Yesterday was a very sad day for our school. Our Vice Principal died. He was my Samoan language teacher but he was only able to teach two classes at the beginning of the school year before he became very dehydrated and had to be hospitalized. He had a lot of the health problems that are rampant in Samoa, particularly diabetes, but it’s still shocking that someone could go to the hospital for dehydration, stay there for three or four weeks and then die. He was only 54 years old. As I understand it, his mother is still living in Tutuila but his wife lives here in Ta’u, so there is some strong debate about where he should be buried.
Death is death, no matter the culture and customs of your country, but the way it is handled here in Samoa is very different from the way we do it at home (naturally). When someone from our island dies (this is the second death since we’ve been here), the first thing they do is ring the church bell (again, a rusted oxygen tank that they hit with a stick) continuously. There is a lot of singing and a lot of praying. After the tears have dried and the initial shock has worn thin, people begin to celebrate the time they had with their lost loved-one. For the teachers at our school, it took all of two hours before the laughter began and the memories of the good times poured out. Today, each class created a memorial banner with kind words and photos to hang outside of our classrooms.
The last funeral on our island began at the wharf. The body had to be shipped back from Tutuila, and the family met the casket at the loading dock. The service began immediately. A small sermon was given at the wharf and the casket was loaded into the bed of a pick-up. First, he was taken to the house of his extended family, where a small service was held. Then, he was taken to the church where another service was held. Finally, he was taken to his immediate family’s house (just a few houses down from ours) and buried there.
There are no graveyards on Ta’u. Your relatives are buried on your property, right in front or beside your house. It is not considered rude or disrespectful to sit atop your father’s grave and each lunch in the shade. When someone mentions their deceased mother or father or sister or whoever, they point to the grave: “My mom, she’s right there, she used to….” It is no wonder my students know the name of their father’s father’s father’s father. This is perhaps one of the most beautiful things about fa’asamoa (the Samoan way). Property is not usually sold; your family’s land is your family’s and it always will be. You will always have a home to come back to, no matter how long you’ve been away. You cannot forget who lived and died there generations before you took your first breath; you pass their graves every day and read their names while you hang the laundry or chase your children around the yard. It’s heartbreaking to consider how far we have gotten from our families’ histories.
But back on point: one of the reasons that the funeral service is an all-day (or two or three day) event is because it requires the entire extended family’s presence. Fa’alavelave (fah-ah-la-vay-la-vay) is the term for any gathering of the whole family. It can be a wedding, funeral, whatever. Each family unit is expected to provide the immediate family of the deceased with money to help cover the costs. It’s not even really an issue of “expected.” It is an offering from one family to the next in support. The Samoan propensity to give is astounding. I have yet to be anywhere with any Samoan on this island and not been offered whatever it is they have, and I am a stranger here. Imagine how much they give of themselves when they are giving to their own families! Whatever you offer to the family is called a si’i (see’ee). The si’i may be $100 and a case of corned beef, or $500 and some rolled cloth. The extended family, church family, neighbors-who-aren’t-in-the-extended-family, co-workers, acquaintances, and whoever else wishes to, also offer a si’i. The elementary school staff collected a si’i of $500+ to give our vice principal’s family.
Fa’alavelave also calls for the exchange of ietoga (ee-ay-tongah), or fine mats. Ietoga are mats that are hand-woven from coconut leaves and left to dry in the sun. Often they will be decorated with feathers or other pretty things. Before Western influence, ietoga functioned as currency in Samoa, and they are still very important. The Matai accepts the mats and they are sort of displayed; some fine mats are very large or intricate, and some have more history and significance than others, so they are displayed and discussed.
What’s interesting is that the family does not keep all of the money or the ietoga. The gifts are accepted and admired, the Tulafale thanks everyone who gave, and then a big chunk of the si’i is given back to whomever gave it. There is also a large meal where enough food is made to feed everyone in the village for the rest of the week. Of course, the food is also part of the si’i, so at the end of the day each family takes home a great deal of food as well.
We are still waiting to find out where the funeral will be held (either on Tutuila or here in Faleasao). It has been pretty hard on a lot of the elementary staff and his friends and family in the village, so please join all of the Samoan voices here in praying for them.
*disclaimer: I am not an expert on Samoan culture so there may be somethings I’ve gotten jumbled up between the many Samoanglish explanations I’ve received about all of this. I just wanted to share with you what I understand about the fa’alavelave and how death is handled here in Ta’u.