Funeral rituals on the Island of Tonga

Funeral rituals on Tonga are colorful and rooted in a long tradition

Great was the surprise when we wake up early the first morning on Tonga in the Pacific and discovered the graveyard close to where we lived. We arrived in total darkness the night before and never got any impressions of the surroundings. But this morning the colorful graveyard was a magnificent sight. The graveyard lay between the palms and only a few meters from the beach. As I am a textile artist as well my interest was aroused immediately. Most graves were decorated with big clothes, actually big quilts and many in a typical Hawaii pattern. I just had to find out more about these funeral rituals!

Graveyard on Tonga with a great ocean view.
Graveyard on Tonga with a great ocean view.

We often visit graveyards when we travel. How we bury the dead varies from country to country and is an important part of a country`s culture. Graveyards can be beautiful oasis where peace and quiet is easily found. An early morning walk can turn out to be pure meditation.

But I have never seen graves like those on Tonga. Colorful quilts are placed on racks at the graves and are exposed to windy weather and rain and sometimes hurricanes are sweeping over the island. When the quilts are worn out they are replaced with new ones. A graveyard on Tonga is a delight to the eye. The grave it self is most often a concrete crypt covered with white coral sand. The can also be decorated with artificial flowers, beer bottles or even beer boxes.

In earlier times, prominent people and leaders where buried with great fanfare, a big feast and the tombs were lavishly embellished. Such funeral rituals were called langi. Less prominent persons were buried in a circle around. Ordinary people were buried outside their homes without too much attention. But in recent times, funeral rituals on Tonga have changed. Ordinary people are also buried with a lot of attention and on the public graveyards. These funeral rituals are called mala`e.

It is becoming more and more common for ordinary people to decorate the graves of their loved ones with white coral sand and beer bottles. Bottles and cans are put down in the sand to refine the tomb and keep the fine sand in place. Tonga is a strong Christian country with a lot of different congregations and alcohol is not accepted in most of these church communities. Most people on Tonga cannot afford to buy alcohol and instead they drink the local kava.

Quilt, white sand and artificial flowers on a tomb on the island of Tonga.
Quilt, white sand and artificial flowers on a tomb on the island of Tonga.
Graveyard on Tonga.
Graveyard on Tonga.

The archeologist David V. Burley has written an article in Society for Historical Archaeology, 1995 about the use of beer bottles and cans in funeral rituals on Tonga.

He says that the practice most likely is because there were no deposit on empty beer bottles and this was simply a way to use them. On the other hand they withstand rough weather and rain. Alcohol was associated with a western lifestyle and therefor something many sought for and considered as luxurious, something they normally could not afford.

Tonga has a tropical climate and the dead has to be buried quickly. The whole family, neighbors and friends come together for mass in the church. The can be very many and the mourning is a collective responsibility. Early next morning the dead body is transported to the graveyard on a trolley or today more often on a small truck. The truck is decorated with tapa mats, straw mats and quilts. Before the body is lowered into the crypt it is wrapped in tapa mats and banana leaves. Then the crypt is covered with sand and decorated. The quilt is hung up on a rack and the nearest family dress in straw mats for three days.

Tonga is a kingdom in the Pacific not far from Fiji. Tongans are Polynesian with a small mixture of Melanesian. The capitol Nuku`alofa is located on the biggest island Tongatapu. You can fly to Tonga from Auckland, Sydney or Nadi on Fiji. We put in Tonga as a stop for one week on an around the world trip and flew from Auckland via Nadi.

Tonga is a romantic idyll and an exciting destination easy to manage on your own. The beaches are magic and the culture is still well kept and a visit to this Pacific island will give you an experience for a lifetime.

Funeral rituals on Tonga.
Graveyard on Tonga with a lot of artificial flowers.
Tonga is a romantic idyll and an exciting destination easy to manage on your own. The beaches are magic and the culture is still well kept and a visit to this Pacific island will give you an experience for a lifetime.
A star quilt decorates this grave on Tonga.
Funeral rituals on Tonga.
Tomb with beer bottles on Tonga.
Funeral rituals on Tonga.
Crypt not finished!
Funeral rituals on Tonga.
Detail of a tapa mat from Tonga.
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