what I’ve experienced in the United States.

Today is Tuesday, March 27, 2012.  This morning it is pouring down rain and we will be having the funeral for a member of my extended family.  He was elderly and died at home last week.

Since his death, I’ve watched the work that the family and village have done.  They dug the grave in front of the man’s fale, which is close to mine, and lined it with bricks and cement.  They have made a cover for the grave to put on top of the casket.  It has taken several men over five days to complete the work.  The downpours we’ve had the last week haven’t helped.

The women have also been preparing.  Food is a major part of Samoan life and that is especially true of any fa’alavelave, like a funeral.  There has been shopping and preparing places for cooking, storing and serving food.  Every person who attends the funeral or helps in some way will receive a Styrofoam container of food or several containers of food to take home.  That could be over a hundred meals served.   Many people will receive cases of tinned fish, corned beef and  partially roasted pigs.  Fine mats, artificial flowers and cash will be exchanged.  All of this as a sign of respect for the man who died and his family.

They are cooking in the house next to mine, in the “umukuka” or outdoor kitchen.  That’s where they prepare all the meals.  In this climate it makes sense not to cook where you live because of the heat.  Every night when I cook my dinner the room temp goes up significantly.  Soup, which is a common evening meal here, is lovely in the fall in New England, but increases the sweat quotient in the kitchen here.  The umukuka  is covered but has no walls and the fire pit isn’t large enough to accommodate all the cooking that needs to be done.  They’ve built multiple fires to handle the mass production of food.  They are also roasting pigs.  I’m not sure how many. 

Last night they put up a tarp over tables for food preparation and serving.  The fale where the family usually sleeps has also been transformed into a food prep area.  There’s a lot of cooking to be done and the extended family is working together with friends from the village to get it all finished.

Throughout the night I could hear the sounds of wood and coconuts being chopped for the fires.  There was talking and laughing as the women and older children worked together.   Luckily there were only light showers in the night, but now the skies have opened and we’re having a tropical downpour.
I’ve stayed on the sidelines during the preparation.  Although he lived next door, I’d never met the man who died.   I want to be respectful but don’t want to intrude or be in the way.  No one expected me to help all night with the cooking.  A palagi with limited Samoan would have been more in the way than helpful, I’m afraid.  Plus the distraction factor of the women being concerned about making sure I was comfortable.

I did buy artificial flowers and plan to give them to the family at the church service, which is scheduled to start in 30 minutes.  The church is just two houses down from mine.  After the service the body will be taken to the grave for another service.  Then the eating and giving of food and mats will happen at the house next door.

My family asked me to take care of the baby after the church service, since they will be so busy.  I let my boss know that I wouldn’t be coming to school today and he understood.  Because of the teachers’ meetings this week, most of the kids I teach have today off, so there won’t be too much impact of me missing school. 

 I’ve lost almost all my immediate family so I’m familiar with funerals in the US.   We also come together as families and communities and food is an important component but here they take it to another level.  It is hard and it is expensive and it binds the family and village even more closely.   As always in unfamiliar situations when i don’t know exactly what is expected I’m feeling awkward and uncomfortable.  I also feel very privileged to be allowed to be involved in a small way in this important event.

Post Script:  I wrote this early this morning.  As usual I was confused and misunderstood what was happening.  Yesterday I was told the funeral at the church would start at 9:00 a.m.  This morning I was told it would start at 8 a.m. so I ran to school at 7:30 a.m. to drop off the keys.  When I got back, grabbed the flowers and headed out in the rain toward the church, my host father asked where I was going, since the service didn’t start until 9:00. 

That’s when he asked me to take care of the baby.  I was surprised since there are so many family members around and babysitters aren’t fa’asamoa, but was thrilled to spend a few hours with a six month old.  Later I discovered that he was joking and I shouldn’t have called my boss since I was able to go to school before interval.

I walked through ankle deep water to the church, where the high mass began at 9:10 a.m.  I was told to just take the flowers up and place them next to the casket.  I had been advised by one teacher to take along four yards of lace but the other teachers said it wasn’t necessary so I didn’t.

After I placed my flowers, some other women placed flowers by the casket.  They were holding up yards of lace as they walked toward the casket.  They draped the lace over the casket, which was also covered with a white satin cloth with a red cross.  Before the service began, the catechist removed the lace and set it aside.  It didn’t go to the grave and I’m not sure what happened to it, but was told later that the purpose is to ask for forgiveness from the deceased.

After the church service, everyone moved to the grave, where the priest gave another short service.  In some ways it was very formal with the priest and catechists in robes and men and women in their best clothes.  In others it was very informal, as the youngest kids from the family wandered around and the young people who had helped prepare the food and the grave and didn’t go to the church service were there in their “working” clothes.

Within half an hour after the service, the grave had been sealed.  I didn’t participate in the eating or gift exchange but instead was busy teaching.

I admire the respect and effort put into creating a funeral that honored the life of a good man.

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