It was six in the morning. A storm brewed outside and my eyes were heavy with desire to sleep. I readjusted my seat and concentrated on picking out recognizable words flowing from the tongues of the Fijians surrounding me.
I was making egg salad sandwiches. Yep.
It was funeral day and no sooner was the sun rising than had relatives from villages near and far shown up for duty. The women went straight to work making food platters for the guests to eat after the service while the men sat around talking and playing the Fijian equivalent of Angry Birds on their phones.
If I’d had enough energy, I’d have been livid with the injustice occurring between the sexes. After all it WAS six in the morning- didn’t that qualify for sympathy help or something?
But in this society these men were my elders and as much as I didn’t want to admit it they were also my superiors. In all fairness I had said I wanted to live like Fijians. Damn me and my need for authentic experiences.
I yawned and stretched out my legs, slabbing egg salad on loaves of bread. My butt still wasn’t used to sitting on the floor. I watched flies cover finish platters of food. It didn’t matter; this was the tropics. We’d eat them all anyway.
I had been up late the night before with Ro Mereani going over the letter from David’s sister that I would be reading. She went through every paragraph, instructing me to put extra emphasis on certain words and correcting my speech patterns. I patiently walked through each sentence, hoping this would give her some peace of mind. I also gave her the photo album I had made of all the photos I had of Talei. She had flipped through it quickly and hugged me.
“Does she not like it?” I has asked Sala, concerned my timing had been inopportune.
“No, she likes it,” Sala reassured me. “I saw her starting to tear up. You did a good thing.”
I was grateful for my young friend. Even though she was there to nanny D’Tui, I felt such great assurance being around her. Like she was also keeping a watchful eye on me.
Ro Mereani brought me out of my thoughts, rushing us out the door. “Leave it,” she instructed. “We’ll finish them when we get back from the service.”
The crematorium stood in stark contrast to its surroundings: freshly painted, trimmed with a manicured lawn and working ceiling fans. The building consisted of a large main room with a window overlooking the incinerator on the backside. Girls in heels and pencil skirts greeted us with programs. I didn’t trust their overly-Americanized looks but took a program and smiled anyway.
Family and friends trickled in, followed by news crews and curious visitors. David’s cremation would mark the first in Fiji so it was receiving quite a bit of attention from media and locals alike.
“They just put the body into flames?” Someone had asked me. I had no idea how to answer the question so I sat there with my mouth agape. Luckily, they hadn’t paid much attention. Felix and the other pallbearers were carrying in the casket covered in a traditional woven mat.
The ceremony went fairly quickly with a few words spoken by Felix and some other family members. I tried to speak with as much vigor and dignity as I could. I caught Mereani’s gaze out of the corner of my eye as I finished up. She nodded and gave a small smile. I let out a breath of relief.
“Now we shall commence with the cremation of David,” the pastor said. While Felix and his fellow pallbearers carried the casket into the back, the pastor explained what would happen to those unfamiliar. “It’s a very simple process and will take less than a few hours to complete once the oven is lit.”
We filed into the small chamber in the back, news crews and family oohing and ahhing at the contraption that was spitting flames. I stood in the back. I am an anthropologist, I thought. I am removed from this situation. I am only observing.
The crematorium staff opened the large door of the oven. “We have to first unscrew the lid of his coffin and take off all the metal handles before we can commence,” the funeral director informed the crowd. I fixated my eyes on Mereani as they did this. I swallowed, watching her face. In this moment she was my point of strength.
They took off the woven mat and removed the lid to the casket. David’s body laid wrapped tightly in cloth- a mummy of the man so recently filled with life. “Are you ready?” The funeral director asked Mereani.
Ro Mereani sighed, placing her hand on the forehead of her dead husband. Closing her eyes, she nodded. Felix and the crematorium staff pushed the casket into the oven. Mereani brought her hand to lay over her heart.
Oh Jesus Christ. It was too much.
This was a woman of unwavering strength, a chieftain’s daughter in her own right. She had survived the loss of her daughter and was gracefully handling (and hostessing) through the death of her husband. She was amazing.
She said goodbye to her husband under the watchful eye of all these villagers and strangers. Photographers shoved lenses in her face. Everyone was taking pictures. Including myself. I still don’t know what to make of that.
The Fijian locals stood on their tippy toes and craned their necks to see what was happening. I walked into the other room and choked back a sob, watching the proceedings through the strange visitor’s window. I covered my mouth with my hand and took a deep breath, feeling tears trickle over my fingers.
Wake up Hilary, I scolded myself. This is real life. You are an anthropologist.
I am an intruder, my emotions fought back. I shouldn’t be here. Talei should be.
My rationality wasn’t backing down. Well you ARE here. So learn something.
I watched Felix nod to his family and the television crews, pressing the button to lower the door. Everyone stayed until there was nothing left to see. Then guests started filing out, laughing and hugging. At first I found this obscenely inappropriate. But then I relaxed.
You had to give them credit, those Fijians. They weren’t ones to dwell on the negative. They were a happy people, with love for life and chipper views on death.
Maybe instead of being all anthropological about this, I needed to embrace their mentality. Maybe it was the Americans who had a morbid view on death.
Ro Mereani walked out with her head high and a pleasant smile on her face. She smiled at me and patted my shoulder. “That was nice, eh? People keep saying that it was so quick and different. Now they all want to have cremations when they die.”
I nodded and smiled, comforted by her ease.
“Come,” she said. “We go home now and eat all that food.”
I sighed out my sadness and followed her out to the cars. And I suddenly realized how hungry I was.