March 2014 Volume 11

Fortis Farewell from the Land of Your Breadfruit Ancestors – Part 1 Funeral

Michael O. Walters
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By the time you read this, I should have left American Samoa after some 20 months, and be back in Florida.  At the risk of being laughed at (no risk at all as I can already hear you laughing) I am wearing a black Samoan Lavalava in my photograph.

 Now, this is not the way I report to work.  I do wear jeans and polo shirt to work and most of the people I work with wear similar garb.  After all, although I am on the water side, some of my colleagues work on the electricity side and climbing a utility pole in a skirt would not be appropriate.  However, for formal wear to attend a funeral or church, the Samoan men are dressed in a lavalava, and the women in puletasi seen the photograph (Puletasi_photo) of my (St. Hugh’s Past Student) wife, Janet. 

I have published several articles in the KC Times but in this final article, I want to focus more on the culture.  I have always heard that if you want to know about any culture, you should attend a funeral and a wedding.  Luckily, I was able to attend both within a short period of time.  Part 1 herewith describes the funeral.  Part II for the next edition of KC Times is the wedding

The funeral held on a Sunday was for a departed work colleague and we were all dressed in the uniform lavalava (uniform photo) for the funeral in an auditorium in Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa.  This was the Company’s funeral for the individual.  In case you wonder why I specify that it is the Company’s funeral it is because there will be another funeral on Friday, the family funeral.  We were told that the funeral would start of 4PM.  Luckily, I was there early because at 3:30 PM they rolled in the casket and began the service. 

I was warned before that it would be long probably lasting about three hours but they were wrong about that.  Many people spoke on the Departed’s behalf.  Although they spoke in Samoan, occasionally they broke into English and since the Departed was Catholic, part of the service was a mass and some catholic things were said.  I found it intriguing and was in fact part of a Choir who sang three Samoan songs from a Methodist church hymnal (we practiced for 1 hour each day for the previous 1 ½ weeks so I was able to pronounce the Samoan words).  

 Intriguing as it was, I thought it dragged on a bit and looked forward to the end of three hours.  Well, three hours went by and there was no sign of an end.  Many more speakers came forward, and people went up to the casket for a viewing all throughout the service.     After about four hours when I thought it could not go on much longer, they served food.  Yes, FOOD!  The Departed was there lying in his open casket and we were all stuffing our face with food.  I do not mean a repast occurring sometime after a funeral.  I mean we were eating during the funeral.   The meal consisted of a big ham and cheese sandwich, fruit, breadfruit and soup with an assortment of drinks or water.  I watched as more speakers came up and decided to take my exit at 9 pm.  By then many other people had left.  The next morning I heard that it went on for only 15 minutes after I left, and the Departed was returned to the morgue.    I also heard that this funeral was short in comparison to the all-day one they will have the following Friday. 

Wednesday my Company presented fine mats (fine mats photo) and over $6,000 cash to the family of the deceased
Earlier I indicated there would be two funerals but I found out there was a third at LBJ Hospital, the only hospital on the island which was also the site of the morgue, at 6 am in the chapel.  The service lasted about a ½ hour and we started the 45 minute funeral procession to the site of the third funeral and hopefully last funeral.

When I arrived at the church, the casket was already in its place and open for viewing at the family fale , (fa- l-ey) (guest house, see Fale_photo), adjacent to the church (Church_photo).  All of us from the Company were assigned our own fale in which some of our staff settled. I was assigned a seat in the fale, but noticed that the other people in the fale were Division Managers, the CEO, and the Chief Operating Officer (COO), in other words the top ranking people in the Company. Wondering if a mistake was made, I asked one of the Managers if I was in the right place and he responded “Yes, because you are our Special Guest, you are Special”.

Having learned that I was “Special”, I settled into the fale, and took the opportunity to chat with our CEO. She made it clear that they were very impressed with me coming and learning about the Samoan culture.  (This was no surprise to me, as about a week ago, when approximately 150 of us were practicing some hymns in Samoan the COO gave a closing address and singled me out saying how thankful and grateful they were that I chose to participate). The non-dignitaries milled around the fale while we “Special” people waited for the gift giving portion of the event.

 In the meantime, we could observe the family in the adjacent fale, making tribute to the Departed, receiving gifts and discussing gifts they brought. We understood that once they were finished it would be our time to present our gifts. By this time it was about 7:30AM and we were served breakfast. I noticed that there were two different containers and observed that the white containers were served to the non-Special and the larger one with the transparent top was served to us dignitaries. Since I was “Special” I received my breakfast, thought it was a lot of food, but ate it all. Food consisted of scrambled eggs, cupcake, bread, cinnamon roll, orange, and spam which is quite commonly served with Samoan food. Orange juice and bottled water were also served. Shortly after we finished eating, some gifts of fine mats were presented to us from the family fale next door. As the gifts were presented our COO and some of our Company people started a dialogue as to what they were going to give back, and this was in addition to the numerous gifts we had brought. They give, you give back, is the name of the game here. About 15 minutes later an elderly man stood next to our fale and addressed us (hopefully by this you realize all this is in Samoan, and I had to ask colleagues what was been said). I was told that he was the High Chief and was inviting us to present our gifts, so it was “show time” for us.  The process started when some of our Company women marched with a long banner while singing    (Banner_photo).  The very important truckloads of fine mats were presented individually by two women, who would unfold it turn it towards the family, fold it back then hand it over. This meant a lot of running around by the women in the hot sun. Each gift was unfolded, folded, and delivered very quickly, and they moved on to the next one.  As each gift was presented, the Company announcer told which department or person the gift came from. Consecutively, the family spokesperson acknowledged receipt and gratification for the gifts. After ASPA presented all their gifts it was time for, you guessed it, re-gifting. Lots of fine mats but also clothing material, cans of ice tea with a dollar on top (I understand in earlier times a coconut was used but I guess the tea people must have done some effective marketing), Vienna sausage, pig (Pig_photo), and beef quarters (Beef_photo).

After the gifting and re-gifting was complete, we were served dinner.  I thought the breakfast was big, but the dinner was two 12 ounce steaks, 2 pork chops, shrimps, taro (dasheen), chicken breast, and a large cut up sausage, plus water and juice. I give up. I just could not manage it.

Our Company staff milled around for a final viewing before the casket was sealed and taken into the church.  In between events I left my privileged place and interacted with other employees.

The church service started after 11 AM and although I could not understand the words, the service seemed typically Catholic. A procession was led by the Samoan police (Police_photo) (no lavalava for these guys) back to the Departed’s house where he was buried in his front yard

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