Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Traditional clan of warriors, known as bati, stand guard by the main entrance and around the chief’s house until the burial © Jurgen Freund, WWF-Pacific

Changing Expressions of Grieving in Indigenous Fijian Funerals

If there’s one thing that is sure in life, it is that death is inevitable. It happens to all regardless of gender, age, and socioeconomic status—even to the healthy and fit. In Fijian, the word for ‘sick’ is tauvi mate (tah-oo-vee mah-teh), which literally translates to ‘having contracted death.’ When death occurs, the universal Fijian word for funeral is somate (soh-mah-teh), with so meaning ‘gathering’ and mate as ‘death’ or ‘dead.’ Like other parts of the world, in this gathering, people come to offer and provide emotional, spiritual, physical, and even financial support towards the surviving family members in grieving and also in the farewelling of their loved one.

Grieving is an important part of funerals and is a necessary process to go through to move forward without our loved one. Funeral rituals give grieving people some semblance of structure during a time when their world has been turned upside down and are associated with milestones for a reason. That for life to continue, grieving must have a start and end. So, whether grieving individually and/or communally, one is aware of the “official grieving period” coming to an end. In Fiji, the common funerary milestones starting from the day of burial are at four, ten, and one hundred nights and one year. Now we use the calendar to keep track. In the past, the number of nights was tracked by tying a knot or sticking a reed in the wall for every night (Deane, 1921, p. 15).

While grieving is a common attribute in funerals across the world, the expressions of it may differ. For example, in the past, it was the belief in Fiji that we punish ourselves to show the spirit of the deceased that their death pains us (Frazer, 1913, p. 452). In so doing, it supposedly gives comfort to the spirit of the deceased that they are missed, so they won’t haunt us, thereby leaving us, and them, in peace.

The expressions of punishment as part of grieving is more synonymous with sacrifice or taboo, which is the notion of giving up something that is important to a person(s) or community. In the past and present, crying in Fijian chiefly funerals is substituted by the blowing of conch shells or constant beating wooden slit drums. This becomes the cry of the land and its people (Fison, 1881, p. 146). However, other expressions of grieving have changed in form and/or function over time. For example, prior to the 1800s following a chief’s death, a major sacrifice involved the strangling of people like the chief’s friend (Thomas, 1909, p. 714), his favorite henchmen (Fison, 1881, p. 139), servant (Frazer, 1913, p. 426), and many women, including his wives and sometimes his mother as well (Fison, 1881, p. 137). Their bodies were placed at the bottom of the grave like grass or mat known as coco (tho-tho) over which the chief’s body was then placed (Fison, 1881, p. 137). With Christian missionary intervention, this sacrifice changed from strangling women to the cutting of their index fingers, which were buried with the chief (Crocombe, 1973), before the practiced ceased altogether.

Other sacrifices were food related. On the island of Vanua Levu, people would fast for ten or twenty days following the burial of their chief (Adams, 1890, p. 68). Today, instead of fasting, a big feast is held immediately after burial. A different form is practiced today in the province of Nadroga on the main island of Viti Levu, where people would avoid eating either the last food that the deceased ate, or his or her favorite food, for a period of about a hundred nights. This food taboo is known as luva benu (loo-vah beh-noo) and is still practiced today.

Today, some communities in Fiji taboo small areas of reefs and/or river from a hundred nights to a year following the burial of a loved one to allow the fish population to recover. The goal is to increase catch rates when the taboo area is harvested. The catch is used in a memorial feast for the deceased and signifies the end of mourning period. In the 1800s however, the reasons for taboo of the waters was very different. The body of a chief, when alive, and in death, is considered taboo. When he dies, select people known as bouta (boh-oo-tah) are the only ones that can handle his body (Fison, 1881, p. 139), which makes them unclean. For this reason, they isolate themselves to the outskirts of the village, and they put a stick as marker on the reef or river where they bathe, so that people will avoid it. So, taboo areas in the past were because of uncleanliness, but today it is to increase fish catch as food for the memorial feast.

From the few examples given above, it can be seen that indigenous Fijian funerary culture aids in grieving and is associated with sacrifices and taboo. Like other cultures and their rituals, they have been changing over time and will most likely continue to change into the future. Both in form and function. Major drivers of change include, but are not limited to, Christianity, cash economy, and westernization to name a few. The challenge now is not to let the change in our culture be driven by external forces but to create safe spaces and forums that will allow indigenous Fijians to openly and respectfully discuss ways forward.

References

Adams, E. H. (1890). Jottings from the Pacific: Life and Incidents in the Fijian & Samoan Islands. Oakland, Cal.: Oakland, Cal., Pacific Press Pub. Co.

Crocombe, R. G. (1973). The New South Pacific. Wellington, N.Z.: Wellington, N.Z. Reed Education.

Deane, W. (1921). Fijian Society or the Sociology and Psychology of the Fijians. London: London, Macmillan and Co.

Fison, L. (1881). “Notes on Fijian Burial Customs.” The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 10, 137-149. doi: 10.2307/2841604

Frazer, J. G. (1913). The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead (Vol. 1). London: Macmillan and Co Limited, London.

Thomas, W. I. (1909). Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society (6th ed.) Boston: The Gorham Press.