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  • Writer's pictureB.M. Allsopp

A Fiji chief's funeral: customs from the old days

Updated: Feb 16

I've spent these last several days planning tomorrow's funeral for a relative who suffered from dementia for nearly a decade. Her death a few days ago was a peaceful release from a cruel disease. However, I feel the burden of responsibility for making everything happen as she would have wished.

So, now could be a good time to tell you about Fiji funerals. The most distinctive are those for chiefs in pre-colonial times. Who better to relate her observations than the inimitable American sea-captain's wife Mary Wallace, in her 1849 book, Life in Feejee: Five Years Among the Cannibals? (I have abridged the extracts that follow from pp.87-90.)

Death of a Fijian chief

"The ceremonies which are performed after the death of a chief of high rank are exceedingly numerous. When death is approaching, his friends present him with whales' teeth, that he might be furnished with missiles to throw at a certain tree which is supposed to stand in the centre of the way between this world and 'bulu'.

Immediately after life is extinct, messengers are sent with a whale's tooth to all the tribes that were subject to him, informing them of the decease of their chief, and begging them to be of 'a good mind'. For some time after the breath has left the body, a profound stillness reigns throughout the town, which is at length broken by the loudest outcries, as though they would rend the air with their shouts.

The grave-diggers are then sent for, whose duty it is to wash the corpse, dig the ground and inter the bodies. The body, after being washed, is decorated in the same manner as it would be were he about to attend a feast. It is then anointed with oil; the face, neck and arms, as far as the elbow, are daubed with a jet black, greasy substance; a bandage of white native cloth (masi, from mulberry bark) is wound round the head, and tied in a graceful knot above the temples; a club is put in each hand, and one is placed on the breast, that he may retain his rank in the next world as a chief and warrior.

Ratu Cakobau of Fiji, reclining on couch with mats and fan.
Ratu Cakobau, Paramount Chief of Fiji, circa 1855 Source: Williams, Fiji and the Fijians:

The body is then laid on a kind of bier, where it is usually kept till various personages from the tribes under the dominion of the departed assemble. On their arrival, the chief of each tribe presents a whale's tooth suspended by a string. He holds it in his hand, while the Matavanua, or some other officer, delivers the following oration:-

'This is an offering to the dead. We are poor, and cannot find riches. This is the length of my speech." After this eloquent oration, one replied with a wish that death may not visit them. Then all respond, 'Let it be so.'

Burial rites

The grave-diggers then proceed to their business of digging a resting place for the dead. This is done in a sitting posture, as it is not lawful or respectful to perform the labour standing. Long sticks, sharpened to a point, are used as substitutes for spades. The first handful of earth which he digs up is called the earth of the god, and is carefully preserved in a leaf till the bodies are interred, when it is placed under a stone on the surface of the grave near the centre. After the grave is dug, which is scarcely three feet deep, four large green leaves are placed on the bottom of it, and the sides are lined with mats and cloth.

(Widows were usually strangled and buried with their husband).

When only two females are buried with the chief, one is placed on each side; but when more are strangled, their bodies are placed on the bottom, on each side, and on top of the corpse, and are covered with the ends of the cloth and mats with which the grave is lined. While the grave diggers are filling the grave, the house of the deceased chief, with its contents, is burned, and when the dead are buried, and the house burned, all the natives disperse to bathe.

Lockdown for the grave-diggers

The grave-diggers are obliged to pass under the branch of a certain tree, which two men hold over the foot-path. As they pass, they are smartly whipped with something resembling nettles. This is to prevent contamination from the effluvia of dead bodies. after this, they bathe, and rub themselves with some fragrant herb.

A Fiji chief's funeral procession, 2023
A chief's funeral procession, 2023 Source: Fiji Times

A little building is erected where the grave-diggers live for one-hundred nights, during which they daily bathe in fresh water, taking a club with them, which had been deposited in the grave of the dead. They say that the spirit of the club went with the departed, and the club was not wanted. They are not at liberty to return or visit their homes until the hundred nights have expired, for they are plentifully supplied with food, and at the termination of the time are sent home with many presents.

After four days from the time of interment a neat and substantial house is erected over the grave, The hands of all persons who have touched the dead are tambued and they must receive their food and be fed by others.

The wake?

After the death of a chief there are great times, amputating fingers, shaving heads and beards, circumcising boys, burning faces, arms, necks, etc. Nor is this all:- a grand frolic, Vainara, is held for the space of ten days by all who choose to join it. The men arm themselves with an instrument formed of pieces of bamboo tied together, which are about a foot in length, and with these they throw mud and clay at the women, seldom missing their mark. The women retaliate by severely lashing their assailants with the supple roots of trees. Those who can procure them, often furnish themselves with a bunch of cords, with shells attached at the ends. They wield these weapons with great efficiency, and frequently produce deep gashes on the backs of their antagonists. The females are so ardent and intrepid in the celebration of this part of the funeral obsequies, that one is apt to think they are determined, during this reign of anarchy, to redress all former grievances, and avenge all the wrongs to which they have been obliged to submit.

Thus, at the death of a great chief, all are employed in mourning or rejoicing."

Do you think an all-in battle of the sexes could be effective grief therapy? Let me know your opinion!

If you have friends interested in Fiji or Pacific islands in general, I encourage you to share this post.

I look forward to hearing from you!


B.M. Allsopp

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