I have been attending a lot of funerals lately, so I felt it might be a good time to explain a little bit about these occasions and their significance in Micronesia. My explanations of funerals is based on personal experience and is only an informal account of my impressions. But my experience should count for something because during my two-year stint in Chuuk, I have been to more than 30 funerals! In the 24 years leading up to Peace Corps, I think I maybe attended five or six funerals in my lifetime. The sheer numbers of this comparison make one point explicitly clear: funerals are very important in Chuuk.
A funeral is the most important social and communal event in the lives of Chuukese islanders. It brings people together and is an imperative part of maintaining the strong bonds that unite this collectivist society. Without large scale funeral gatherings the ties of kinship and social structure would break down and fritter away. Similarly to funerals worldwide, it provides a time to offer support and love to the grieving family members and join in the mourning process. However Chuukese funerals are also necessary for resolving conflicts, settling problematic issues and making important decisions. Meetings, feasts and other events drag on for days as thousands of people come to the home of the deceased to pay their respects.
The schedule and functioning of the funeral has been changing throughout the years and has developed into a mixture of ancient traditions, Christian rites and modern customs. The first day of a funeral is called a Sobe and is often the most popular time for people to attend. Hundreds or sometimes thousands of islanders from all over will flock to the site. An open casket will lie at the center of an Ut (community hall) and dozens of wailing women will be sitting cross-legged in the space around the coffin. As you approach the body it is customary to drop a dollar in a basket at the foot of the coffin and exit quickly after you say your final goodbyes. When you walk out of the Ut you will be handed a plate of food and a bottle of water. This donation of a dollar is called oo and serves the double purpose of physically showing your support and helping the family out with the exorbitant expenses of the funeral.
The second day is the burial and is referred to as Peias. Before the person is interred in the ground, visitors will continue to flood the area and offer their support in exchange for a meal. The viewing time will last from sunrise to sunset on both of these first two days. All extended family members are expected to stay around the Ut for this time. Most of the time my own family has not been closely related enough to be part of the permanent funeral goers, but a handful of times I haves spent consecutive 9 hour days sitting in the sun in complete silence watching the slow proceedings of the funeral.
The men will usually sit on the outskirts of the Ut drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes while engaging in subdued small talk throughout the afternoon. The women will stay in the community hall and cry or sing as time rolls on. An official meeting will happen on the day of burial and all the important men of the community/family will give long winded speeches about working together and sharing together. A couple hours later, a priest or minister will perform final Christian rites on the deceased and then prepare for the burial.
The next step of the funeral varies depending on whether the people are Catholic or Protestant (99% of Chuukese fall into one of these two categories). A traditional observance period of 3 days called Ororo will begin the day after the burial. However Catholics follow a 9 day schedule of Novena to pray for the soul of the deceased. During this time the close family members are confined to the compound where the funeral is being held. They are not suppose to cook, work, bathe or do anything at all. The family enters into a sort of period of deep contemplation and pray. On various days village groups will offer pounded breadfruit with coconut milk called motun to the family. Nobody in my close family has died, so I have never been part of this confinement.
The final day of the funeral, either 3 or 9 days after burial, is called the Eruk. A meeting is held with the extended family, eterenges, and important decisions and plans are made about the family. Hours of speeches will take place and work to reconcile differences and rebuild the strength of the family.
There are other community repercussions from funerals beyond the official proceedings of the event. For the first three days after the death, no work or noise can happen anywhere near the village. School will be cancelled and employed people will skip work. If the person is important enough, a moratorium on the ocean will be enacted and all activity in the sea will be banned for about 3 months. This mechen is a sign of respect to the deceased and also serves as a conservation measure to maintain the resources of the sea. While I fully support the significance of funerals and mean absolutely no disrespect to the culture, it has been rather frustrating for the success of my projects. At least once a month, two days of school will be taken off for funerals. In the last 3 weeks, 5 separate funerals have caused 10 days of school to be missed. Since I started construction on my basketball court, 14 funerals have slowed construction. Funerals take precedence over everything on these islands.
The Chuuk Lagoon is a relatively small place and family connections spread throughout much of the area. The close relationships of the people mean that when someone dies in the state, its very likely that you know them or are related to them and should attend their funeral. In America, it’s rare for someone to know their neighbor well enough to be invited to their funeral, but in Chuuk everybody is connected and so everybody goes to the funerals. The majority of the ones that I have been to have been for people that I have never heard of, and about half have been for people that were living in Guam, Hawaii or the mainland US. Chuukese culture requires that an individual is buried on their family’s land, so it is quite common for people to return to Chuuk as their final resting place. Multiple times a week, the once a day plane will unload a fresh casket and an entourage of mourning family members to undertake a funeral back on home turf. The huge travel expenses expended further shows the importance of funerals to the people. They are willing to shell out thousands of dollars to fly across the Pacific in order to attend funerals or bring the deceased home. Making a trip from America to Chuuk for a local wedding is rare, but it would be disrespectful and unusual to not make the same trip for a dead relative. Weddings in America are a time to showcase wealth, gather as a family and are generally considered to be the most important social events in the culture. The same things can be said for funerals in Chuuk. The events serve as a window to peer into the belief systems of the culture and get a sense of what’s important in the society, namely family, food, community and religion.