…for such a time as this

Stories about the adventure that is Peace Corps Tonga

Alive and Kicking

This week, I attended a Tongan funeral, called a putu. One of the teachers at my school’s father died last Thursday. I had been asking all weekend when the funeral would be. Since I still don’t understand the timing of Tongan events, I was nervous that I would miss it. No need to be nervous. Just like many other days, I got to school and the schedule was changed. My deputy principal informed us that we would have periods 1, 2 and 3 then go to the funeral (the whole school), come back and have the rest of our school day. I knew that this thing would take longer than our recess time allowed.

First of all, I don’t have the appropriate attire for a putu. You are to wear all black (I wore a long black skirt and black shirt) and a ta’ovala. A ta’ovala is a large mat that is wrapped around your waist with a rope. I do not have one of these since they are typically worn to funerals and I have not been to too many. I asked my fellow teachers if I had to wear this and some said yes and some said no. I asked if anyone had an extra, they didn’t. So, I walked across the street to John’s house. He helped me find a teacher at his school who had one. She brought it over and dressed me in it! So, after 2nd period, I was told there would be singing practice (for the funeral) and that we wouldn’t have 3rd period. Fine.

The preparations at school had been going on all morning. Some woman teachers took over the teacher’s lounge and prepared flower arrangements that would accompany all of the gifts that the students brought. The student’s brought in long pieces of fabric, tapa cloth (cloth made out of the bark of a tree-very special item), a large decorated basket (pictured) with sundry items inside to give to the family.

When it was time to leave, the students all lined up and we placed the gifts in the truck to be driven over. When we arrived, we walked to the front of the house where there were two large tents set up. We took our shoes off and sat down. As we were sitting down, a chorus was singing. I was told that during a funeral, there is a chorus singing for 24 hours straight. When we sat down, the chorus took a break. We began our service. There were a few prayers, one of the priests gave a short devotional and we sang some more songs. (I am actually starting to learn some of the Tongan hymns). When it was over (about an hour later), we got up and went into the home. The deceased was laying on a raised platform, covered in what looked like my mom’s white laced table cloths. I watched as the teacher’s in front of me each kneeled by the body and kissed his forehead. I followed suit. He was cold. I was later told that he was stored in a large freezer until the funeral began.

We left the home and sat down at some long tables. My whole school was there, probably about 140 people. We were served beef, chicken, horse and root crops. (These animals are raised in the bush and kept for just such an occasion) Since I am a teacher, my meal came on a plate; the student’s meal came in a plastic bag. I took the opportunity to walk around the yard. There must have been 50 people working. Preparing the meat, making keke (donut like pastries), washing dishes and serving and clearing tables. It was like a well oiled machine. One of my students had not been at school that day; she took me around and explained all that was going on. She told me that almost 1000 people would eat there that day and that the family had to pay for everything.
We went back to school and “had” our last two periods of the day. (Well I did, I don’t think other teacher’s did because many students were wandering the halls and distracting my class). Then, at 4pm, the burial happened. I went back to the home and watched as 11 Church of Tonga “pastors” gave the eulogy and message. People were spread out on the ground, sitting. Then, the time came to put the body in the ground in a concrete “box.” The body was put in, the top affixed and sand shoveled in. I met the wife of the man who passed and thanked her for the funeral.
Most people on my small island attended this funeral. We took almost half the school day off to attend. These happen twice a month or so. I asked if the same thing happens in Tongatapu (the main island, much more business centered), Sister Sina said yes, and that people leave work and school and go.

I hear from Tongans that they fear that they are losing their culture in the process to become more developed. To me, it seems like their culture is alive and kicking.


1 Comment»

  Gypsy wrote @

This was so fascinating–as always 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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