This past week I encountered an usual situation on my way into work. As I neared the nursing station Monday morning, I noticed that I was being followed closely behind by a rather talkative, briskly moving group of men. I was reluctant to turn around and see what the commotion was about, lest my attention instigate some cheeky remarks that it was too early to quip back to. As I rounded the corner into the nursing station I saw that they were carrying a rolled up mat on their shoulders. By the time I realized that they too were heading to the nursing station, they were lying what turned out to be my neighbors body on the waiting room floor.
The nurse returned from her home at that same moment and was briefed on the circumstances of Mena’s death. Mena, the friendly, soft-spoken brother of the chief, the man wrapped in printed masi and intricate mats before me, had been found that morning on the dirt path down from his farm. He took his last breaths as a friend attempted to resuscitate him. We later learned that he’d suffered from cardiac arrest.
For the next hour or so I sat in the same room as Mena, listening to Mareta describe the circumstances of his death over the phone, watching friends and family ciruclate through the nursing station. What surprised me most about this peculiar circumstance was the reactions of the men who brought Mena’s body to the nursing station. It was so matter of fact; there was no sobbing, no freaking out. Not only did the men totally hold their composure, but had someone dialed into the nursing station to hear the sounds of the morning, they’d never guess that an unexpected death had occurred, or that the body itself was right there in the center of the activity. My own reaction surprised me as well. I would’ve expected myself to be quite distressed, sharing a room with the body of a man I’d just been speaking with the day before. There was an air of calm acceptance about the room that was palpable, a feeling that eased my tension, an understanding that it is as normal for a person to live as it is for them to die- there is no protesting that fact.
Over the next several days people from other villages filtered into Nabasovi. The family and friends of Mena gathered as daily life was suspended to commemorate his life and await his funeral. Groups congregated under trees and on porches, drinking grog and reminiscing, while community meals were prepared over fires and served to those visiting and mourning. Communities came together in mutual love and respect to feed the body and spirit of those grieving.
In modern Western culture we are so sheltered from death. We don’t generally see the dead, are often not intimately involved with their final corporeal moments. I can’t help but think that this must rob us of a more complete, reverent view of life. It is harder to find closure, to understand the concrete truth of death when strangers are paid to carry our friends and family to the next chapter of existence.
I was struck deeply by the first funeral I attended here in Fiji, as I watched the men dig, sweating in an effort of love, opening the earth to offer the return of their friend. As the men of Nabasovi lowered Mena’s body into his resting place, the final release of his heavy weight was like a tangible farewell. There’s something to be said about being kinesthetically involved in any major life event; to literally feel the weight of change. An event is more real, final.
The word for funeral in Fijian also gives some insight into their understanding of death: veibulu. Bulu means to clench and then release in the hand and the prefix vei- implies a reciprocal relationship. Thus, a burial is quite literally the final embrace and parting between loved ones.
Seeing the way that Fijians respond to death was enlightening. To be so intimately involved in the closure of a loved ones life can be intense and emotional, but so is any major life event, and death is no less natural or significant. It seems to me that psychologically this can help one to feel more acceptance and peace with death, and also give one a heightened awareness of our own mortality (which I’d argue can be a good thing). When we are accepting of the transience of life, we are more able to live fully in this moment. Tomorrow you might wake up feeling content and well, only to never make it to lunch. That’s not morbid, it’s the truth! But that need not be terrifying if we are present in our daily lives, involved in what matters and makes us happy, spending time with our loved ones. As far as I could tell, there was a sense of peace involved in Mena’s death because there was no perceptible regret. He spent his life doing what he loved: caring for his farm and spending time with his family. Whether you have 100 years on this earth or 100 days, death is but the conclusion, but how we choose to spend each day until that day is up to us.