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The celebration of life

Students share the culture woven in and through Samoan and Tongan funerals

According to BYU–Hawaii students, Samoan and Tongan funeral celebrations continue to incorporate traditions that have long been part of their culture.


Funeral preparations

The family spends one to two weeks planning the funeral and mourning before the actual ceremony, said Noel Lakena Fulumu’a, a sophomore from Samoa majoring in Pacific Island Studies. The evening before the burial, Fulumu’a said a service for the family is held and the body is taken home with the family for the last night.

The family then holds a leo into the morning of the funeral, which means to guard the body of the person who has passed on throughout the night, Fulumu’a shared. During this time, groups from the community and the church come to the house to sing for the person who has passed away, she said.

The Si’i

The Si’i is a gift giving ceremony that is an essential part of traditional Samoan funerals, Fulumu’a said. She explained the number of gifts one gives is representative of their love for the person who has passed.

In the weeks before the funeral, Fulumu’a said the community brings gifts like fabrics, canned goods like corned beef and ‘ie tōga, or fine mats “made from the leaves of the pandanus tree,” to the family of the deceased.

The importance of gift giving, Fulumu’a said, is to “show that you are osi aiga: that you know your family, and you want to make sure your family knows you too.” She explained people attend the funeral, give gifts and show their love because they want the same treatment when they pass away.

Fulumu’a said the Si’i is integrated throughout the day of the funeral. It begins early in the morning until the services are held, then resumes with the second portion of returning gifts after the burial, she shared. During the returning of gifts, the chief who spoke in the ceremony is given a gift and the families who attended are given gifts and canned goods for their travels back to their villages, Fulumu’a explained.

She said gifts are presented and accepted by each family’s chief, who communicate in the chiefly dialogue during the ceremony, which is a formal way of communicating that few people know. There is a chief in each family, she explained, a title passed down through the sons of the family.

Fulumu’a said to express deep sadness, the chiefs say phrases such as “ua ma’umau a’upega o le taua,” “ua gasolosolo ao,” or “ua ta’ape’ape pāpā,” in the chiefly dialogue. She explained these phrases mean “the weapons of war have been wasted” or “heavy rain is going to fall,” referring to tears.

The importance of ‘ie tōga

When a woman passes away, her family gives the ‘ie tōga, or fine mats, Fulumu’a said. When her aunt passed away, her family gave the husband’s family five bundles of 50 to 100 handmade and bought ‘ie tōga, she shared.

Each mat that is given holds a significant meaning, she said. For example, an ‘ie tōga may be gifted to acknowledge the wife’s children and her family or it may be gifted to the family’s highest chief, Fulumu’a shared.

Fulumu’a said one her favorite ‘ie tōga that’s given is called the ie o le fa’amagaloga, which is given to forgive the deceased for any wrongdoing toward her husband’s family. She said, “It’s like we’re coming to claim her and to ask for their forgiveness on behalf of her.”

She added the husband’s family may return the mat as a way of saying the wife did nothing wrong in the family. Otherwise, she said it is kept as a reminder of the wife’s importance to the family and that all is forgiven.

Traditional clothing

Fulumu’a said traditionally the deceased body would be wrapped in tapa cloth and covered in coconut oil. However, she said today many Samoans have adapted to burying their dead in their religion’s traditional clothing. Although Samoans wear ‘ie tōga around their waist for many other celebrations, for funerals they wear only black clothing, Fulumu’a explained.

Religious tradition and fa’a Samoa

“The term fa’a Samoa means the Samoan way of being, of doing things,” Fulumu’a explained. However, she said, “The Church and [our] culture contradicts a lot when it comes to gift giving. The Church usually teaches to just keep it simple.”

Many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have adapted to the Church’s way of celebrating, Fulumu’a said. When a family chooses this for the funeral, she explained, they announce to those attending the funeral will be taofi le mālo, which means fa’a Samoa, or traditional Samoan culture, will not be involved at the funeral services.

“It’s not a lack of appreciation for the culture,” Fulumu’a said. “We’ve realized we are able to mourn more and grieve more with our person who is passing away when we don’t do fa’a Samoa.”

With less people in the house during the funeral preparations, Fulumu’a said they have more time to grieve. But, she continued, “When our families are over, we find strength in them. … We love to have them. So, either way is good.”

Importance of the land 

Fulumu’a said Samoan funerals can also be a time to forgive family members who have wronged the family. Samoans are very connected with the land, she explained, so if someone passes away outside of Samoa, the family brings their body home to “lay them to rest.” Fulumu’a said this brings peace to the family and the person who left if they had not reconciled while they were alive. “To go back and get the body to lay in your own land is a sign of forgiveness,” she said.


Funeral preparations

Sabrina Brown, a freshman from Australia majoring in Pacific Island Studies and social work, grew up in New Zealand after her parents moved there from Tonga. She said countries outside of Tonga, some Tongan funeral traditions are altered because of a lack of understanding in the surrounding community.

The decoration of the house is one of these altered traditions, Brown said. In Tonga when someone passes away, she said, their family will decorate their house by covering their fence with black fabric and hanging purple drapes on their house or fence. Since black and purple represent death in Tonga, these decorations signal to the rest of the community that your family is mourning, Brown explained.

Brown said these decorations are generally kept up for one year after the funeral. This tradition is hard to uphold in other countries, Brown said, because the community does not understand the meaning.

Emeline Kioa, a Tongan freshman majoring in social work, explained these decorations are important because it is prohibited for anyone to play loud music, sing loud songs or hold celebrations out of respect for the person who has died. She said these things are prohibited until the person is buried, but it could be a longer or shorter time period depending on the family.

Kioa explained another part of the funeral preparation. She said three days to a week before the funeral the family holds a failotu, which is where people from church, community members, friends and family come to the house to sing, pray and share memories of the person who has passed.

Kioa explained before the funeral, people share “stories or memories of how that person was able to influence them.” She said after the burial, people share “funny stories of that person or funny interactions we’ve had with that person … We will just sit and laugh [together].”

When Kioa’s mother passed away while in Hawaii, Kioa said her older brother, her older sister and her were in Tonga. Due to COVID-19, she said they could not bring their mother to be buried in Tonga.

While her other five siblings held a funeral service in Hawaii, Kioa said the community in Tonga came to their house to mourn with Kioa and her siblings. They shared stories together and watched the funeral through Zoom, she recalled.

The Fahu

In Tongan culture, the Fahu is a father’s eldest sister and she holds the responsibility in nurturing her brother’s children, Brown said. In return, Kioa explained, “The Fahu receives the utmost respect at the funeral.” She receives gifts, like mats, tapa or money, at many celebrations, including at her brother’s funeral, as a way of honoring her sacrifice and dedication to her brother’s family, Kioa said.

During the gift-giving ceremony, which is held after the burial, only the immediate family is present as the children present the Fahu with gifts, Kioa shared. She said while the family of the deceased is also given many gifts, they usually give their gifts to the Fahu out of respect.

However, Kioa explained the Fahu will often tell them to keep their gifts.

Showing respect

The Fahu is also the only person allowed to ever touch or cut the hair of her brother’s daughters, Kioa said. She said the only time Tongan women are supposed to have their hair cut is at their father’s funeral. Brown added women will cut their hair if any father figure passes away, not just a biological father.

The daughters and sons cut their hair when their father passes away as a sign of respect, Kioa explained. “We believe our hair is our most precious thing [and] makes us beautiful,” she shared, so cutting the hair is a way to honor the father and respect him.

Brown said she learned as a child she could never touch her father’s head or eat his leftovers because he was the head of the house and should be shown respect. “So that’s why we cut out hair, as the final way of sending him off with respect,” she shared.

Kioa said Tongan ceremonies vary from family to family depending on beliefs, religion and preferences. At her father’s funeral, she said they did the gift giving ceremony but did not cut their hair because “it was just something my dad never wanted us to do.”

One of the influences of these changing traditions is the influence of the Church’s cultural idea of keeping celebrations simple, Kioa said.

Traditional clothing

Those who attend the funeral, which is usually between 150 to 200 people, wear all black with mats around their waist, Kioa said. She explained the immediate family wears a larger mat that covers their bodies and their hair or heads. Kioa said the mats worn are old, torn mats, which “shows humility and respect.”

Brown said different types of mats are worn to distinguish who the immediate family is and who the Fahu is. In addition, she said the Fahu will always sit in a chair next to the casket, so everyone knows who she is.

The family of the person who has passed on wears black for a year after the funeral and wears the mats around their waist every Sunday, Kioa said.

The ceremony

Kioa said the night before or day of the burial, the family holds a wake where the casket is open and the family has a chance to view, hug and say goodbye to their loved one.

Brown said the women cry over the body in the open casket during the wake. She shared it can be very emotional and said the thing that stands out to her the most is the type of cry the women have.

Brown explained this is a “loud, high-pitched cry” usually shared by women who were very close to the person who passed. She said as the women are wailing they say words such as “oiaue,” which means something bad has happened and they are crying for the person to come back.

Brown said while the women are crying, the men are usually praying or singing.

The burial

After the funeral ceremony, Brown said the people do a “mini-parade” as they take the body to the cemetery. She described this as the “final farewell.” The body is driven slowly from the chapel to the cemetery as a line of cars drives behind and others attending the funeral walk beside the cars, she explained.

Brown said this is something she thinks could not happen in another country because it holds up traffic. However, she said the people in Tonga understand “it’s a sign of respect to be patient.”