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Tongan Funerals

I thought I would write a little about the cultural experience of going to a Tongan funeral.  Wednesday was a half day for all of the Government Primary Schools (GPS) on Ha’apai.  The reason being was because the sister of a woman who works at the Ministry of Education died.  It was a half day so that all of the teachers could attend the funeral (in Tongan, it is called a putu.)  That decision really indicated to me the high level of importance for community obligations.  It wasn’t that someone at the Ministry of Educ. died, but rather that the sister of an employee died.  I went to the funeral with all of the GPS teachers.  For a putu, it is customary for Tongans to wear all black, with very large mats wrapped around their bodies.  Traditional gifts are tapa cloth, mats woven from coconut fronds, and blankets.  There must have been hundreds of people at the funeral.  A tent was set up across the street, where people ate, drank tea, and waited in shifts to go inside the house to pay their respects to the family.  Going inside of the house was quite overwhelming.  As in Tongan tradition, the body of the deceased was laying on a bed in the room.  It is customary to acknowledge the deceased by kissing the body, but I just could not do it.  The family surrounded the body, all crying and wailing hysterically.  We all sat on the floor, while listening to songs and prayer.  It was very intimate and emotional, even though I had never met the woman who died.  After sitting on my legs for over an hour, I realized that my leg was totally numb and had completely fallen asleep.  When it was time to go, I tried to put weight on it and literally fell down in the middle of the room!  The Tongan women all helped me up and massaged my leg until it was better.

The next day one of our neighbors died.  Almost immediately, the family started building the umu (an underground oven to cook all the food) and began setting up the tents.  They worked through the night, and the singing started before the sun rose.  Today, we went to the second putu this week.  Scot and I didn’t go with any Tongans though, and were quite confused over the proper protocol.  We ate under the tent’s awning (fried chicken, horse meat, and tea), sat with the people as they sang, and paid our respects to the family.

1 Comment»

  Alan wrote @


I just started reading your blog and have enjoyed it a lot.

I teach at Georgetown Uni. in Washington. We’re going to be looking at Tonga soon, and it is not a place I know a lot about. I’d be interested in reading your views on politics in Tonga. Is it a peaceful place? What are the main issues? Anything you wanted to provide that I could share with my students would be welcome.


Alan Tidwell

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