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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Rites of passage

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer

Aumua Mata'itusi Simanu Papalii opens an ietoga, or finely woven mat, received at a family funeral. Mats, once the currency of the Samoan people, are part of a ritual of balanced reciprocity that occurs between families after the death of a loved one.

Photos by BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Fa'a Samoa: The Samoan way.

Fa'alavelave: The Samoan economic system of producing extra for the community, especially in times of need or for ceremonies.

Asiga ma'i: Visiting the sick at the hospital or the home. Family members, friends and (if the person is prominent) a host of other well-wishers bring food for the sick and the caregivers. Don't be surprised to see a choir singing, and children in attendance.

Faiga lotu: Offering words of prayer, or a speech of comfort.

Sii: The ceremonial way of expressing love and affection by visiting and donating gifts to the family of the deceased.

Taliga toga: The practice of exchanging fine mats.

Sources: Mataafa Fono Mataafa, St. Francis Hospice; Fata Simanu-Klutz

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Aumua Mata'itusi Simanu Papalii displays one of her family's treasured ietoga. The finely woven mat may be given to the family of the deceased as a gesture of love and affection.

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As tulafale (orator) for her family, Samoan elder Aumua Mata'itusi Simanu Papalii knows the right and the wrong way to pay your family's respects at a funeral of a high chief in her culture.

"Do not walk in front of the chiefs," warns Papalii, 85, who lives in Kane'ohe. "Do not enter a funeral in long trousers; you should wear a lava-lava."

In Samoan tradition, orators such as Aumua Papa-li'i are not just keepers of the family stories and traditions; they are also charged with informing family members of other families' important news such as the death of a family leader. That's when an elaborate ritual paying respects, ponying up money for gifts and exchanging mats shifts into gear, a ritual as expected as death itself.

The Samoan culture's unique way of viewing death and dying has, at times, put it at odds with other groups, especially when end-of-life rituals can hit the hard wall of western ways or worse, hospital policies. But an effort is under way to bridge that gap and help further understanding of Samoan traditions.

Last Friday, St. Francis Hospice co-sponsored a panel discussion at Borthwick Mortuary that drew hundreds, most of them healthcare workers. There, experts from the Samoan community spent several hours explaining their ways for the crowd, some of whom admitted the clash of cultures has been problematic at times such as when Samoan visitors want to stay beyond hospital visiting hours, or bring several people into an intensive-care unit.

Discussions like these are "really, really helpful," said Rosalind Griffin, a nurse with Organ Donor Center of Hawaii who has lived here for nine years. "Death and dying doesn't come up in normal conversation, so to know (Samoan traditions) is really important."

It helps to understand that while Christianity is as integral to Samoan history as it is to Hawai'i's, the old ways continue to pervade end-of-life rituals.

For example, as with native Hawaiian spiritual traditions and those of some other faiths, Samoans may believe that the body itself may have special powers.

It "has to go back the way it comes," said the Rev. Fuamila Soa, Jr., pastor of Windward Samoan Congregational Christian Church, a panelist, explaining the concept is agaga, the spirit.

That's why autopsies aren't often performed. Also, the suggestion of organ donation may offend the family, since it's expected that the body will stay intact, panelists explained.

Those beliefs may be changing, speakers noted, as acculturation continues through subsequent generations.


Ministers hold a high place in transplanted Samoan cultures, taking on a role similar to that of a chief back home, Soa said. That's why ministers often are called to bedsides or expected at hospital wards.

Also, it's tradition to serenade a dying person which is why the hospital may see choirs joining the throngs of visitors for Samoan patients.

"This also gives comfort to the relatives, a form of spiritual support for them," adds Merina Sapolu, another panelist.

All that spells a steady stream of visitors.

"You expect a lot of visitors at the hospital," said panelist Mataafa Fono Mataafa, a social worker, "even after curfew. (In worst cases) security is called. (Medical workers) don't understand that they just want to see their loved ones."

Visitors include children, said Papalii's daughter, Fata Simanu-Klutz, a teacher of literature and history at the University of Hawai'i, who notes that little ones are expected to be part of the process.

Another interesting note: In their homeland, Samoans commonly bury their dead on family property, to make them a constant reminder in the lives of the survivors.

Panelist Tusi Toomata-Mayer, a nurse, pointed out that there is no word for "prevention" in the Samoan language. Some older Samoans won't even seek medical attention until the problem affects their ability to perform regular duties in the family. And once the end is near? They often choose not to prolong their life, preferring to die at home.

"It's quality of life, not quantity," Soa explained.

When it is their time, Soa and other panelists said, elaborate rituals begin. In fact, if, say, Uncle Ione has been mistreated or abused in any way when he was ill or dying, Samoans believe his spirit will return to cause illness and misfortune among the living.

After a death, loved ones will tend to the body, often for hours. Then come Samoan rituals, still practiced today in some form, involving the entire community: In its broadest terms, that means paying your respects and bringing gifts.

Members of the community assemble their families to agree upon a monetary gift as well as giving woven mats (in the old days, mats were the currency of Samoans, said Simanu-Klutz) to the family of the deceased.

At a chief's funeral, finely woven mats, often prized heirlooms, are given to the family.

Simanu-Klutz said the exchange includes speeches and words of comfort to the family.

One concept at work here is balanced reciprocity. The mats and money may be ceremonially bestowed, but then other mats and/or half of the money are given back, often accompanied by speeches, said Sapolu.

"(They will say,) 'We have so much, we have to give back half,' " she said, adding that this might again be reciprocated by the family returning half of the returned gift right back to the deceased. "It's an exchange, but man!" (She laughed.)

All this reciprocity strengthens family ties.

"In Samoan culture, the family is the life-insurance policy," Simanu-Klutz summed up.