When funeral leave becomes indefinite

Funeral procession for Samoa's former Head of State, Malietoa Tanumafili II - 2007

A friend of mine posed a question that quite honestly has us both perplexed and so I thought I would pass it along for your input. Typically I wouldn’t consider this a cultural idiosyncrasy but quite honestly I’ve seen it happen amongst Polynesians for many years so I’m speaking specifically from a Polynesian perspective.

Here is an example. When my mother passed away in 1993 I was employed by a large corporation based here in Salt Lake City. After battling cancer for several months we received the devastating news that my mother’s passing was imminent and that we should prepare for the inevitable. Trying to be proactive I consulted my employee handbook and confirmed with my human resources representative that there were in fact, days set aside for ‘funeral leave’.

Armed with this knowledge I then informed my immediate supervisor that my mother was not doing well and that at any given point within the next few days or weeks (while still praying for months or years), I would be calling to inform her that my mother had passed on and at that point, I would be taking the days allotted by the company to mourn my mother before returning to work.

On a very heart-wrenching Sunday morning, May 16th, my mother passed on and we began the customary preparations for mom’s funeral services. The next morning I phoned my supervisor to inform her of the funeral arrangements and that I would be utilizing the full allotment of funeral leave to mourn and to assist my dad and siblings in burying our beloved wife and mother. Five days after her passing, she was laid to rest on Friday, May 21, 1993.

I returned to work the following Monday even though in spirit, I wish I could still be curled up in the fetal position in bed under the covers. It felt like my life truly did not resume until months later.

Here is where it gets a little tricky for us as Polynesians. Certainly I’m not a model employee and I don’t provide the example of my mother’s own passing to tell you how great I am at following the rules. If it were up to me I would take a whole year off to sort out my feelings and there are no doubt situations where people really do need that much time to overcome sadness and despair. But at what point do we as Polynesians draw the line of distinction between our obligation to the dead and our obligations to the living?

It’s difficult to move on, trust me; I’ve been there and know the face of melancholy. But I also know that when I signed on with my employers, I promised to follow certain rules and live up to specific expectations in order to earn my wage. Sadly, there are those who are presumably using cultural protocol to supersede a sustained and a healthy fiscal life even to the point of quitting their jobs in order to spend more than a week to assist in funeral activities. Or am I wrong?

Are there any cultural practices that you are aware of that necessitate a specified amount of time away from the our typical day-to-day?

I lived in Samoa and I’ve been around my people my entire life but I’m not aware of any cultural decorum pertaining to funeral services (aside from those ceremonies set aside for heads of state, royalty, et al) that require more than three or four days.

I really don’t mean to be insensitive because as I’ve mentioned beforehand here, I think we all mourn the passing of a loved one for years after their death. But is there a set amount of time that we must set aside to perform cultural formalities before we it is necessary return to work?

I would like to hear your opinions. If you are a “non-Polynesian” I would like to hear of your own cultural or familial practices that might fall under this category as well. Please post a reply.

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9 Responses to When funeral leave becomes indefinite

  1. Art says:

    My spouse I think 30 days should be enough to get things in order although not sufficient enough to recover from the mourning process of course but enough time to settle your affairs. As far as a sibling goes or parent, I dont believe their is an employer that will extend your time past a week. Kind of sad that we can’t grieve when we need to grieve because of the abuse of the generosity of some employers by some people.

    • Seti Matua says:

      I hear you on the ‘not sufficient enough to mourn’ part. I totally understand it from a business perspective but it seems to be abused more often prompting companies to crack down on it in some way.

  2. Lin Faumuina says:

    We never really “get over it”. My dad passed away 9yrs ago. Every year around the time he passed away I always get depressed and have a heaviness in my heart that slowly fades in the months that follow. I heard Kim Kardashian say something similar to that effect concerning her own father but I totally understand about the bereavement leave. I have a cousin that went on bereavement leave just after the 3 month employment qualification timeline to receive it. After receiving the benefit (4 months pd leave) he quit. Never had to pay back a dime to the company he only “devoted” 3 months of work to…lol he got paid more in leave benefits than actual work!
    BTW…I like your stuff, enjoy reading it.

    • Seti Matua says:

      Lin, your point also brings up another matter that I did not consider initially – that sometimes there is a generational factor involved that could be taken into account. I don’t have statistics to back this up of course but speaking from a personal perspective, I can see “19-year-old-me” bailing on a job because I can find another entry-level position somewhere else fairly easily. But “older-me-with-mouths-to-feed” would definitely balk at taking a large number of days off because of my responsibility to my family. I hope your cousin has a new setup somewhere and I’m sorry that you still feel the absence left by your father.

      Faafetai and I hope you come back often!

  3. Jon says:

    Great topic Seti.  First of all, no, you are not wrong, I don’t think it is a right or wrong issue, and I do agree some of our people (emphasis on some) do abuse bereavement leave.  For funerals I have requested in the past at least a week for immediate family members to account for travel to and from, and help with protocol as you say.  This involves being on hand to help our family elders receive si’is, and I’m sure you are familiar with the ongoing cooking, cleaning, and other fe’aus involved that are pretty much non-stop in these situations.  Working in HR has allowed me to make some observations.  One interesting thing about the line of work I have chosen, is that it has dispelled a lot of ‘myths’ about polynesians that sadly, even I had, like we don’t work as hard as palagis; many of our people are holding down more than 1 job—doesn’t make us special, just normal for these days if you ask me.  Until my current stop, I had been the only poly around so I have had a lot of time to look at leave use on the job by non-Samoans.  On the job, I haven’t noticed that non-Samoans request any less time for bereavement purposes.  They generally range from less than a week to a month in some cases.  Our people also might be unique in that they are more likely to still have immediate family overseas whether it be in Samoa, Australia, New Zealand, or Hawaii where attending to family matters would likely mean an absence of I would say 2 weeks minimum (you might argue less for a funeral in Hawaii).  Anyway, from what I have observed I definitely feel that our people are not out of line with what’s normal when requesting bereavement leave, at least in comparison to the places I’ve worked for so far in HR.  Since Utah is a right to work state, I would say if your employer has a generous leave policy, be thankful for it and don’t abuse it.  I also find that the more reliable an employee is, the more willing the employer might be to grant you the time you need.  Likewise, if you call in sick often, they might not be so flexible. 
     
    On where cultural protocol should fit in, I personally believe in balance, and sincerely hope most of our people are in a favorable position when they are pushed to the point of choosing where to draw the line.  I certainly hope few are pushed to that brink as I definitely appreciate the importance of having and keeping a job.  I think the willingness of our people to quit their jobs to attend to their loved ones is a cultural thing, idiosyncrasy, as you say.  Basically, the mentality that I can always find another job, but I won’t have another mother, father (or any immediate family member) etc.  I think this gets into what family and ritual means to a Samoan from a cultural perspective.  I think our devotion to family and ritual and its meanings and purposes when someone passes are what make us unique…might not make us employee of the year on attendance, but it’s some of the things I love about our people.  Having drafted those ‘agreements’ you mention that employees sign to follow the rules, I can say from firsthand experience that those rules are written by the employer for their benefit, not the employees’ so I wouldn’t be so hard on yourself or our people when they start waffling on them, but I think I get your drift with signing and abiding by an agreement as a personal moral standard.  Good stuff, glad you bring these things up.

    • Seti Matua says:

      Jon, this is great information, especially from an HR perspective. You bring up a point that I missed and that is the travel that is involved which is quite often the case for many of us who still have close family relations overseas. This definitely will chew up a chunk of the average 3-5 days allowed by most US companies for bereavement leave. And of course as you’ve mentioned here, it isn’t just a matter of getting there, paying your respects and hopping back on another flight. There are cultural observances, hosting ‘visiting parties’ and finally the services and receiving more parties who have come to pay their respects after the deceased has finally been laid to rest.

      Yes, I too have found that reliable employee’s with a proven track record of attendance and performance are usually ‘rewarded’ with extra time off (sometimes without pay but at least you know you are still in good standing with the company). I think its just a matter of communicating throughout the process and making your intentions clear.

      Thanks for your thoughts and I welcome any subject matter you would suggest for our regular readers.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I have a few perspectives to share with you on this matter. To answer your questions posed:
    1. At what point do we as Polynesians draw the line of distinction between our obligation to the dead and our obligations to the living?
    For me this is a personal standard. I have always said to myself – Family First even when it comes to work. At the same time, I am not a slacker at work. I give my best on most days b/c I was taught to work hard and you will be rewarded.
    I really do think it depends on who has passsed away in regards to number of days allowed. In Utah, I worked for a company from entry level and moved on up the chain. So from the employee side there was an occasion when I did use bereavement leave unethically. I am ashamed to admit it now but at the time I was new in the company and didn’t have enough paid time off so I did use bereavement time as well to add a few days to my vacation. I know I will pay for this someday. 🙂
    However, once I moved into a management role and was a Team Leader my perspective changed. Then I was shocked to see the abuse of the bereavement policy. The policy at the company that I worked for in Utah was 5 days of paid leave for an immediate family member and 1 day for an extended family member. I thought this was fair.
    I think the lines got blurry when I had some Polynesians in my department who claimed they had immediate family members passing to take the full 5 days but they were not immediate family members. When these Polynesian employees’ team leaders asked me if the death of a person in the community was a relative of an employee and they were not related then there was a problem. I was now faced with an ethical dilemma that I did not appreciate.
    I do try to be an ethical person and I do believe age is a factor as well with what responsibilities we have. A young person may quit a job if not given the leave just because their families told them to do so vs. an older employee that cannot afford to just quit on a dime.
    It is a fine line to draw between being obligated to the dead and cultural traditions that go on in preparation for the funeral versus an obligation to an employer. I hate to say it but I did see many Polynesians abuse the bereavement leave which then left a bad taste with my employer at the time. I would also agree with you Seti that when an employee is on time to work most of the time and produces great results, it is much easier to give more time for a leave request vs. an employee who is a slacker requesting extra days off.
    Is there a set amount of time that we must set aside to perform cultural formalities before we it is necessary return to work? NOw that I have moved home to American Samoa, the cultural traditions are a lot stronger here and the cultural formalities must be appreciated. However, at the same time, I do believe that the policy implemented at that company in UT could be applied here as well. 5 paid days for immediate family members and 1 day for extended.
    Thats my 2 cents on this matter. YOu bring up great blog ideas Seti. Thanks!

    • Seti Matua says:

      Yes your observations regarding the time a person grieves is definitely on their own time frame and there is no clock and yes, I believe that 5-days for immediate family members is more than fair. But we can also subsidize that time with our own accumulated paid-time off hours and sick leave. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always apply to people who have already maxed out their leave and then request more time off. I think there are different and numerous forms of abuse of this policy but I tend to have bigger problem when a person uses ‘cultural considerations’ to solicit empathy from an employer. Again, this may be the exception to the rule but I’m hoping to see a number of perspectives on the matter and truly appreciate your honesty and opinions.

      Manuia!

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