Turns out their prediction was pretty accurate. I won't say I was wearing black every week but I was surprised at how frequently I was being invited to attend funerals in my area. It seemed a bit crazy to me that the mortality rate would be so high as to justify so many events. So I did a little research and came to find out that Fiji actually has a lower death rate than the U.S. So what gives?
To put it simply - community. In Fiji, whenever there is an important event, like a wedding or a funeral, the entire community gets involved on some level. By entire community, I mean the person's village, surrounding villages, and friends and family from around Fiji and other countries. All of these people will be in attendance for the event and many are often involved in the week long preparations and aftermath.
Imagine this: a person living on your street 12 houses down from you is getting married, you and every other member of your street would go to that person's house and help cook food, prepare decorations and clothing, build the arena that would stage the wedding and all those attending, help coordinate visitors and distant family members coming in, and just socialize in general for the few days before and after the event.
Now, I'm not saying that whenever something like this goes down everyone just drops what they are doing to work non-stop on said project; people still have their own families to care for and chores to manage. So depending on the size of the family, each household will send a few people down to help out while the rest continue to manage at home. Under these conditions you can imagine how one would end up attending so many funerals - it's part of being in the community no matter how closely related you are to the person or how much you like the person.
|Group of villagers cutting up a cow together for an important meeting in the next village up.|
Only once did I know the person whose funeral I was attending and because of this I wanted to be fully involved in the entire process, which, though it involves more people, is generally the same sort of process that I have been a part of in the states. While I am aware that every funeral is different and that there is no definitive standard practice in Fiji (with different religions and regional traditions), these are the things that I took note of:
The most notable difference was that the body was not embalmed and the people did not view it to pay their respects. Instead, the body was dressed and wrapped in hand woven mats and then placed in a plywood coffin. For several days prior to the actual event, friends and family from all over arrived to perform a special ceremony and present gifts of mats to the family for their loss.
On the actual day of the funeral, the coffin was placed at the front of the congregation for the funeral church service (he was Methodist) for people to privately pay their respects without actually going up to it in person. I have heard that at other funerals the attendees were expected to kiss the deceased on the head as a sign of respect and farewell (this came from another volunteer who was needless to say a bit uncomfortable about the prospect).
After the funeral service, the body was moved to his family cemetery for burial, which was within walking distance from his house. As far as I know, there are no general public cemeteries in Fiji, just small plots on family or clan land.
|Moving the body after the funeral to the burial site. The journey included a mud hill so treacherous that a dozen or so guys had to push the truck up.|
|Lowering the casket.|
|The final plot.|
Needless to say, the tradition of burying people has changed since the arrival of missionaries in the early to mid-1800s. The incorporation of religion, praying, and singing hymns originated here. Today what we usually see for a funeral seems to be a mash up of the traditional ceremonies of respect and mourning with more modern views of spirituality and the afterlife. But one thing has remained the same over the centuries and that is the involvement of the entire community.