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.