Wednesday, November 2, 2011


The great emotional displays at Chamorro funerals we sometimes see today have their roots in the past.  Our mañaina manifested their grief when loved ones died.  They wept, wailed about the deceased, refused to eat, rattled shells, laid their dead on woven mats and adorned them with flowers, palm fronds and sea shells.  This went on for six or more days, depending on the affection people had for the deceased.  Women cut off a lock of hair of the deceased, and women also counted the days since the death by making knots on a cord which they wore around their necks.

If the deceased was of high status, there was even more ceremony.  Arches were erected in the village, garlands strewn along the paths.

Destroying things was also another way of mourning.  They would smash houses and canoes, fell trees, rip up their sails and hang the shreds around the house to express their sorrow.  In their chants and songs, they would say how life is not worth living now that the deceased is gone.

Demolishing personal effects as an expression of grief seems to be a trait common to Micronesian peoples.  When I was living on Saipan, I saw how the Carolinians still express their grief this way which our pre-Spanish ancestors manifested as well.  A Carolinian is completely overwhelmed with grief at a funeral.  They lay the body right on the floor on the best mats they have.  They sit right up alongside the body, touching it, kissing it.  Tears, wailing, shouting and screaming at high pitch all happen; it is all expected!

At some point, a person skilled in chant gets up and performs a chant for the dead.  It goes by a set formula, but there is room for adding special verses specifically compised about the deceased and his or her life.

Some time after death, the family takes the personal belongings of the deceased and buries, burns or throws them into the sea.  One Carolinian even told me, with amazement at her own culture, that she even saw a family take a sewing machine into a canoe and dump it in the sea.

Although much has changed in the Chamorro way of mourning, much remains.  Often, the more traditional the family, the more emotion displayed at a funeral.  As a priest in Malesso', Humatak and Saipan, I have seen multiple, simultaneous faintings of females at the grave sight; attempts at jumping into the grave along with the casket; cries of "Take me, too, Lord!  I don't want to live without him or her!"

At one funeral, three women of the family fainted onto the ground, one right after the other.  One to the left, one to the right and one at the head of the grave, in a perfect triangle of commotion.  The other family members were so busy attending to their fallen women that for a few minutes it was just me and the casket paying attention to each other.

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