A Tongan Funeral (and kissing the dead)

It was a sad week at the Vava’u Branch of the Tongan Development Bank where I work.   Last week, two of the men I worked with each lost their mother.  The first woman was buried on Saturday and the other on Monday.

Monday’s funeral was for the mother of ‘Ofa.  “Ofa and his wife Hangale  have always been great to me.   On my first day at the bank, ‘Ofa was one of the first to come in just to talk and to introduce himself.  He always seems to have a smile on his face and enjoys a great laugh.

The other funeral was for Fakava’s real mother.  He was raised by adopted parents, which is very common in Tonga.   I was not able to attend the funeral on Saturday, but I did go to the funeral on Monday.  It was the first Tongan funeral I’ve attended, which is surprising since I’ve been here for 18 months.  

In Tonga, there are no funeral parlors.  When someone dies, they are loaded into a vehicle and put in a freezer  at the hospital where the body is kept frozen until it is time for the funeral.  There are no embalming facilities in Vava’u and the families are responsible for preparing their loved one’s body for the public viewing.

Because there are many Tongans overseas and on other islands, it is not uncommon for a funeral to be a week or longer after a person dies.  That was the case with ‘Ofa’s mother.  She passed away last Tuesday and the funeral was six days later on Monday.

On the day of the funeral, the body is taken to the family house and hundreds of people gather to mourn with the family.   When there is a putu (funeral), the bakeries will often sell out of bread and the stores will end up with empty shelves because it is the job of the family to feed all of the people who gather to spend the day with them.

As we arrived at ‘Ofa and Hangale’s home on Monday, the first thing I noticed were all the people sitting around.  As is tradition, the men were sitting together drinking kava while the woman sang and congregated on mats in the shade around the house.


When you arrive at the house, it is traditional to present a gift to the family in honor of the deceased.  The bank presented ‘Ofa and Hangale with cash, a mat, a Tongan tapa and numerous other gifts.   Before entering the house, we lined up in a fashion similar to the women in the photo below.

IMG_1953 One we had our gifts in hand, we paraded single file into the house.

IMG_1955 Once inside we laid down our gifts then walked forward to see the body of ‘Of'a’s mother. 

Kissing the Dead

It is tradition that each person kiss the deceased on the forehead to pay their respects.  I knew about this tradition and had lots of time to think about it before the funeral.  I knew it would be expected for me to kiss the corpse and I was prepared for it.  Or at least I thought I was.  As I gently pressed my lips to her forehead, I was not appalled or even bothered by it.    What I hadn’t been prepared for was how cold she would be.  It made sense that she would be cold since she had been on ice for almost a full week, but the cold was a surprise.

As I was leaving the house, I was then presented with a beautiful piece of silk.   This is another Tongan tradition.  When you come to pay your respects, a family member gives you a gift from the many gifts that have been accumulated.   Unfortunately, the grieving family never comes out ahead because they end up giving away more than they receive. I tried to give the silk back to ‘Ofa but he refused saying it was the Tongan way. 

It was sad to see ‘Ofa so clearly upset by the loss of his mother.  He is a really wonderful man.

The good news is that he and Hangale are about to have a baby which I’m sure will bring a smile back to his face.

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