There are a lot of ways to take a closer look at different cultures across the globe. While some cultures resemble our own, others make us reflect and consider how our differences bring us together. One important aspect of any culture that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves is the funeral customs.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How Do Samoans View Death or Dying?
- Samoan Funeral Traditions
- How Do Samoans Bury and Mourn Their Dead?
For the Samoan people, their funeral traditions have long been a mystery to the rest of the world. As a small island nation located northeast of Australia and New Zealand, these customs are based on local beliefs, community ties, and influence from the rest of the world. What exactly happens during a Samoan funeral? In this guide, we’ll find out.
Tip: If you're planning a virtual Samoan funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you can still partake in the traditions below. Talk with your funeral director or event planner to see what rituals they can adapt for a live stream.
How Do Samoans View Death or Dying?
Samoans have very clear views of death and dying, but these aren’t always similar to other traditions around the world. In Samoa, it’s important to do things “the Samoan Way.” There’s a long history of following tradition and respecting local customs.
Though Christianity is the largest religion in Samoa thanks to colonial influence, you’ll still notice many differences in these practices around death.
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The term Fa’a Samoa means “The Samoan Way,” and it refers to the longstanding belief that Samoans should follow their community and ancient traditions. Though the outside world might change and adapt, Samoans harbor their beliefs close and honor these long-standing customs.
This is a cultural context for all activities and traditions in Samoa. It’s a lifestyle and a way of life rather than a singular belief. In Fa’a Samoa, it’s important to put the group before the individual. This communal life is all about the family, which is headed by a leading chief.
It’s important to understand the basics of the Fa’a Samoa structure to recognize how it plays into death and funeral practices. For Samoans, life and death are about much more than a single person.
Nobody dies in Samoa
While it’s hard to believe, nobody really dies in Samoa. Death doesn’t happen the way that it does in other cultures. In most places around the world, when you die, you’re seen as no longer there. Your soul has moved on, and your family mourns this loss.
In Fa’a Samoa, the dead are never treated as though they’re “gone.” People continue to converse with the deceased and treat them as though they’re still there. Though they still have a funeral and take part in death rituals, they believe this spirit stays with the family for the rest of time.
Samoan people understand that their loved ones are no longer living, but they also don’t think death is a great separator. Death is simply God’s will, and it’s a normal, welcome part of life. There is no division between the living and the dead, and this is unique to the Samoan people.
Samoan Funeral Traditions
Now that you understand the basics of Fa’a Samoa and the concept that Samoan spirits live on, let’s talk about specific funeral traditions. These have evolved from ancient traditions, and they’re still in practice in Samoan communities across the globe.
The idea of a “good” and “bad” death is a common belief throughout the world. A “good” death, in Samoan tradition, is a death that happens at home. When death happens at home, the spirit stays with the family peacefully.
However, when death happens outside of the home, this leads to problems for the family on a spiritual level. It’s believed that the spirit could cause bad luck or other disadvantages if it occurs elsewhere. Again, this is a nod to the importance of family and community life.
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In Samoan tradition, it’s important for the body to be buried quickly. Only by dying at home and being buried the day after death with the spirit avoid misfortune.
However, in modern-day Samoa, this isn’t always possible. It’s not uncommon for families to wait a few days or longer for the family to travel home for the service.
Before the funeral
Much of the funeral process begins in the week before the funeral. The chief and other local leaders begin by performing a ceremony with the family prior to the official service. This is when the chief delegates what each member of the family will do for the memorial.
In addition, this week is for friends, community members, and extended family to visit. This is how people pay respect. Knowing how to offer condolences is an important part of Samoan custom. People give the family ceremonial gifts known as fa’alavelave. This refers to things like monetary gifts and woven mats.
Funeral service program
The funeral service doesn’t usually just involve close family and friends. It’s open to the entire community. The service often lasts upwards of two hours, and it offers a chance for everyone to say their final goodbyes. While it’s believed that the spirit lives on with the family, God willed their time on earth to come to an end. This warrants final words of respect.
During the funeral, the chief and family members might say a few words. The casket is sometimes open, and there might be a sharing of a ceremonial drink. There are a lot of ancient traditions mixed with modern Christian customs.
Popular songs and prayers
Since Christianity is the most common religion in Samoa, it’s not uncommon for funerals to include traditional prayers to the dead. These wish for peace in the afterlife and bring peace to families.
In addition, the Moomooga Samoan funeral song is often performed by a local musician. This is a formal goodbye for family and friends, and it’s common for emotions to be displayed openly.
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While it’s not always clear what to wear to a funeral, Samoans have strong beliefs about what’s appropriate dress for a funeral. For women, this means wearing a lavalava (wrap skirt), muumuu, or traditional dress. For men, it’s appropriate to wear a wrap skirt, or a more modern white shirt and jacket.
Unlike in other cultures, black isn’t always worn at funerals in Samoa. Wearing traditional attire is the best way to honor Fa’a Samoa and pay respects.
How Do Samoans Bury and Mourn Their Dead?
Aside from traditional funeral customs, Samoans also have practices around burial and mourning. Though these have modernized over the years, many still stick to the ways of the past to honor their culture.
Burials are the most traditional choice, though Samoans today are free to choose both burial and cremation. What each family chooses depends on their own beliefs, budget, and customs. Because open caskets are common at the funeral, this is still the most common choice in Samoa today.
Traditionally, it was important for the family to bury the body within a day of death. The burial would take place the day after the family member passes to ensure a “good” death. As time passed, this is no longer the case for most Samoan people.
In Samoa, mourning your deceased loved one is a way to honor their spirit. The mourning period lasts around two weeks. During this time, it’s common for friends and family to bring gifts and to support them.
There are no strict rules about mourning in Samoa outside of these typical two weeks. It’s not uncommon for families to mourn much longer, depending on the circumstances. Still, death is a natural part of life and not something to be feared.
Good Death in Samoa
The island of Samoa is a tropical paradise, but it’s also home to some unique perspectives and traditions around death. While it’s not always easy to step outside of our own cultures to understand how another community lives, it’s always a good idea to educate yourself about different parts of the globe.
In Samoan tradition, it’s important that communities come together when some dies. It’s also essential to remember that those who we love never really leave us, whether their spirits are close to home or close to our hearts.
- “Fa’a Samoa.” National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa. AmericanSamoana.noaa.gov.
- Frazer, James. “The Fate of the Human Soul after Death.” The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead. Trinity College, Volume 2, 1922
- Seiuli, Byron Malaela Sotiata. “Samoan Death Rituals in a New Zealand Context.” The University of Waikato. 2017. AlliedAcademies.org.