She holds her doctorate in community and cross-cultural psychology. She is a regular contributor to CINews and the Atlantic Magazine online.
“When you’re born you already know where you’ll be buried,” said one of the Katoas.
I didn’t fully understand what this meant until we started the yolonga period for three weeks in Pukapuka. The yolonga is a patrilineal unit meaning an individual gets buried with their biological or adopted father. Each cemetery or po has its own area with paternal sub-lineages or wakavae. The village of Ngake has two main po: Muliwutu and Matanga. Loto village has two main po: Tangalipule or Tiltilowia and i Tua. Yato village has three main po: Yamaunga, Yayi and Yalongo. “This year,” said Walewawa Teingoa, of Muliwutu, “we will paint signs for each of the po as the younger generation don’t know all the proper names.” Everyone knows exactly where they will be buried.
For these three weeks, “Where will you be buried?” becomes the most common question as if asking about the weather. Even a small child knows exactly where he or she will be buried. While children usually go with the father or grandfather, like most things in Pukapuka it remains flexible. The mother’s share of children may go with her or with her father or even with a beloved grandmother. Kani, a seven-year old of Muliwutu, shows me with pride the exact spot where she will be buried. When down in Rarotonga, I remember a Pukapukan five-year old asking me “so where will you be buried?” She was testing my commitment to Pukapuka, essentially asking me “so, are you for real?” You have to know where you come from in order to know where you are going.
Pio Lavalua, chairman of the Kau Wo Wolo, says the yolonga is a time “to know your roots.” We spend the days in the cemeteries literally pulling the roots of the weeds around the ancestors. Everyone gathers to pull weeds in the early morning until noon, break for a midday meal and rest from the sun and then continues again in the evenings. By all working together, the cemeteries get de-weeded in three days. The next days get spent laying down fresh sand, painting signs, cooking together, playing volleyball, playing cards and having a fishing competition. Everyone lives together in their po for this period, sleeping outside and talking freely about death and burial. Some share stories of those who have passed, others look for their exact resting place. Some who recently moved back from New Zealand express confusion around where to be buried. Genealogies, affiliations and ancestors all get discussed while everyone gathers for another shared meal and all-night card playing. There is ample time for prayer and play.
I am reminded of spending Day of the Dead in Southern Mexico where we partied on the graves of the ancestors, drinking beer, eating pizza, and decorating the place with orange marigolds. At the house in San Cristobal de las Casas, we made an altar with photos of all loved ones who passed, sugar skulls and other offerings. For a month, I looked at that altar every morning keeping death and ancestors in mind appreciating the sweetness and bitterness of life all the more. Even when I worked in hospitals in America, dealing with death daily, we never talked about it. Pio Lavalua says, “part of the purpose is to know, to talk about death diminishes the trauma.” The literal meaning of yolonga, I am told, means the movement of the people through the passage of life. We all feel more connected. The yolanga becomes a time to hang out with people different from your usual village, solidifying the elegant cross-cutting social systems of Pukapuka. Pio Lavalua says, “No one gets lost here, there are so many systems of affiliation.” When you’re born, you already know where you’ll be buried, and that means something.