This will likely be an earnest, though potentially infrequently updated, account of my adventures, tribulations,
and everyday experiences as I spend two years working as an environmental Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Funerals in Fiji

When I received my invitation packet from the Peace Corps saying that I was going to Fiji, the first thing they said in the 'what clothes should I bring' section was to make sure I had something long and black for funerals because I would likely be going to several of them throughout my service. Well, that was a cheerful thought - Welcome to Fiji! Be ready to consistently lose members of your new community! Slight exaggeration? Maybe, but I still felt a bit uncomfortable at the prospect and a bit taken aback by their sureness, I mean how many funerals have I been to in my entire life? And wouldn't I be living in a tiny village for only two years?

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.
The burial itself was very informal where any young man present was expect to take a turn with the spade to fill in the hole. The preacher said a few words but nothing personal was shared from family or friends, though some did through a dirt clod down onto the casket.
Lowering the casket.
Once the area was filled in, the closest family members decorated the grave with mats, flowers, masi and colorful fabric. After some number of days (I'm not sure if they're supposed to wait for a certain period of time) the family will purchase cement and completely cement over the burial mound, adding a small plaque at one end set like a pillow.

The final plot.
Once the person has been laid to rest, the congregation returns to the person's house and partake in the funerary feast followed by a long night of drinking grog. Depending on the family and a number of other factors, the grog drinking can last quite a while, from a few days to upwards of ten. The event I was present for went on for a few days but not everyone partook everyday and most, except the close family, returned to their usual routine after the first day or two. I've known many people to go on a grog 'rest,' which signifies a mourning period and can last for months, though traditionally I think it is meant to last for 100 days, after which another ceremony is held to lift the mourning.

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.

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