At a funeral on Saipan recently, I saw something that I had never seen before.
Mind you, I have been going to funerals on Saipan since the 1980s. I served as a priest there for three years from 1991 till 1994 and presided at many funerals. And I have continued going to funerals on Saipan ever since. And I had never seen this done before.
The pall bearers, all males, took off their white button-down shirts and buried them in the grave with the casket of the deceased. Here is the video :
After the services, I quietly asked around the origin of this.
People told me that it is a Carolinian custom. The deceased and her entire family are Chamorro, but this village is next to another village with a large Carolinian community. Even on the entire island of Saipan, many Chamorros live in close quarters with the Carolinian community, and the Carolinians have influenced the whole island in many ways.
But keep in mind that a hundred years ago or so, not even the Carolinians wore shirts. So, if this is a Carolinian custom, it is a new one.
Culture is always in a state of change. Some of the old things die, and some new things are begun.
Different cultures exist side-by-side and will influence each other.
I began to wonder where this custom originated in the minds of the people. I believe we can see clues by observing funerals of Chamorros and Carolinians alike.
Our people are, by nature, very tactile with their loved ones. We love to hold, and smell, and kiss and hug babies. It's only when a child nears his or her teens that the physical affection tapers down, but does not entirely disappear in some cases.
With our dead, Chamorros and Carolinians do not have a "hands off" attitude towards the dead, unlike other cultures where touching the bodies of the dead is avoided. We touch the bodies of our dead, kiss them, photograph them. The Carolinians go even further, placing the body on the floor, with the close relatives sitting all around the body crying, praying, singing and touching. We even speak to the dead bodies as if the deceased were still alive.
I think this is the point. We want to keep some physical contact between us and our deceased as much as possible.
This means we tie our black ribbons around the casket just before it descends into the grave. It means we place a flower stem on the casket, too. It means we touch the casket one last time as it falls deeper into the grave. In some cases, our people have been known to want to jump into the grave with the casket. True!
So I think that this burying of the shirt is one more way the pall bearers can say that they are somehow with the deceased in the grave. Although one can no longer see or touch the deceased, that shirt is in the same grave. It is a point of contact between the living and the dead. Those pall bearers only wore that shirt for one reason - because they were pall bearers at that funeral.
Closeness to the dead. It's a Chamorro (and Carolinian) thing. Look at pre-colonial accounts of our ancestors. You'll see the same thing, but just expressed differently.
Thus we can say that, while the act of burying the white shirt is new and borrowed, the underlying value (closeness to the dead) goes back hundreds if not thousands of years.
Some things change, some things stay the same.