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Monday, April 2, 2012


We have been participants in history.
Yes, everyone can say that on a daily basis, but it’s not often we realize it while it's happening.  This week, a Tongan king was laid to rest, and we were privileged to be both witnesses and participants in the rituals surrounding his being laid to rest.
The King's villa, draped in black for mourning, and purple for nobility or royalty.  
King George Tupou V, age 63, had a kidney transplant a year ago, and never really recovered.  He still appeared at ceremonies and important political events, but he no longer toured his island in his converted London taxi, or entertained guests with Agatha Christie-style murder mystery parties.  He passed away in a hospital in Hong Kong, and last Monday, March 26th, his body was returned to Tonga in a Chinese jet.  Mourners from his family and the noble class of Tonga greeted his body in a ceremony at the airport, then his casket began the 10-mile-per-hour long ride to the royal palace. 
A little one walks down the road with a fan in her hand.  You can see the villagers who have laid tapa on the road in the background.  They are sitting on it simply to keep the wind from blowing it out of place.  
In his short five-year reign, this king had endeared himself to his subjects through his common touch.  In the videos I have seen of him (and there have been many over the last couple of weeks), I notice that he never seemed quite comfortable with the idea of being singular.  When he would stand in front of a crowd, his eyes would dart back and forth as though he was looking for someone else who deserved the attention more.  His expression varied from slight discomfort to evident embarrassment, which is a direct expression of the Tongan culture; no one here wants to be singled out in front of others as a commendable example.  All of the Tongans I have spoken with have reported that he had an air of accessibility, that for all his eccentricities (he enjoyed riding a motorcycle, and was known to wear a pith helmet), he communicated a concern for every citizen. 

Well, Jim has been asked if he's Tongan, but I'm just Sister Tomato, turning
red every time I sit out in the sun (forgot the sunscreen!).
All along the road from the airport to the palace, Tongans (and a few of us non-Tongans) waited to pay respect to their fallen king.  We didn’t know exactly what time the Chinese jet would land, but the entire student body of Liahona High School and Liahona Middle School (1300 students), plus faculty, staff and administrators, waited out on the road for his body to pass.  Every other school in Tonga had their students gathered on the road as well – children from age 6 to 19 were all in their school uniforms, while adults wore the traditional black clothing with a straw mat and dried-grass skirt.  Most of us were on the roadways by 11, and the police, in their white dress uniforms, were diverting traffic by 12.

It was a quiet social time, until about 3:00, when we finally had a police car go by with headlights and roof lights flashing.  That was our signal to go sit down on the edge of the road and be silent.  After a few more minutes of waiting, we saw the big elevated-flatbed truck coming down the road, with a ceremonial canopy that probably was 30 feet in the air. The royal flag was draped over the coffin, and as it passed by, every head bowed low in respect.  As far as the eye could see, the road was lined with silent people, as the truck, then a procession of cars with dignitaries and Tongan nobles passed by.  A few of us Palangi (non-Tongans) lifted our heads long enough to get pictures, but I didn’t see a single Tongan head lift until every car had passed. 

Then the sociability returned – people smiled, laughed, and helped each other into cars and buses to return home.  We were still dressed as mourners, but we were determined to be happy, for that is what King George Tupou V would have wanted.

This is St. Andrew's Church, with the most beautiful bunting in the nation right now.

On Monday night, tiny vigil fires were built all around the palace fencing, and students from many schools tended the fires all night long, while church groups from all over Tonga participated in prayer services on the palace green. The LDS Church was well represented, with more than 200 people seated under a tent to sing hymns and offer testimony and prayer during their assigned hour. 
The funeral casket, bier and canopy begin their journey from the palace to the royal tombs.   

The funeral was held Tuesday.  150 pallbearers carried the king’s coffin on a huge bier – a frame that was at least 50 feet long and 20 feet across.  There were extras who walked right next to the pallbearers, so that when one was exhausted by the weight, someone was ready to take his place.  

They followed elite military units -  Army, then Navy, then the royal military band – in a hesitation-step march from the Palace to the royal burial ground and tombs – about a 30-minute procession.  As on Monday, special handpainted cloth made from pounded bark called “tapa” (TAH-pah) served as carpeting for the military and pallbearers to walk upon for much of the procession.  Each large tapa you see in some of the pictures I’m posting today represent about 2000 hours of work.

The Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga conducted the funeral, but there were representatives from all churches present, along with international dignitaries (the crown Prince of Japan and his wife both attended, along with the Prime Minister of New Zealand and too many others to list). 
Then Wednesday was a day to breathe.  School was in session, but I imagine not a lot was accomplished.  Too many students were thinking about what their offerings would be on Thursday.  I know my teachers were not in learning mode for their class after school - only half of them even attended.  

The bush is a plant called kava, part of a ceremonial drink,
and the big long root vegetables are called ufi (ooo-feee).
And yes, those are live pigs in the cages.
Thursday:  Ha’amo Day. This was the day that the poorest of the poor bring their best gifts to the royals, as evidence of their grief.  So about 700 pigs ready for slaughter (the big ones, not the little piglets that families often barbecue), miles upon miles of tapa, root vegetables and bananas by the bearing-basketful, and any kind of treat families can come up with – leis of candy, cookies, cakes – all donated by people whose average income is probably about $100 a month.  The new king seems set to change this tradition, but he may not be able to do it in time for this round of ha’amo (hah-AH-moh).  As comfort to the Queen Mother, every family with students at Liahona was asked to prepare a cake or sweetbread for her.  That’s about 650 cakes.  What? We’re going to run out of flour!  This is an island, remember?  Panic is setting in on my little Palangi brain…

These baskets are about three feet long each, and are carried
 in by two people. And you can see the cakes!

Ah, we'll manage, say my Tongan friends.  It won't be the first time we've done without.  She's the Queen Mother, and she has lost her son.  We'll show her our sympathy and devotion to her with our gifts, and then later we'll figure out how to cook for our own families.  These humble, faith-filled people are used to sacrifice.  Looks like it's my turn to be taught.  


  1. They have as a people taught us to honor our fallen leaders, and those who have served us. We can learn much from their humility, and service. Thanks for sharing such beautiful memories with us, Bea!

  2. There are lots of lessons to be learned from Tongans. Once again, I am convinced that every American needs to live outside the US for at least one year, preferably two, to find out that (1)we who live in the US are extremely fortunate, and (2) people all over the world have things to offer us.