The early 2000s were a difficult time for my family. In the space of 4 years, 6 of my close relatives died.
Our first loss was my 46-year-old first cousin. His sudden, cardiac event widowed his wife and left his 4 young-adult children without a dad.
My own father was next, only a month later. Waiting for heart surgery, he had discharged himself from hospital to attend my cousin’s funeral, during which I noticed a haunting expression on his face, as if he knew his own time on earth was coming to an end. The operation put him in a coma from which he didn’t wake.
Less than 6 months later, my father’s 36-year-old brother suffered a fatal heart attack. His own children were so young at the time, I wonder how much they remember about him now.
The next year, my mother’s sister collapsed in her daughter’s arms. The year after that, her brother succumbed to a long battle with cancer. And then my mom’s last remaining sister – the eldest and matriarch of our extended family – also made her way to Heaven.
Most people would read this story and immediately feel for our tragic loss. If you’re a Samoan adult with some experience of our culture, though, you might also gasp at the impact that 6 funerals in a row would have made on our finances.
It sounds insensitive, I know, and almost taboo to be talking money while mourning loved ones, but such is the reality of life. In the Samoan culture, the burden of funeral costs is shared across an extended family, with monetary donations increasing in size the closer related you are to the deceased. Also in our culture – probably a remnant of island village life – we often consider our aunts and uncles extensions of our parents, and our first cousins might as well be our siblings. So yes, these 6 funerals – one after the other – were a pretty big deal for us.
Samoans often complain or make jokes about what we call fa’alavelave – any family event (especially a funeral or wedding) that requires a deep dig into our pockets for a donation. I myself am often an excellent advocate for my basic human right to NOT give away my hard-earned cash, thank you.
Yeah, my perspective changed quickly when my dad’s death caught my immediate family off guard.
Hindsight is both a great teacher and a tough judge. We should have had more savings – it’s not like we didn’t have jobs. My dad should have been insured. He had been, but it had lapsed – painfully, only a month or so earlier. We should have anticipated the possibility that his operation would fail… but who wants to think like that?
When I found out how much it costs to book a funeral home, to get a burial plot, to feed all the people who were coming to pay their respects, and then to know how little was in my bank account? Added to the grief of losing my father, I had a small anxiety attack.
I can only imagine how my mother was feeling. But she only instructed us to prepare our house for visitors.
Over the next few days, one by one, small groups of extended family and good friends came to see us. Each brought a donation of money, food, fine mats, and eloquent expressions of sympathy and support. For the first time in my life, I understood why Samoans give so much. “O le alofa,” my aunt used to tell me. It’s because of love.
It was only by this miracle of love that my father’s funeral was paid for in full, with enough left over to return a token of our appreciation to those who donated not only money, but their time and service that week.
Out of sheer, heartfelt gratitude, I made it a point to give as much as I could to support the following funerals in our family – for my beautiful uncles and aunts. And then, finally we were able to rest – for a little while – from the tragedy of loss.
In that time, my sister’s health slowly deteriorated. She had survived leukaemia as a young child, but the experimental chemotherapy she had needed affected her heart and eventually the cell activity of her brain. Doctors didn’t expect her to live past her teen years, but she made it into her 30s. When her epilepsy required her to be supervised at all times, we set up caregiving shifts that included cousins who live nearby.
My sister hated inconveniencing people with her care. She was either grumpy about all the attention, or she would go out of her way to make sure her minder (especially if it was a cousin) was compensated for their time. She would bake cakes, shout lunch and organize movie trips or ice cream drives to keep them entertained.
On one such excursion, my cousin remembers that he and my sister were sitting in his car having their usual, in-depth conversation over a drive-through meal. Suddenly, she turned and asked a question that still haunts him today:
“Are you ready to die?”
Startled and unsure how to answer, my cousin asked her instead where that question had come from. My sister’s reply was an odd assurance, “I am ready to die. I’m only worried about my mom. I don’t want her to be sad.”
She was 33 when she passed away a couple of weeks after.
It had been 5 years since the last major funeral in our family, but we were still seasoned veterans of the ritual. As we gathered to prepare for the days ahead, we gradually discovered the true meaning behind my sister’s curious statements.
One tearful cousin pulled my mother aside and gave her my sister’s computer password. She explained that only a week or so earlier, during this cousin’s caregiving shift, my sister had shown her a Word document. It was a list of all her bank accounts and login details, and it also included information about an insurance policy that we’d had no knowledge of. As we followed the breadcrumbs she’d left, we would soon learn that my sister’s secret estate covered every single funeral expense that arose, and also gifted my mother a substantial surplus.
It was a new experience for me to ‘pay’ for a burial plot or an extra memorial service at the funeral home simply by presenting an insurance document. Humbled by this turn of events, my mother returned any ceremonial donations of monetary support – as much as she could without causing offence. The whole spirit of that funeral was most unusual for us. We didn’t worry about having enough or paying off debt. We focused instead, with unhindered gratitude, on celebrating the impact my sister’s life has made on everyone she knew.
Because my family is so acquainted with death, we talk about it now with the kind of abandon that can make others uncomfortable. My mother has already bought her burial plot, plus 3 more, one of which is apparently mine. (Yayy?) Following my sister’s example, she also has a small container full of insurance policies (I think mom is addicted to them now) and passwords and logins. It also includes her last will and testament, plus a 5-page, typed out run sheet for her entire funeral…like literally, she’s even chosen the speakers and songs for her ceremony.
I haven’t gone to such extremes just yet, but I do believe much more now in the virtues of insurance… Or at the very least, of leaving enough money behind so my funeral is a happy celebration of my life, and not a burden for anyone else.
It’s not just about the money.
When I think about my sister’s question, I think about other loved ones I’ve watched pass into the next world. I remember one uncle, so close to end, so angry about the things he wouldn’t be able to accomplish now. At my grandfather’s deathbed, I saw the deep gratitude in his eyes that, in this moment, he wasn’t alone.
I wonder now, when that time comes for me – as it will for all of us – will I be ready? Financially? Emotionally? Spiritually? I look around at the things I own and hope they’ll be of use to others, too. I think about all the work I’m doing and pray that somehow, it matters. I run quick inventories in my mind to check that I’m not harbouring anything embarrassingly dumb that someone might discover (fingers crossed). Most of all, I think about the people I love…
When my mother first logged into my sister’s computer after her death, the first thing she saw on her desktop was a note addressed to ‘Mom’. It was a poem that expressed so much love and gratitude for all their years together. It ended with a message of comfort, with a promise that although she couldn’t be seen now, she would never be far away.
I imagine it was only with this final, faith-filled assurance – for both herself and her most beloved – that my sister was truly ready to die.