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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Chamorro Funeral

The Chamorro funeral is a fascinating event, one I've come to appreciate more and more as I grow older. WAIT! Before anyone is tempted to remind me about the exorbitant cost, physical and social demands and family disputes, just let me speak my mind first. This is the funeral process through my eyes, a perspective that comes from smack dab in the middle of the picnic table conversations and chopping board chats.

As a young girl I was always bothered by the elaborate funerals and wondered why everyone went to such extremes. It was not until I was old enough to share the burden and responsibility of organizing one, and not until I was old enough to really grieve that I learned the value of our customs. When my uncle Charlie died two years ago, I felt like I was in a dream state, acutely aware of everything going on around me. The grief was almost indescribable, difficult, and complicated, like trying to get play-dough out of your hair.

I found comfort in the daily routine of chopping vegetables and preparing meals for the night's rosary. It was in those moments at the family table, when the stories would come pouring out. Every day there was something new to appreciate and love and mourn about Uncle Charlie. Every day there was a chance to express in story and laughter how much he would be missed. I realized that the rosaries and more importantly, the preparation for them, was integral in preparing us for the actual funeral. The Chamorro Funeral is grief immersion therapy at it's rawest and it is a beautiful thing.

I watched each night as people gathered to eat. I listened to the words of condolence, to the offering of memories significant to each visitor who came to express their sympathy, and I was struck at the simplicity of it all. "Come to the table and break bread and we will share our heart's fondest memories; I will be here for you until you are ready to stand on your own" This is what people were really saying to one another.

Nine days of rosary to help the community prepare. One day to say good-bye. Nine more days with just the family to help adjust to life without their beloved. There is so much more to say, but my heart is full and heavy and I can't seem to make sense of it all right now, but I didn't want to lose this moment.

8 comments:

Steve Nguyen said...

Boni, you write so beautifully. Thank you for sharing from a Chamorro's perspective. Truly beautiful and eloquent.

Mona said...

Your writing speaks a great truth.

The Saipan Blogger アンジェロ・ビラゴメズ said...

When I came here for my father's funeral, my step-mother told me I was stepping on her turf.

Saipan Writer said...

I had lived in Saipan for 1 year and 3 months (still not quite over culture-shock), when I experienced my first up-close and personal Chamorro funeral. The 16 yo son of the family I lived with was accidentally shot and killed. I had hordes of teen family and friends staying at my house for the last few days of the crush. And I witnessed the extended family come together as a tight-knit clan to support each other and grieve together. It was beautiful, if sad.

Nine days for the "public" and nine more days for the family. And then the wound has been healed a little, enough to return to a somewhat normal life, or to pretend it's healed some and try to return.

I've witnessed many more Saipan funerals since that first one--both Chamorro and Carolinian. I think for most families the customary funeral strenghtens the family, helps those who are grieving to realize they are not alone, and appropriately honors the deceased.

But as you try to avoid, there are those other issues--the heavy financial, and social, obligations, and the family disputes that arise from them. The custom is good for "most" families, as long as finances are not an issue. When the families are on the brink of poverty, the custom adds a new stress, and can become more divisive than the grief and loss alone. The social obligation means people take off from work and lose their jobs.

(And let me say for some employees--FAMILY MEDICAL LEAVE ACT--http://www.dol.gov/esa/whd/fmla/ . This could help ease the strain for those who want to spend time with a close family member before s/he dies.)

I've seen lots of clients in poverty because of lost jobs to help their dying relatives or to fulfill their social obligations at funerals. We could use a CNMI version of the FMLA--that would apply to all employers (not just those with more than 50 employees) and possibly give time off for funerals (even unpaid leave, as long as the job is protected).

But the problems don't end with the poor families having a funeral.

When the immediate family is well-off, and provides an extravagant funeral, it also has some negative effects. For those in the family and the public who come to pay respects, extravagance makes them feel demeaned, less needed, less helpful, too poor to have a place. And some will feel resentful about the discrepancy between rich and poor.

I love that Saipan (and all of the NMI) offers a small community life where family binds people together, regardless of their economic situation. And I think the traditional island funeral custom plays an important role in our community life. But the economic realities must also be taken into consideration, or the fall-out after the funeral will be too harsh, and diminish the beauty of the custom.

Deece said...

It's sad and beautiful. My first real participation in a local funeral was when my Auntie Lucy died almost a year ago.

All of the days surrounding my father's funeral (not a local-style funeral) are almost a blur. I mean, I remember them, I remember distinct moments. I can picture them. But it seems surreal. They were incredibly sad, abnormally sad. But also very beautiful.

CH! said...

Has it been two years already, really?? I thought that Uncle Charlie passed away a couple of months before we moved offisland. If it has been two years, then damn life has gone bye so fast. Please remind me. I miss you and all those days and nights at the table with the memories of significant.

CH! said...

And with that question in mind, can you believe though that it could be just as sad, that when someone does pass away, that is when that person is really known.

BoReGo said...

Famous for their high tension feuds, the Chamorros can also turn a beautiful thing into a wasteful and emotionally negatively charged event. I choose always to keep my perspective, to pray with my whole heart, to offer my service on behalf of the departed and to put my whole self into it knowing that by doing so, I am honoring him/her. Only this thought got me through both my grandparents' and my uncle Chuck's funerals. As everyone knows, my uncle Charlie's funeral proceedings were fodder for the editorial page shortly after he passed.