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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands

Death and Burial

Death and Burial

After death, the body of a man was prepared for burial by his father's sister, the body of a woman by her mother's sister. With the aid of other women she washed and oiled the body and dressed it in a new garment of coconut or hibiscus leaf, decorating it with flowers and a wreath on the head. It was finally wrapped in new mats before burial which took place on the day of death. With it were put the mats and pearl shell ornaments (lei) which friends and family had presented.

The death of a member of the family was an important event to all relatives, who immediately came to express their grief over the body. As soon as the freshly dressed corpse was laid on mats in the center of the house, the family gathered about it and commenced wailing (tangi) and calling the name of the deceased. Each new arrival wailed vociferously for several minutes but, quickly exhausting himself, his cries subsided to the occasional moaning of the others who had already spent themselves and sat rocking their bodies back and forth, gazing at the corpse before them. In modern times this is the only sign of grief except on the part of the wife, who visits the grave of her husband to wail and call upon him to come back. In the past, close relatives shaved off their hair, burned their skin with small burning points of wood, and displayed their grief with much suffering. Relatives performed dances and songs of the dead outside the house of mourning. page 44 The dances (taualofa, tangi) were performed with arm motions while the performers were seated (14).

The immediate family was confined within their own house under a tapu for a period of 10 days (falemanu) to placate the gods and particularly the spirit of the deceased. Wall screens were dropped and the family sat quietly inside, forbidden to disturb anything or to leave the house for any social observance, even though it were a call to the deathbed of another relative. Anyone who broke the tapu would be killed by a god. A screen of mats was arranged from the house to the sea in order that the inmates might pass to the sea unobserved to perform their toilet. During this time no cooking could be done by the family. All food was brought by neighbors or distant relatives, who left promptly. No other visitors were permitted.

Burials are made today with the bodies extended, but Lister (14, p. 55) says of former customs:

The body was placed in the grave, lying on the back, and with the knees bent to the utmost extent, so that the leg was parallel with the thigh. The thigh was extended in line with the body. Two leaflets were laid transversely across the chest. No food or weapons were placed in the grave with it.

The natives say that formerly graves were made without marks of identification, but Lister (14) states:

The grave was about 3 feet deep; a mound of coral shingle was raised over it, with a vertical slab of stone at the head and other slabs laid on the top and sides of the mound.

The grave was made close to the house or in the floor of the house and when the body was lowered into it the eldest sister of the deceased sat at the head of the grave. Since Christianity has been introduced into the islands, separate cemeteries have been made outside the confines of the village, in which the graves are 6 or 7 feet long (pl. 10, A).

Lister (14, p. 55) writes:

For five nights after the burial the relatives came to the grave, and, removing the stone which lay over the region of the head, poured coconut oil into the heap … with a cry of mourning. This anointing the grave with oil is still performed in Tonga.

After two or three days the body was disinterred and brought into the house. The family again washed and oiled it, wrapped fresh mats about it, and buried it again. The new grave was made a fathom deep.