Dr. Fanny Wonu Veys, Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, Metropolitan Museum of Art
In September 2006, I worked closely with the Tonga Traditions Committee, whose employees were recording the best they could all the events pertaining to the funeral of King Tupou IV. King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV of Tonga, the fourth king in the modern dynasty of Tongan rulers died after forty-one years of reign on 10 September in a New Zealand hospital. Through genealogy, Tupou IV embodied the three royal lines of Tu’i Tonga, Tu’i Kanokupolo and Tu’i Takalaua.
From the day the king’s body arrived on Tongan soil (13 September 2006) different funeral rites were performed. The activities included ceremonial presentations; lotu, prayer vigils; takip?, all-night wakes when palm sheath torches are lit around the palace grounds; ha’amo, presentations of kava, pigs, and cooked foods in palm leaf basket which are carried on sticks over the shoulder; fei’umu, cooking of food in an underground oven; taumafa kava, royal kava drinking ceremony; and of course the different aspects of the interment ceremony itself that took place on 19th September.
Tongan funerals, named putu or me’a faka’eiki – the honorific term used for chiefly funerals – have been discussed in literature from different perspectives. Instead of looking at how funerals reinforce kinship ties (Kaeppler 1978) or what the effective cost is of the objects exchanged (James 2002), I will concentrate on materiality of the ceremonial presentation made before and on the first few days after the funeral.
Most of the presentations took place on the palace grounds under the marquis set up to the left of the palace. Members of the royal family would sit cross-legged with their backs to the sea and facing the group of people performing the presentations. The members of the presenting group (a church group, a village, an island, nation or a government department) positioned themselves in a semi-circle facing the sea and the members of the royal family. These presentations followed a set scheme. First the chief’s attendant or mat?pule would briefly present the objects. These included kava, root crops, live pigs and half-cooked pigs, mats, yams, taro, tapioca, barkcloth, mats, baskets, flower garlands and flower baskets, coconut oil, cakes, bead spreads, crisps, fruit, sweets and large screens named tapu, made out of mats, barkcloth or flowers which will ultimately serve as grave decoration. Then all the products of agriculture and animal husbandry are enumerated by a mat?pule and counted one by one, by touching every pig, kava plant, and palm leaf food basket. After this, a woman enumerates the list of all the other objects that are being presented. The quantity, length and name of the mats and barkcloths is stated. The goods the woman enumerated, are spread out in the circle formed by the giving party and receiving party. No one physically counted these goods. The mat?pule of the presenting group, finally gives a speech and a dried piece of kava root is presented. The mat?pule of the receiving party reciprocates with a closing speech after which people pay their respects to the members of the royal family presiding the presentation.
This descriptive piece of writing is preliminary to a more analytical article focusing on the materiality of the 2006 funeral, and linking it with past funerary practices.