Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"Turning to the Living"

Funerals, memorials, and the sense of community surrounding the death of a loved one are very important in the second half of the Grace’s novel, and I think that the traditions dealing with death are one of the things that define a culture or homeland.
The scenes in the novel that deal with death give the reader some of the strongest examples of the importance of ancestry, memory and story-telling to the Maori culture. In chapter 18, “The Urupa” for example, Grace demonstrates the importance of remembering the dead through ritual and stories. The children are extremely reverent of the dead, but at the same time, the urupa is a familiar place for them. The reader doesn’t get a sense of fear, anxiety or even sorrow from the children as the visit their relatives in the graveyard, which contrasts with the negative connotations or superstitions surrounding graves and cemeteries in western traditions. The children remember the dead through the retelling of stories about them. They also try to communicate with the spirits of their ancestors: “they would go from grave to grave squatting and putting an ear to each place” (123). The children listen for the “secrets of under the ground” and even though they cannot hear these secrets, they take turns speaking to the dead. Each of the children addresses some of their relatives and “tell them things” (124). The use of story-telling and the openness to communication with the dead demonstrates that for the Maori people life and death are not separate. Here we see the children intertwining these two “realities” and bringing death into life.
We can see this same intertwining in the events surrounding Toko’s death. Roimata explains the agony of having to bury a child: “it was difficult indeed, and painful, to watch our child being lowered, and to hear the first fall of earth, and the wailing which came from around and from within me. There was pain, finally, in turning away” (162). But after the funeral she describes the family’s obligation to “turn to the living” (162). The family does this through the celebration of the mourners after the funeral, the support of the community and by trying to return to their routine but it is difficult. I think they don’t really turn to the living until James carves Toko under loving-man on the piece of the poupou Mary saves. In this chapter we see that the carving allows Manu to overcome his grief and come back to life in a sense. Through James’ work and the story-telling in chapter 28 the family brings Toko back into the realm of the living and is able to find some peace.
Toko’s funeral and the scene with the children in the urupa brought to mind the first funeral I ever attended. It was my great-grandmother’s. Before she died, my great-grandmother was a constant presence in my life. Her home was the meeting place for my entire extended family for every holiday, baptism, graduation, engagement…basically every milestone that occurred in any of our lives was celebrated with her, and every “get together” turned into a full blown family reunion. There were at least forty people crammed into her little town house at any given time. I met relatives that I didn’t even know I had at these functions, but even with all the people it seemed like she made time to pay special attention to each of us. “Grandma Lyons” died after a long fight against colon cancer in her late eighties. Because of her sickness her death “had been with us a long time” much like Toko’s was for his family, but that didn’t make it any less painful (159).
I was probably ten or eleven when she died, and I actually don’t remember too much of her actual funeral, it was obviously more depressing than memorable. What I do remember is her wake which, in keeping with family tradition, took place at her house. Never having dealt with death before, I was very upset after the funeral and thought that having the wake at her home, still full of her possessions and our memories, was in really poor taste. But when we got there I was surprised and a little bit relieved by the drastic change in the mood of the funeral party. Instead of being morbid, having the wake in her little house actually helped with the grieving process. There were even more people there than usual. You couldn’t find a place to sit let alone a quiet place to mourn. So my family all pulled together to help my grandmother prepare the food for everyone, keep an eye on the kids, etc. It was just like celebrating a normal holiday. You could still smell her perfume around the house. Later in the evening after some people had left, we all started telling stories about our memories with her, some of them admittedly embellished, especially by the younger kids, but after a while everyone was laughing and reminiscing. Being in her house surrounded by the family it felt like Grandma Lyons was still there. It wouldn’t have been surprising if she had walked into the room and sat right down in her favorite arm chair. At that moment she was still alive for all of us, much like Toko and the ancestors are for the Tamihana family.

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