In September of 2007 a truly tragic thing happened to the Samani & Lavulavu family.
My husbands aunt Talite had six boy's and one girl. In 2007 her oldest son Etikeni and his wife Treshel were driving home from a family reunion on the notorious Highway 89, when a drunk driver in another truck going in the opposite direction crossed over the meridian into their lane. Their truck was incinerated, there was not much left of them after the crash. The pictures on the news were graphic.
This truly tragic event was to be my first experience with a Tongan funeral up close. I had heard about them, read about them, but the actual event was and is difficult to explain.
Here is as close of a description as I can get.
We immediately went over to Talite's eg. The Samani household. I am very close to her as she is one of the most generous and loving people that I know. She has helped me many times by watching my children and she is always interesting to talk to.
When we arrived at their house the first thing I noticed is that people had immediately found black clothing to wear (I too had put on some black). There were people milling about in their yard and on their front porch, and even more in their living room.
It seemed as though everyone there was able to weep profusely, but at the moment my tears were lost somewhere. When I walked in and saw Talite's face they started to flow and I hugged her. She held me tightly sobbing on my shoulder calling "thanks Annie, I love you Annie" through her tears, she held everyone in like manner.
We sat awkwardly around the living room, so many large bodies in so little space. I perched on the edge of the couch with Roxie until someone offered me their spot on the couch.
His Aunty Mepa kept repeating that he had just been to her house and left food on her table with a note.
After a while we realised that there was nothing at the moment to do, so we left them.
The next day I came back and found that they had cleared the living room of all of the couches and had cleaned the house from top to bottom. They had laid tapa cloth all over the floor and a few women were sitting around eating yams and chicken.
This was the beginning of the wake.
I learned that there would be someone there at all times, to receive visitors for the week, leading up to the funeral. There were men out cooking, I learned that the best food would be prepared later on, when more visitors would arrive. I could come back later.
I stopped by over the next couple of days, they had the same routine night and day. The woman sat in the house or made other preparations and the men cooked continuously, their efforts changing each day.
Then a sort of final wake was to occur the night before the funeral, so we all prepared by dressing in black for the occasion.
When we arrived at the house, there were so many cars that we had to park several blocks down. We got out and walked in the receding light and I watched the dark branches overhead as we passed the trees on the street.
Several groups of people were converging on their home and people, mostly men, were milling around in the yard.
They had set up a portable shade in one part of the yard with tapa mats covering the ground, their were more mats in the house.
Some people were eating, and they offered to get me some food as I found some of my sisters-in-law and sat down with our baby Roxie.
There was an air of expectation as we waited, it grew heavier as the time passed and nothing happened. Nothing but rearranging bodies and waiting.
I sat there patiently and tried to gather from little comments made in English and some of the Tongan that I know, what was going on. My sister in law Tresha didn't know either and the Tongans around me seemed distracted and anxious, not willing to explain. Sam was in the back cooking and the children were running around.
Finally something happened, a group of people showed up in several cars. They got out and I noticed that besides their black clothing they were also adorned in tapa mats, tied around the chest, the women had whale bone combs in their thick hair and gold flashed from their teeth when they smiled. (A peculiarity of many Tongans is that they fill their front canine teeth and other teeth with bits of gold, including my husband).
They opened up the backs of their cars and brought out copious amounts of blankets and mats.
The family group all stood on the sidewalk and up the front walk all holding the blankets and mats. The leader of the family called out to the house a traditional Tongan greeting/chant.
Those in the house answered with a chant, then the blanket holders chanted a reply and started to walk into the house. When they got to the front threshold of the door the leader called into the house and they were all permitted to enter.
I heard more chanting in the house. Then this group left carrying food and another showed up and the ceremony was repeated. Until several groups came and left in a similar manner.
In due course the occupants of the house came out to the portable shade and sat at the head of the group on the Tapa cloth. Everyone bowed their heads as Talavoa Samani, the head of the household, gave a very beautiful prayer.
Afterwards, it was very late. There were people there who were going to be there all night but with the kids there I couldn't stay, so I gathered up my kids and we left.
The next day we arrived at Talite's house first to offer our help, but I suppose that they had things under control because they sent us on up to the church. The funeral, it was held at a really large chapel. There weren't very many people when we arrived, we walked past the caskets. On the floor in a t-shape was some Tapa cloth, some of it in front of the caskets and some up the isle.
Their were pictures everywhere and a copious amount of flowers. Next to each casket were a few chairs, placed to honor family members, and to receive the mourners. These they did not end up using, since they have a rather large family, on both sides. So they had Etikeni's family on the far side in the front few rows, and Trechels family on the other side.
As time passed the chapel filled up quickly, so many people in fact that there were people out into the hallway. Members of each family spoke and then another traditional Tongan cry was called out by Etikeni's brother. It was a long mournful cry, filled with emotion. The congregation called their reply and then started to sing hymns in Tongan accappella.
When the Tongans sing accappella, it is always beautifully done, they spontaneously harmonize.
At this point the mourners were making their way towards the front to pay their last respects, I was holding back to wait for the bulk of the crowd to go past. I went to find my daughter Angela, and spied my sister in law Tresha. We stood off to the side observing the procession of mourners, never have I seen so many at a funeral. She was looking for her daughters as well. My other sister in law Volasinga (Vola) came over to us looking for her daughters.
I finally spied them. They were walking with the mourners, clasping their hands together and crying copious amounts of tears, sobbing really. This made Grandmother Lavulavu cry all the more and she stood up to join them.
I suppose that we had all been in a bit of shock, and their open show of emotion brought many people to weep. This was talked about afterwards with great appreciation, Tongans really like it if you openly cry like that.
I decided to get into line with Tresha and Vola. I was having trouble crying, I some times do. Eventually we made it to the Samani's and I did cry as I hugged each of them, especially Talite.
Afterwards I gathered up my children, except Angela who wanted to be with her cousins. We went out to the car to leave, and as we left we were handed food through the open window. They gave food to everyone who left in like manner.
This funeral was actually modified to accommodate Trechels family, and the fact that we were in America. So it wasn't quite as traditional as it would have been, had we have been in Tonga.
One of the differences is that the Tongans bury their dead in Tapa cloth and mound sand on top of their graves. The family visits often to take care of the grave.
This is a picture of Etikeni and Trechel
These Sam's family attending a funeral for his aunts little daughter in Tonga. The little girl with the red scarf like thing (I think it is a lava lava) is my sister in law Tresha's little girl, she was raised by Sam's aunt Molieta.