Lawrence Hamilton transitions from a flight across the world to a traditional funeral in Fiji.
After roughly fourteen hours on a plane and multiple time zones I found myself on a mattress on the floor in a village in Fiji. Just the day before I had said a sad goodbye to my family in Kentucky to start the long trip back to Australia. On the way back, we arranged a week long stopover in Fiji.
Our flight arrived shortly before six o’clock in the morning. Our Couchsurfing host graciously picked us up from the airport and off we departed into the surprisingly brisk Fiji morning air. On the way back to their village we passed miniature trains full of sugar cane and a curious sign that read “Grog sold here and Grog Pounding also available.”
I tried to make small talk with our host as we drove through green fields under a dark grey sky. We pulled into “Viseisei Village,” it was a historical place, the first village founded under the British Occupation of Fiji. It was a ramshackle assortment of colorful wooden houses. Our host’s house was very near the center of the village. The large chief’s house was a more modern structure with a roof made out of thatched sugarcane. It looked like something straight out of the musical ‘South Pacific.’
A few villagers were milling about and chatting as our hosts showed us to our simple room. As it was only seven in the morning, she said we should have a rest. After the hustle and bustled of the Los Angeles airport, the serenity and calmness was overwhelming as we laid down to go to sleep.
I am a finicky sleeper at the best of times and after a few hours I fitfully tossed and turned, listening for the sounds outside and trying to decided whether to get up or try and go back asleep. I settled for the middle ground and dug through my pockets and found our ipod. I put in the headphones and and hoped some music would help soothe my nerves.
As the jazzy chords of ‘Dark Star” reached its crescendo, a sudden soliloquy by Ken Kesey came over. A small Beatnik rap musing the nature of life and death, ending with the exclamatory claim “HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR BLUE EYED BOY NOW, DR. DEATH!”
Almost instantly my wife sat up and looked out of the window, the timing seemed preordained.
“Wow there’s a funeral,” she said.
We walked outside and directly across from the chief’s house was a simple white church and a group of men carrying a body wrapped in “insert material here”, this was used in place of a coffin. They carried the body as hymns from the church echoed through the village. A woman came out with a mat, spread it out, and motioned for us to join her. She introduced herself as Sarah and welcomed us to her village. The funeral was for a 67 year old woman who had been sick. The change of weather is what killed her, Sarah informed us.
We sat on the mat for awhile, listening to the preacher give sermons which were intermingled with songs. Villagers wandered slowly and entered the church. There seemed to be no particular speed or time constraint. People simply came when they came.
To our surprise, Sarah said we could take photos as long as we were dressed appropriately. I walked around the church, snapping photos of the building, a bit too shy to walk directly into a funeral, presumably with grieving family members and begin clicking away.
Eventually the service ended and the body was brought back outside. Sarah was right, no one seemed to mind us taking photos, and we were politely greeted with ‘Bula,’ which is Fijian for hello.
Some more prayers were said and then the body was carried off to the cemetery.
The body was carried down a path that followed the ocean shores and led to the village’s cemetery. We followed along in the back of the crowd. By the time we arrived a choir was already set up and singing hymns in Fijian.
On either side of the path there was a small wooded area and attendees just simply found a spot and sat down while the choir sang. Ambulations were made in preparation for the body to be buried.
People motioned for us to get closer and take photos. It felt strange, at least from my cultural perspective. We are conditioned to think of funerals as sad affairs, full of grief and sadness, but this seemed to be somber and respectful, but also filled with the playful sounds of children and people did not hesitate to come and chat with us and ask us about our lives.
The service ended and the body was placed in the ground and several groups of men promptly came and began filling in the dirt with shovels and their hands with some men simply kicking the dirt in with their feet. After it was filled the men quickly made a marker with stones and placed a canopy over her grave and on top placed plastic flowers and other ornaments.
More villagers came and asked about us and our travels and we were invited to a big feast in honor of the deceased family.
As we walked back to the village we came across men who were slicing up a cow that had just been slaughtered and was to be given to the families who had traveled for the funeral. We sat and watched the cow get cut into pieces on the shore of the ocean while children played around us. Still feeling jet lagged we thanked the villagers for the offer of the feast but politely declined and walked around the village, basking in the calmness.