A Tongan funeral

The organ at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church where I played for the Tongan funeral.

The call from the church administrator came about 6 pm on Thursday night. As soon as the caller ID showed up, I knew I was going to be asked to play the organ: Kathy, I know it’s late, but can you play for a Tongan funeral tomorrow at 1 pm? 

In case you don’t know, Tonga is an archipelago of 170 islands located in the South Pacific. Even though Polynesians had inhabited the islands for 3000 years, Tonga was “discovered” by European explorers in the 18th century—just as the English explorer Captain James Cook became the first European to “discover” the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. Capt. Cook first stopped by Tonga in 1773.

Austin Organ console

Methodist missionaries started coming in 1822, and introduced hymn-singing to the Tongans. These 19th-century hymns continue to be sung today, with Tongan lyrics. I was not surprised when the family chose Blessed Assurance, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and Amazing Grace for the three congregational hymns. So I decided to play gospel hymns for the prelude and communion: How great thou art and Savior like a shepherd lead us by American composer Dale Wood.

Time was short, though, because even though I’ve played services at this church before, I had no assurances that I could remember on what memory level I had saved my registration combinations. The only time I would be able to practice and set up the organ was between 8:30 and 9:30 am—I already had a scheduled rehearsal somewhere else at 9:30 am, and from 10:00 to 1:00 the church would be holding a wake. 

The Tongan wake consists of hymn singing interspersed with people getting up and talking about the deceased. This funeral was no exception, and when I finally arrived back at the church about 12:30 pm, the hymn singing was very much as heard in the following video. All of it was unaccompanied and sung in parts, with some sections sung by all, and others sung only by men or women.

Everyone, and I mean even the young children, wore black clothing. (It was a good thing that I also wore black, so I fit right in!) That is an influence, apparently, by Christian missionaries who came to Tonga. According to Wikipedia: The period of mourning, and thus the obligation to wear black, differs depending on how closely related a mourner is to the deceased. For an acquaintance it may be a few days; for a distant relation it may be a few weeks whilst for close relatives the mourning period may last for up to a year. 

Everyone, men, women and children, were also wearing waist mats, called taʻovala. Obviously I didn’t take photos of the people at Friday’s funeral, but you can see the taʻovala from King George Tupou V’s funeral procession (2012).

The King of Tonga’s funeral procession. (Photo credit: Torsten Blackwood)

A tradition at Tongan funerals is also the phenomenon of wailing, loud crying. Here’s what I found about wailing at a Tongan funeral: According to Lee (1996), she states that wailing at a Tongan funeral is normal emotional expression that many Tongan women will do, and that after a funeral, many people will joke about death or the deceased in a friendly manner. Wailing at a Tongan funeral is customary if you are Tongan. When someone wails at a funeral, they are usually crying and talking out loud about the deceased. The mourner can wail about a variety of things from how much the deceased will be missed, or wail about the deceased dying because the person ate too much. (From “Traditional Tongan Funerals“)

At first I was surprised to hear this, but finally when it was time to start the funeral (on the dot of 1:00 pm), there was a little break in the wailing, and I jumped right in and started my prelude. The priest came over and thanked me! The service itself was the traditional one from the Book of Common Prayer including a Eucharist, so there were no surprises there.

For my postlude, I played David Johnson’s O Love How Deep on the tune DEO GRACIAS, and was I ever surprised to hear that former student Joey Fala also played it for today’s Evensong at Duke University Chapel!

I cued the video to start right at the postlude. [N.B. If you receive notice of my blog postings by email, you will have to go to the actual blog to hear the video. Sorry, I don’t know why my email subscribers are unable to see the video links I post in my blog!]

I guess great minds think alike!

About Katherine Crosier

In addition to playing the organ I am interested in documenting life's special moments through journaling, scrapbooking, photography and slideshow production. My family just groans.
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