Thursday, October 31, 2019


Even today, despite much Americanization and loss of the older culture, a Chamorro funeral is not quite the same as a funeral in the US mainland. Unless, of course, the funeral in the US mainland is that of a Chamorro; then it is possible, to some extent, to have the same feel there as a Chamorro funeral in the Marianas.

But many people are not aware of all the aspects of the old-time Chamorro funerals.

Take, for example, the way children were buried a hundred and more years ago.

To give us a little glimpse of that, let's hear from the pen of a German Catholic missionary in Saipan, writing around the year 1910. What he describes would have applied to Guam, as well, since the Chamorros in Saipan originated in Guam. Some of them in 1910 would have just moved from Guam to Saipan a few years before. And, the missionaries on Guam during the same period have the same things to say about children's funerals on Guam as this German missionary says.

Before I share what he said, a few remarks are necessary to prepare you for it :


1. This is written from a foreigner's perspective, so expect him to be shocked by what you and I may have considered completely normal had we lived 100 years ago. That's just human nature. You and I do the same this very day. If we were to watch old news clips of the days when Russian Communist leaders, all male, sometimes kissed on the lips, you and I would be shocked and we might come up with some very inaccurate conclusions about what we just saw. So when a German missionary describes Chamorro customs, keep that in mind.

2. Our Chamorro grandparents and great grandparents were very knowledgeable about Catholic teaching concerning the death of a baptized child. According to Catholic belief, a baptized child is free of Original Sin, the sin of Adam and Eve which closed the door of heaven to the human race. Since the child is not old enough to commit his or her own sins (lying, stealing and so on), the child is not guilty of sin that would send him or her to hell, nor even Purgatory which a place of purification for those who die in the state of grace but who need cleansing from imperfections. The baptized child who dies goes straight to heaven and is like an angel. Thus, there should be happiness that the child is in the perfect joy of heaven. Furthermore, there is no need to pray for the soul of the child.

Our great grandparents expressed this happiness that a child has entered heaven in a manner that faded in time, such that even you and I would find it strange, as you will see when you read on.

3. What follows now is a LOOSE TRANSLATION of the German article written by Father Gallus Lehmann in 1910 about the funeral of a child in Saipan. It is not an exact translation since my knowledge of German doesn't allow it to be exact. But, I can assure you it is faithful to the general ideas expressed by Father Gallus.

German Father Gallus and some children of Saipan

by Father Gallus, OFM Cap

Surely one of the most good natured people living on this bumpy world are the Chamorros in the Mariana Islands. They do not make life difficult for themselves or for others. In all circumstances they know how to find their way quickly and contentedly. The Europeans often want to envy this people on account of their adaptability. While we Nordic civilized people ponder, grumble and worry about unavoidable occurrences, there the Chamorro goes quickly to the day's affairs, with the same indifferent attitude as if nothing had happened.

But please, do not misunderstand me. My flock here is not stupid and cold, without any thinking. We'll hear right away when people feel an obligation to show feelings and thoughts. It doesn't especially take a long time to get to the heart. This is shown particularly when there is a death in the family.

How deeply does it cut into the soul of a European at the passing of a dear one! The tear, the wound in the heart often does not heal after years. When I tell this to a Chamorro, they find it hard to believe. He says: why? People have to die, no one can change that; there is nothing to wonder about if the wife, a child or a brother passes away.

Thus is his behavior when it comes to death. Especially when a child dies, he loves to hear some more cheerful music. A typical case is mentioned here.

My neighbor over on the other side of the street experienced the death of  a two-year-old child. At the moment of death, the mother let out a loud scream heard on all sides. That was more or less "official." That scream was to let the neighbors know that someone had died. (1)

It was soon seen that the sadness, though, was not so deep. Because dead bodies rapidly decay in the tropics, they are buried soon, usually in the first 8 to 12 hours, and so it was in this case. (2)

The father of the child immediately set to work to make a coffin. He did that in the same room where the dead child lay. The sawing, planing, tapping, testing was all done in the presence of the mother. She looked on, with a double-sized cigar, (3) going in and out, chatting with whoever about the most mundane things of this world. Much less did the coffin maker display his emotion.

In the evening at 5 o'clock was the funeral. At the house, the clergyman and his five altar boys picked up the body. The interior of the Chamorro hut was full of grieving women, mostly relatives. The men were outside. The corpse was blessed in the usual way, and now four children were getting ready to carry the deceased to the cemetery. (4)

At this moment, the custom appeared as it always has to for the mother to show her emotions a second time, in a totally pagan manner. (5) When the four children put the stretcher on their shoulders, the mother raised a wild howl, waving her hands in the air. Then with her disheveled but beautiful, coal-black hair, she gestured as if to throw herself out the window. The relatives held her back, trying to calm her. Of course, the fuel was already in the fire of tragedy and she behaved even more desperately, calling her child all sorts of nicknames and....then suddenly the soothing funeral music.

This consisted of 3 violins, a triangle, a beat up drum and an accordion. So these 6 musicians were doing their best to give the funeral a different look. They succeeded completely. They played with an airy touch, "I must, I must leave the town."  (6) Yes, that's what they played. I could not believe my ears when I first heard it. Since then I am as used to hearing it as I was used to hearing Chopin's famous funeral march. I had to exert all my power to keep serious.

When the song was over (they played it a few times), the noble musicians then played an even funnier waltz, making the listener itch visibly in the feet. (7)

And so it ended at the cemetery, under cheerful wise men, the dead child was tucked into the earth. Meanwhile, this little one is smiling up in the sky, shaking his head as he looks down on this strange funeral.


(1) Chamorro women traditionally (even before European contact) expressed emotions at the death of a family member in very loud and dramatic ways, as can be seen also in many other cultures. Some people think it can be just a lot of show, at times. It is suggested by Fr Gallus that, in this case, the loud screaming was a way of notifying the neighborhood that someone had just died. It was a custom to leave the house lights on all night, inside and out. When people passed by at 2AM to see a house all lit up, it was a sign that there was a death in that house. Since in this case the child during the day, a scream was needed.

(2) Thus not even a funeral Mass was celebrated many times in the old days. This was because the body had to be buried soon, and one couldn't wait till the next day to arrange a Mass. A priest could be called more quickly for a simple burial. In those days, too, the priest had to say Mass early in the morning (4AM even) because the rules for fasting before Mass or communion were more strict than today. From midnight on, a priest could not even drink water before saying Mass. So a funeral Mass at 1PM was unthinkable.

(3) Many foreign observers in the 1800s mentioned the particular fondness Chamorro women had for smoking cigars. They didn't mention the men (who also smoked, but the women stood out). The tobacco was grown locally.

(4) Apparently an old custom was for children to carry the corpse of a child to the cemetery.

(5) Fr Gallus is using a judgment here, calling the wild actions of the mother "pagan" or "unchristian." Christian grief is supposed to be tempered by hope in the resurrection. Those who do not believe in the resurrection from the dead through Christ's resurrection (the pagans) can go overboard all they want, but the Christian can't. But there is something cultural, not theological, going on here Fr Gallus may not have been attuned to.'

(6) The shock is that the Chamorro musicians were playing a totally non-religious German folk song at a funeral. Here are some of the words of that song :

Do I have to, have to

Leave the city, leave the city
And you, my dear, stay here
When I come, when I come
When I come again, come again
I come, my dear, to your house
Can't I be with you for a while right away
I really enjoy you
When I come, When I come
When I come again, come again
I come, my dear, to your house.

No one was singing any words to the song, but Fr Gallus knew what the song was! Here's a link to the song. I'm sure some of you will recognize the tune, known by the English version "Wooden Heart," and that it has been put to Chamorro words.

What happened at this burial was not an isolated event. Even on Guam, the Spanish Capuchin missionaries who first came to the island in 1901 complained that church choirs were playing non-religious, secular songs that didn't belong in church. 

(7) Meaning the waltz was so lively it made the listener want to dance (itchy in the feet). Perhaps Fr Gallus so some people tapping their feet as the band played on at the funeral.

Monday, October 28, 2019


The well-known singer Candy Taman took the Beatles' original Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da and gave it a Chamorro twist, making it a song about an åpbladora, a woman who talks too much and who talks about other people's business.

The word åpbladot (for a man) or åpbladora (for a woman) is borrowed from the Spanish, based on the Spanish word hablar which means "to talk." We also get from there the word åpbladurías, meaning "gossip, rumor, hearsay."

Humånao yo' machocho tåftaf gi ega'an;
(I went to work early in the morning;)
gaige i asaguå-ho gi besino.
(my wife was at the neighbor's.)
Tinane' de umåpbla yan si kumaire
(She was occupied gossiping with comadre)
ya i gimå'-ña mampos mutung kochino.
(and her house was overly stinking dirty.)

Obladi oblada åpbladora.
(Obladi oblada gossiper.)
Ti måtto tåtte gi ora.
(She didn't come back on time.)

Sige de tumånges sa' ma trompåda;
(She kept crying because she was punched;)
todo man ma botcha matå-ña.
(all her face was swollen.)
Trinikos ni asaguå-ña sa' ha såsångan
(She was hit in the face by her husband because she was saying)
i mina' tres na påtgon otro tatå-ña.
(the third child had a different father.)

Obladi oblada åpbladora.
(Obladi oblada gossiper.)
Hågo lao pot mudora.
(You alone are stupid.)

Yanggen esta tåya' para un cho'gue, kieto.
(If you already have nothing to do, keep still.)
Maolek-ña un fama'gågåsi masea un fan lålåkse.
(Better for you to be washing or sewing.)

Maolek-ña mo'n pendeha ennao un cho'gue;
(It would be better silly for you to do that;)
laksiye famagu'on magågo.
(sew the children clothes.)
Tulaika i kostumbre-mo båsta umåpbla
(Change your ways, stop gossiping)
sa' i probecho puro ha' para hågo.
(because the benefits are all yours.)

Obladi oblada åpbladora.
(Obladi oblada gossiper.)
Hågo ha' bai adora.
(You alone I will adore.)


(1) Kumaire comes from the Spanish word comadre, or co-mother. The mother of a baby and the godmother of that baby are co-mothers or kumaire. But in this song the lady isn't necessarily gossiping with her kumaire. Kumaire can mean, at times, a woman with whom you are close, as if you both are kumaire.

(2) The idea here is that the lady is gossiping about other people's dirty laundry and yet her own house is filthy because she neglects her duties in order to gossip with others.

(3) I am unsure if these lines refer to the gossiping lady, or do these lines represent the kind of gossip she engages in? In any case, the first two lines talk about a lady, I assume, being physically abused; she is crying because she is punched and her eyes are all swollen. Why? Possibly on account of the next two lines. Her husband has been deceived because the third child is not his but another man's.

(4) She should give up gossiping because she herself will benefit, not just those she is gossiping about.

(5) "You alone I will adore," is meant sarcastically. A gossip makes everyone else look bad, as if he or she is perfect and worthy of adoration.