Moe's Funeral
by Eldon Haines

Editors comments. The interactions of technical assistants and their counterparts range from the professional to the social and in each case involve opportunities for the exchange of cultural information between the two parties. Eldon has worked as a TA in Palau and Samoa. His counterpart for one project was to have been Masua. However, just as Eldon arrived, Masua departed to seek medical care in Hawaii for her daughter Moe. This article describes Eldons observations at the funeral for the girl. Fine mats are large, finely woven pandanus floor mats, decorated with brightly dyed chicken feathers woven into the hem. They are prized by families and carry in their exchange the family's respect and appreciation for the receiver.

Moe was eleven, experiencing the first signs of young womanhood. She and her mother, Masua, had been living with Moe's brain tumor since the girl was six. Masua was to have worked with me on the energy conservation seminars, but instead she and Moe spent the summer in and out of Tripler Hospital in Honolulu, first for the brain surgery, then the long recovery, physical therapy, and preparation for chemotherapy. They had been through all this four years before. Moe remained in a semi-coma much of the summer, responding only weakly to attempts to strengthen her for chemotherapy. An early August CT-scan showed that much of the tumor had quickly grown back. With little hope remaining, Masua and Moe came home to Samoa on a Monday-night flight. Moe died Wednesday afternoon.
In this warm, moist climate, the dead are kept in the hospitals refrigerated morgue until the day of burial. Masua's family is scattered from New Zealand to California. Because of difficult flight reservations and only two flights a week from Honolulu, Moe's funeral was delayed until the next Wednesday.
On Tuesday I was invited by my office colleagues Faalua, Saili, and Pele to join them in taking our offices gift of money and a fine mat to Masua. We had gathered money from each employee, a Samoan tradition, to demonstrate our respect and love for the family. The fine mat was a special gift from Faaluaa special type of mat that is given to a parent who has lost a child.
In order to get to Masua's front door we had to walk around Moe's newly dug grave. Most houses, or fales, have at least one, and in some cases several, well-kept graves near the front door. Usually a shade, or sometimes an elaborate building covers the grave. One often sees people sitting or lying down for a nap on the cool grave, near the loved ones. Moe's grave consisted of a poured-concrete platform surrounding a concrete grave wall which extended from the bottom of the shallow grave to six inches above the platform. To my surprise, the interior of the wall was being carefully lined with two-inch square white tiles. The top of the wall was covered with white tile, trimmed in black. A heavy concrete cap lying nearby was to be sealed over the top after Moe's casket was placed inside. It occurred to me that, while in our colder climate in the US we want to be sure our dead stay warm, the Samoans want to be sure their dead stay dry.
We were invited into a small meeting room with no furniture, but the floor was covered with common pandanus mats. I sat in the corner in my borrowed lavalava, the traditional wrap-around skirt worn by men and women alike, folding my legs under me so that the soles of my bare feet were respectfully pointed away from our hosts. Faalua sat to my right, Saili and Pele against another wall to my left. Across the room were seated Masua's mother, Masua, and a Talking Matai who is Masua's uncle. The meeting began with a formal greeting from the Matai, and Faalua responded with our groups greeting and message of respect and condolence. Pele laid the envelope containing the money on the mat in front of Masua, who immediately counted the money. Pele and Saili unfolded the fine mat and swept it across the room toward the Matai, then immediately folded it and placed it in front of Masua while Faalua's speech continued. The Matai responded that in Samoan tradition a fine mat given to the parent of a dead child must be returned; two women materialized from the next room, unfolded the fine mat, swept it toward Faalua, then folded it and laid it down. Masua also returned half of the money gift. Speechmaking continued, Faalua arguing urgently that our great respect for the family out-weighed tradition and that the fine mat and money should stay with the bereaved family. The fine mat was again unfolded, swept across the room, and folded, and the returned money again laid before Masua. The Matai spoke again with greater emotion, reluctantly accepting the money, but insisting that the tradition of the fine mat not be broken; again it swept across the room to Faalua. He accepted it with words of appreciation, and the exchange endedor so I thought. We all rose and filed past the three hosts, giving words of thanks and encouragement. When we returned to the car we found that Masua's relatives had filled it with cases of mackerel, buckets of corned beef, prepared meals for the whole office, a whole roast pig, and a different fine mat. In the feast back at the office, where the food was divided up, I was given the fine mat. I nearly cried.
The funeral was held the next day in a small church, decorated for Moe with flowers, wreaths, and banners. We all stood for the procession, which brought Moe's casket up the aisle to the front, and stood again at the end when she was taken back out to the hearse. The walls of the church were screen wire and the roof corrugated iron, so we sat in the light breeze through the two hours of singing and exchanges, sweating lightly, listening as well to the children playing nearby, the roosters crowing, the dogs barking, and the blessed tropical rain on the roof.