A Tongan Tradition I Don’t Like

I like most Tongan traditions. One of the really cool things about Tonga is how well its culture and traditions have been preserved. But there is one tradition I don’t like and that’s the way Tongans say their final goodbyes. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the importance of a funeral, either in Tonga or in the USA. I know how important it is for the friends and family to say good-bye to those they love but I also think it isn’t necessary for a family to spend one’s life savings to pay its final respects.

In Tonga, there is nothing modest or inexpensive about a funeral, which in Tongan is called a “putu”. A Tongan family feels enormous cultural pressure to throw a huge expensive funeral every time someone dies.

A Tongan funeral is not just a funeral ceremony. The family is expected to throw a big feast and feed everyone who shows up. While it is also customary for people to bring a gift to a funeral, the family responds by giving gifts to everyone who comes. The family of a loved one never comes out ahead. A typical putu can cost more than most Tongans make in a year.

At the bank where I work, we have people come in immediately after a loved one has died seeking to take out a loan to pay for the funeral. In some cases, a family will go in debt for years just to pay for the funeral. Many turn to their relatives overseas to cough up the money so they can have a “great” funeral for their loved one.

Some families even hire bands to play at the funeral and to march with the body from the house to the cemetery.

This funeral procession passed in front of my house on a Saturday at 9am and then returned five hours later. 

I was out visiting bank clients one day when we happened to drive by a funeral. One of the bank’s employees asked me if I was hungry. I knew he meant that he wanted to stop and eat at the funeral. I asked him if he knew the person who died or the family. He said no, but it was okay, because at a funeral, you feed everyone who shows up. I told him I wasn’t hungry and suggested we go back to the bank. I didn’t feel right about sitting down and taking free food from someone who just had a relative die.

It seems to me the money spent on a funeral would be much better spent paying for the education of a family member than on a lavish feast and gifts.

A Tongan putu is not a quick event and can last for more than 24 hours. People will take an entire day off of from work to attend the putu. This means you might go to the grocery store and find it closed because the staff is attending a funeral that day.

There are many other ways that the family responds when someone dies. Depending on how close you are to the deceased it will determine how long you will wear black and the huge funeral mats you see everyone wearing.

Women at a Tongan Funeral

It’s also traditional for a woman’s hair to be cut in memory of their loved one. A higher ranking woman in the house will tell a less ranking woman to cut her hair. The hair is usually woven into a belt that can be worn to hold up one of the large funeral mats.

A Tongan GraveNow in all fairness, putting on a putu is a work of art. There are no funeral homes here so all of the work from preparing and dressing the body to the digging of the grave is done by friends and family. The preparations are lavish with many people helping to cook the food and set up tables so everyone has a place to eat. During the day, the men sit and drink kava while the women will sing. The kava drinking and singing will often last for days from the time the person dies until they are finally put into a grave decorated with quilts, flowers and plants.

When you attend a funeral it all goes like clockwork and it’s truly amazing to see the end result of so much work.

One more interesting topic about death in Tonga. If you ask a Tongan why someone died, they will usually say they were sick or they were old. There are no autopsies and the cause of death is rarely known.

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  1. A party?? Just an FYI...We DONT Throw parties or a "Feast" ...a feast is reserved for celebrations...we dont Celebrate people deaths! A Funeral in Tongan culture observes certain taboos(tapu), christian beliefs,and is strictly about respect for the deceased, their family. Each member of the family will know their role in a function such as a funeral, (fathers side of the deceased as well as their mothers side know, and have their individual roles), that being said, it helps lighten the burden on the immediate family of the deceased. The deceased family does alot in return, due to showing their respect to those who have come to mourn with them, and show their thanks to them by giving them food, and gifts. Not all gifts are the same, and vary depending on the relationship of the individual who is giving the gift to the family of the deceased, to the deceased. There are times where Tongan funerals are kept to the simplest form, where there isnt the whole week of mourning for the whole township, or whatever ceremony it may be, would be cut out, just because of the circumstance of the family at the time, but even though in those cases, extended family steps in and helps because, bottom line, family is family, and family have each others back in the Tongan Culture, which also strengthens family ties with one another or also called tauhi va. but Yes, there are those who just arent prepared for events like a funeral, and do plan a huge funeral which is beyond their means, but it is unfair to label All Tongans as to doing a Putu FakaTonga as youve described and observed in the little time that youve spent in Tonga.

  2. Funerals and weddings are an important point of weaving the kinship links that bind the country together. These are the times that these genealogical links between families, villages, clans, and islands are acknowledged and regenerated. It is important because it keeps the country stable (unlike the strife torn melanesian countries).

    However, funeral rites were designed for a different time when everyone had plantations that were well tended. Food wasn't a problem in the past because more food would just grow out of the ground. No loans, no debt. However, nowadays, the plantations are still there but people work in town in the monetary economy. It is a terrible clash of the cash economy and ancient tradition. The culture needs to adapt.

  3. This blog is overall a good insight to the Tongan tradition, but I feel that you could maybe phrase the tradition a bit different as to be less offensive to those who participate in these types of "activities." See the word activity would be totally inappropriate when referring to a funeral, just as some of your word choices were. Other than that, you have your own opinion, but if you could present it in a way that wouldn't belittle other's opinions this would be perfect(: Sincerely, a fellow Tongan living in America

  4. Im tongan, and i totally agree with most of what you said. It is a waste of money but that thing with the feast, its not a feast, we do not provide pigs and amazing food...its humble food to show appreciation for their showing up and paying respects regardless if they are part of the famili or not. My father wants to be put straight into the ground when he dies because he knows it will be a burden and thats exactly what we will do even if there will be criticisms from all tongan communities around the world. ☺☺

  5. These American ideals riddled in this article and the author's ethnocentric mindset really does do no good for other cultures. It's tradition and of strong Tongan Christian values to give with a big heart.The death of a loved one is a priceless moment. Western people always see things through money and measure almost everything through the economic climate of people's. Tongan give because of heart and Christian values an aspect lacking in most western countries.

  6. Ive had to bury my father and mother
    Seperately.Both my parents had members of Royality, goverment officials.Nearly 4,000 attended my father's 3 day mourning...I actually was able to cover costs and made Profit. Peoples love in their donations was how... so yes there is a cost but managed properly you can come out ok...

  7. Hi Steve, I did my first stint in Tonga in 1971 as a Kiwi Peace Corp equivalent, a VSA teacher in Tongatapu. From the late 90s onwards, I have spent a lot of time back on the island in a professional capacity. I read your comments with just a little smile as I recall coming back from my first assignment with similar ideas, though not directed specifically against funerals, but at the huge costs imposed on subsistence farming families by the imposts of their churches. In later years I have mellowed. I recall vividly being asked by a first time Tongan visitor to NZ some years back, 'Where are all your dead"? Not for Tongans to be hidden away in discreet graveyards but to be buried in prominence in the villages, tended and visited often. In fact, I think Tongans probably 'do' death better than most and I have witnessed some tragedies over the years. The churches still impose huge burdens, borne willingly and in full faith, which I can admire, even if now I do not share that faith. Yes, overseas families of the Tongan diaspora can also feel the burden of those imposts but they are borne equally without rancour, even by the most educated and westernised who recognise the pressures on their own family responsibilities.

    Culture and custom will slowly change over time but I'm not expecting the formalities surrounding death will be leading that slow charge. In many ways, I hope they don't. We could learn much.

    Walk a little more slowly Steve and appreciate what a hugely rich and rewarding culture it is that you have been part of. I hope you are lucky enough, like me, to have the opportunity to appreciate it all over again in many years to come.

  8. Totally agree !
    From USA.

  9. I agree..Tongan funeral are costly, and it shouldn't be a burden to anyone.

  10. I agree hands down!! My grandfather's funeral went for a week! I didn't know why maybe because I didn't understand the process of the putu because I was young, but then I was told by an aunty of mine. Your grandfather didn't want to leave this earth not letting people know who he was and what kind of man he was. He wanted to be known for something good. I think this is why it went for so long having family come over the globe he also had his best friend come from London. In saying that he made his mark to everyone that he knew and we were very blessed to have help from our family over seas but then again those were his children.
    Make your mark people, lend a helping hand to another and love one another. Money is money. Life is money. Death is money. But right now at the moment spend time with those you love and the man above.

    Time is short. Eternity is not.

    #au #2k17 #sydney

  11. Tongans simply don't hold a feast every time someone dies. It is a way of saying thank you to everyone who has attended to pay their respects. You also mentioned that everyone receives gifts that attend the funeral, there you are wrong. Not everyone who attends the funeral receives gifts; only those with close blood ties to the deceased, the faifekau's, those who helped in the family's time of need and in some cases close family friends will receive gifts.

    Also, you mentioned that the length of time and size of ta'ovala you wear will depend on how closely related to the deceased you are. That really isn't true, if you rank lower than the deceased person you will wear your ta'ovala over your head and be called the 'liongi', this means you rank lower than the person who is deceased and must therefore be doing everything from the cooking to the serving of food to the people who have come to pay their respects and much more. The size of your ta'ovala isn't just because of how closely related you are to the deceased person, it is to represent what your role is in the family.

    I didn't understand what you meant by a funeral going for more than 24 hours, what I think you meant to say was that the apo is the final night all family and friends that have travelled near and far get the opportunity to pay their respects. It is also a time of prayer that the deceased will go to heaven and that the family gets to spend their last moments with their loved ones. If you meant that a funeral can last a whole week or more than yes it does. Not for monetary reasons, but for cultural reasons. The uikelotu leading upto the apo is a time of prayer and for the community to come and pay respects to the family. The po tolu or po hongofulu right after the tanu is the uike tapu in which you are still mourning and everything secular is still taboo. The tu'ui and the hair cutting ceremony are all apart of this. The ha'amo is when families bring food to help feed those helping the families during the uike tapu and to end the immediate mourning period is the fakamalele.

    You are highly misinformed on what you think a Tongan funeral is. It is not a cultural burden or a financial burden. It is your fatongia or one's responsibility. What you think you know, you don't. I think you need to go and learn more about our culture, especially for one who lives abroad. I live in Australia and yet I've never looked at a putu that way. It's offensive to think that there are Tongans out there who think that a Tongan putu is a waste of money when it really isn't. Don't be fooled by what you see, you know our kau matu'a hide alot of what happens behind the scenes from us because they think we are too immature to know or too misinformed to understand which is what you have just demonstrated. Know that when people bring gifts they just don't bring koloa and food, they bring a sila. Also know that all your blood related family will pitch in as well, heck I had a family take one night of the cooking to themselves and they were related to the widow not the person who passed away. Think from another perspective before blindly typing what you think you know about our culture.

    That is why we tauhi the fa'i kavei koula or the 'four golden wristbands' of our culture and fonua. Faka'apa'apa, Fe'ofo'ofani, Loto to and Tauhi va; so that when things like a funeral happens people will be there to help you.

    1. If it walks like a duck it is a duck. Obviously he isnt wrong, because there are other people who are tongan who have agreed to what he said and that is true. It is ridiculous to spend crazy amounts of money you dont have to bury everyone who dies. Be offended if you want to. Everyone uses the word "culture" to justify crazy practices. He has a right to his opinion. As he said. He has experienced people coming in taking out large loans and calling relatives for money in order to cover things that arent even neccessary because of what you think is owed. If the deceased wants an elaborate funeral they should have saving for it.

  12. its the Tongan way to go all out in everything we do, we give in our all, its called 'Ofa and faka'apa'apa. We show respect to the people who come and the deseased. And its not a feast, we feed take care of the guest that came to the funeral, its like a sign of respect and love, hoooiiiiiii

    1. You dont have to go broke to show respect. That is the point. Some of the people commenting are so offended, they aarent getting the point of blog. It is insane to spend money you dont have to bury a relative who didnt save a dime for their funeral.

  13. Totally agree with you.... I'm a Tonga everything you said is the reality of a Tonga funeral...

  14. Yes i see your point. However, culture is a huge part of Tongan identity. One wouldn't expect another person not of their culture or raised in this culture to understand how important it is for them to respect their dead in the way they do. You work at a bank - why not encourage people to save for these times. Since the bank is so "smart" with money, why not give back to the community using this knowledge and teach them financial literacy through ways such as workshops and social media sharing tips etc.. There are people who like to critique and there are those see a problem and take action to find a solution. Which one are you?