I Nearly Died at a Tongan Funeral

Light years ago (it seems) I attended my first Tongan funeral. My husband had secured a teaching position at an educational institution on the main island in the Kingdom of Tonga. As a mixed couple (Tongan/American) I was trying very hard to fit in to this new culture.

In Western culture, funerals are a solemn occasion where we try to control our emotions, and comfort the survivor with comments like, “he/she is in a better place,” “at least he/she didn’t suffer,” and “let me know if you need anything.”

My first putu (funeral) in the Tongan culture was poles apart from the run of the mill funerals I was used to. We were at a dance where my husband was chaperoning. It was announced that a good friend of his had passed away unexpectedly. The man was also a student at the school where we lived.

I was thrown deep into a traditional quandary. My husband informed me to change into black clothes. We walked to see the spouse and children of the deceased. The widow was unconsolable, which was understandable given the untimeliness of her husband’s death, as well as the number of children she was now solely responsible for. She was wailing, loudly, and pounding her head and breasts.

I was hoping someone would slip her something to calm her down a bit. No matter what people did or said, the wailing continued….all that night and into the wee hours of the morning, and still did not stop when the body was in the grave. There was no mortuary, no embalming fluid, nor casket for the body. After hours of the incessant lamenting, I thought she would wear down and rest for a moment, but there was no relief. Her small children clung to her skirts, all wailing as well.

Showing Respect to the Dead, TongaFamily and friends arrived in black, most wearing large frayed mats around their waists, some covering their backs and up over their heads. It appeared to me that some had picked up the floor mat from their home and wrapped it around them. The women dusted ashes from the outdoor kitchen in their hair which was let loose. It reminded me of the stories I had read in the bible of ancient times.


The crowd sat cross legged on the ground singing hymns. A big pot of topai (Tongan round cakes) boiled to feed the mourners. Many pigs, horses, dogs and chickens also lost their lives that night, since it is customary to feed all that come for several days. I admired how everyone worked together to take care of business, leaving the wife time to grieve however she wished.

Carrying the Body to the Grave, TongaThen the biggest challenge afforded itself. Before the burial, each person took their turn kissing the deceased. I was taken aback when I realized my turn was coming up. Could I really kiss a cold corpse, especially with everyone looking to see if this little palangi (foreigner) was up to the task? I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. I wanted to show them that I had it in me, so I bent down, partially closed my eyes and kissed the remains of my husband’s friend. When I stood up, I could feel the world spinning, and felt as if I was going to pass out. I could also feel my stomach churning, and hoped I could get away before I upchucked all that I had eaten that day. I had so much more to learn!


Ruth Elayne Kongaika was raised in the mainland, USA, but has been living in the South Pacific for the past forty years. She enjoys trying to capture the uniqueness and beauty of the islands through her photography, painting and writing. She has a blog which shares some of her art and favorite subjects at:


email: kongaikr@byuh.edu


Speak Your Mind


Plugin from the creators of iPhone :: More at Plulz Wordpress Plugins