Notes on Fijian Burial Customs

by Lorimer Fison

[Extracted from Journal of Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 10 (1881), pp. 137-49.]


The Rev. Thomas Williams, in his valuable work on "Fiji and the Fijians," has described the funeral ceremonies which came under his notice. To that account many interesting particulars may be added, for there is no uniformity of custom in Fiji, and no description of what is done by any one tribe can be taken as applicable to all the others.

One custom, however, seems to have been everywhere practised, namely the strangling of widows that they might be buried with their dead husbands. On the death of a great chief, many women were thus sacrificed, the victims being generally his watina lalai, or "little wives," i.e., women of inferior rank, though sometimes one or more of the watina mbau, who were all marama, or ladies of rank, would volunteer to be buried with him. The strangled women were called the thotho, or "carpeting of his grave."


In some parts of the group it is1 the duty of the widow's brother to perform, or least to superintend the strangling, and he is summoned to do his office either by the kinsfolk of the deceased or by the widow herself. In one case within my own knowledge, a chief was found dead under his mosquito curtain by his wife. She at once went in search of her brother. "O Matakimbau," she cried, "Malani is dead! Take pity upon me and strangle me to-day." "All right," her brother replied. "Go now and bathe yourself, and put on your ornaments. You shall be strangled by-and-by." And strangled she was in spite of the resident missionary's efforts to save her life.2 At Solevu (Vanua Levu) I was told that sometimes the friends of the deceased wish to spare the widow, and intercede for her with her brother, who is always at least ostensibly unwilling to grant their request. If their entreaties be of no avail one of them (probably he who wants to marry the woman) takes hold of her arm, and tries to drag her away. Her brother seizes her by the other arm, and a struggle ensues, on the issue of which depends the woman's fate. If her brother prevail, she is strangled without more ado; but if her husband's kinsman prove the stronger her life is spared. It is quite possible that the brother's unwillingness to spare the widow may be always real, for the man who fails to strangle his sister on the death of her husband, is despised by his brother-in-law's kinsfolk, and is ashamed to visit them; whereas he who fulfils the duty is honoured by them, and is treated with marked respect whenever he goes to see them. Moreover, a substantial mark of their regard is bestowed upon him, the strangling cord being hung up by them on a piece of land, which thereby becomes his property.

A man belonging to the Nandi tribe (the nearest neighbours of those Solevu folks, and therefore continually fighting with them) said to me, "I have found the good of the strangling; twice it has saved my life. My father was a Solevu man, and was killed when I was a child. My mother was strangled at Solevu by her brother, and he brought me here to Nandi, and reared me.

"Twice in war time I came suddenly upon the Solevu warriors, and crouched down, expecting death. The clubs were raised to kill me, but some one who knew me cried out, 'his mother was strangled among us,' and they saved me alive. They took me to [p.139] the town, made a feast for me, and sent me away with many presents."

When a woman is about to be strangled that she may be buried with her husband, she is made to kneel down, and the cord (a strip of native cloth) is put round her neck. She is then told to expel her breath as long as possible, and when she can endure no longer to stretch out her hand as a signal, whereupon the cord is tightened, and soon all is over. It is believed that, if this direction be followed, insensibility ensues immediately on the tightening of the cord; whereas, if inhalation has taken place, there is an interval of suffering.

An excuse for the practice of widow-strangling may be found in the fact that, according to Fijian belief, it is a needful precautionary measure; for at a certain place on the road to Mbulu (Hades) there lies in wait a terrible god, called Nangganangga, who is utterly implacable towards the ghosts of the unmarried. He is especially ruthless towards bachelors, among whom he persists in classing all male ghosts who come to him unaccompanied by their wives. Turning a deaf ear to their protestations, he seizes them, lifts them above his head, and breaks them in two by dashing them down on a projecting rock. Hence it is absolutely necessary for a man to have at least one of his wives, or at all events, a female ghost of some sort following him.

Women are let off more easily. If the wife die before her husband, the desolate widower cuts off his beard, and puts it under her left armpit. This serves as her certificate of marriage, and on her producing it to Nangga-nangga, he allows her to pass.

In some places the chiefs favourite henchman also is buried with him; and in other places we find evident survivals of this custom, though the custom itself has died out. Thus on the death of the Torandreketi, or chief of the Tokatoka tribe, his follower lies down in the grave with the strangled women until the body is lowered, and then returns to the upper air. At Matailombau (an inland tribe of Navitilevu), the heswiman of the "undertakers," called the Mbouta, retires after the burial of the chief to a solitary hut which has been built for him in some out-of-the-way place, and remains there for several months in seclusion. The whole neighbourhood of his dwelling is strictly tambu (tabooed) to all, excepting certain persons who are appointed to take him his food, which they do secretly by night; and a warning mark is set up at the place where he goes to bathe, that all passers by may know it is the silisili ni Mbouta (the Mbouta's bath), and so avoid it. At Vunda, on the north-west coast of the same island, when a chief is buried, the two [p.140] headmen of the grave-diggers, who are his Ngganggali, retire after the funeral to a house in the town and remain there, it may be for a whole year. They paint themselves black from head to foot, and only leave the house by night. If compelled to go outside during the day, they cover themselves with a mat. A fiction is kept up that they are invisible, or rather non-existent. People may be coming and going to and from the house all day long, but they take no notice of the Ngganggali; in fact, nobody is supposed to see them. Their food is brought into the house in silence, or is formally presented to imaginary guests with the usual speech.

At one place, at least, on the island of Vanua Levu, there is a ghastly custom. A noted "brave" is distinguished from the common herd after death by being buried with his right arm sticking out above the grave-mound, and passers by exclaim with admiration as they look upon the fleshless arm, "Oh, the hand that was the slayer of men!"

In many widely separated parts of the group a custom prevails which is found in Central Africa also, and elsewhere. For some days after the decease of a ruling chief, if his death be known to the people, the wildest anarchy prevails. The "subject tribes " rush into the chief town, kill pigs and fowls, snatch any property they can lay their hands on, set fire to houses, and play all manner of mischievous pranks, the townsfolk offering no resistance. Hence the death of a ruling chief is studiously concealed for a period varying from four to ten days. At Nalawa (Navitilevu) a log is placed on his bed, covered with his coverlet, and his attendants sit by fanning it, and talking to it as if he were still alive. These attendants are men belonging to a clan whose business it is to nurse the chief when he is sick, and to bury him when he dies. They take sole charge of him during his last illness, remove him to the Mburekalou (god's house, or temple) whence they jealously exclude all but themselves; and when he dies they conceal his death even from his nearest kinsfolk, Elsewhere, the headman of the Mbouta before mentioned personates the dead chief, and issues his orders from within the mosquito curtain of native cloth, in the faint querulous tones of a sick man.

When the secret oozes out, the people come rushing in great excitement to make inquiries, and are blandly informed by the Mbouta that they are too late. "Is the chief dead yet?" "It is he who was buried ten days ago." "Sa nai rusa na yangona," ("His body is decomposed by this time.") And the baffled inquirers go away grumbling, for their opportunity has passed away and is lost. The idea seems to be that not until decomposition may be supposed to have made considerable progress is [p.141] the dead man fairly done with, and his authority handed over to his successor. The dead hand can no longer wield the sceptre, but it has not yet relinquished its grasp; and the old communal idea asserts itself now that the power which kept it down is in abeyance. Hence the interval of anarchy if the death be not concealed. I have met with traces of a similar belief among certain Australian tribes, who seem to think that the spirit does not finally escape from the body until decomposition sets it free. It must, however, be noted that the customs of some other Fijian tribes do not fall in with this notion, as will presently appear.3

Two instances may be given here which seem to mark the gradual subsidence of this custom. At Nakasaleka (Kandavu) it is the property of the chief alone which is subject to lawless seizure on his decease. As soon as it is known that he has drawn his latest breath, the people4 flock into his house, and lay violent hands on all the movables therein. To guard against this, whenever the chief is seriously ill his friends are careful to remove the most valuable articles to other houses for security. At Navatu (north coast of Navitilevu), on the fourth night after the burial of the ruling chief, a solemn Tneke (song and dance) is performed by the assembled people. There is a pause in the music, and a voice calls out "My five whale's teeth are So-and-so's." The song goes on again. Another pause, and another shout, "My ndalo plantation to So-and-so." Again a strain of music, and again a pause, "My gun to So-and-so," and so on until nearly all the property of the townsfolk has changed hands. Whatever is proclaimed as a gift to yourself you must call out a fair equivalent in return, or you will be looked upon as a disgracefully shabby fellow, and your life will be made a burden to you. Here we see the old communal idea asserting itself, but in an orderly manner, and without the violence which is elsewhere displayed.

By many tribes the burial place of their chief is kept a profound secret, lest those whom he injured during his lifetime should revenge themselves,5 by digging up, and insulting or even eating his body. In some places the dead chief is buried in his own house, and armed warriors of his mother's kin keep watch night and day over his grave. After a time his bones are taken up and earned by night to some far-away inaccessible cave in the mountains, whose position is known only to a few trustworthy men. Ladders are constructed to enable them to reach [p.142] the cave, and are taken down when the bones have been deposited there. Many frightful stories are told in connection with this custom, and it is certain that not even decomposition itself avails to baulk the last revenge of cannibals if they can find the grave. The very bones of the dead chief are not secure from the revenge of those whose friends he killed during his lifetime, or whom he otherwise so exasperated by the tyrannous exercise of his power as to fill their hearts with a deadly hate. In one instance within my own knowledge, when the hiding-place was discovered, the bones were taken away, scraped, and stewed down into a horrible hell-brothbut here the narrative had better stop.

Extremely interesting traces of the former prevalence of secret burial are found among tribes who do not conceal the graves of their dead. I observed from time to time in various parts of the group certain remarkable customs with regard to the first sod turned in digging a grave; and of these customs the natives could give me no explanation other than that which is perfectly satisfactory to their own minds with regard to all practices of which they have forgotten the origin"Our fathers did so." It was not until I became acquainted with tribes who practise secret burial, and noted the extreme care with which the surface sods were raised and set aside when the grave was dug, in order that they might be replaced with as little derangement as possible, that I came upon what seems to be the underlying idea.

Tribes, who long ago abandoned their ancient practice of concealing the grave, seem to have remembered that the sods were kept apart from the excavated soil, but to have forgotten the reason for the custom; and so they have come at length to ascribe some peculiar virtue to the first sod raised, and to do all manner of queer things with it. In some places it is laid aside until the grave has been filled up and then is kneaded into a little tower on the top of the mound. Elsewhere it is thrown in upon the corpse before the rest of the excavated earth. At Vunda, the two Ngganggdli hold it against their breasts until the body has been lowered into the grave. But the most singular custom in connection with it occurs at the burial of the Torandreketi before mentioned. When his grave is dug, the man who turns the first sod takes it up in both hands and raises it to his head. He then lifts up one foot, and resting it against the calf of his other leg, he maintains that posture until the chief is buried. The poor man may be kept thus standing for several hours, and has sometimes been unable to straighten his leg at the close of the ceremony. His friends carry him down to the waterside, bathe, and vigorously shampoo him, until the rigid muscles have recovered their elasticity.


A curious belief in connection with the burial of a chief prevails at Naitasiri, on the banks of the Wailevu, the noble river which flows down to Rewa from the mountains of Navitilevu. There the Mbouta carry the dead chief by night to his secret grave far away in the hills, and are not permitted to lay the body down until the break of day. If they reach the burial place before dawn, they must stand in silence, bearing the body on their shoulders, until the morning light begins to appear in the east, for if they lay it down "Ena kata na nggio mai wai" ("The sharks will bite in the river."6)

Cave burial is common in Fiji, that is to say it is found in many parts of the group, though it is not generally practised. The people of one village may be cave-buriers, while their neighbours on either side of them, and indeed all the other tribes of their island, bury their dead in graves. The dead, and sometimes the dying, are laid in caves without any covering other than the cloth or mats in which they are wrapped. At Nakasaleka (Kandavu) there is a deep rocky chasm into which the dead are thrown headlong, but only commoners are disposed of in this manner. Chiefs are treated with greater ceremony.

In all probability the practice of cave burial was far more common in the olden times. In several places where the people bury their dead in the ordinary manner, and were in the habit of so burying them when the first missionaries arrived, there are caves which are full of skeletons. A few years ago a chief named Koroivuki of Tumbou (Lakemba), was strolling along a strip of sand left bare by the receding tide at the foot of a rocky bluff. A little dog he had with him started a wild cat and pursued it. To Koroivukfs astonishment both cat and dog suddenly vanished where a stunted tree grew out of a crevice in the rock, and though he heard the dog barking he could find no trace of it At lengthy pushing aside the branches of the tree, he found that they concealed an opening whence the dog's barking sounded faintly as if it came from far away. He crawled in, and found himself within an extensive cave, which, to his horror, was full of dead men's bones. His people had buried their dead in graves from time immemorial, and none of [p.144] them were aware of the existence of the cave. The neighbouring tribe of Tarakua, however, were cave buriers, and I have visited a large double cave In which they deposited their dead.

A curious circumstance gives further evidence of the wider prevalence of cave burial among the Fijiana in former days. There are tribes of Navitilevu who make artificial caves for their dead in the alluvial soil. Some dig them in the hillsides with no little care and skill, others sink a perpendicular shaft, and then "put in a side drive" as the Australian gold-diggers phrase it. This drive, or chamber, in the grave, and there the chief lies with his strangled women under Mm. A stone closes the entrance of the drive, and excludes the earth when the shaft is filled up. Sometimes the dying man is placed in the vault when he is supposed to be beyond hope of recovery. Food and water are lowered down the shaft, and as long as he can crawl to them and use them, so long is the shaft kept open. When they remain untouched the earth is filled in. All the superfluous soil is carried away to a distance. The surface sodawhich were raised with the greatest care by the grave-diggers, and kept apart from the excavated earthare now replaced; dead leaves, etc. are strewn over them, and all traces of the excavation are carefully obliterated. The following rough sketch shows a section of this kind of grave. It was made from the description given to me by native informants. At the time I was within easy distance of the place where the caves are excavated; the tribes living there were heathen. One of our missionaries had lately been killed and eaten, and I could not visit the place without running the greatest possible risk.

In some places, the dead man is laid out at full length, his head being supported by the kali, or wooden pillow, as in the foregoing sketch. But in many parts of Fiji the legs of the [p.145] corpse are drawn up, the body is doubled together until the knees touch the chin; the elbows are drawn in to the sides with the hands uplifted, and the whole body is then securely bound in that posture. This is done to prevent the ghost of the dead man from "walking " by night, and doing injury to the living. At Sambeto (north-west Navitilevu), the body is placed face downwards in the grave, "Nae mai raid kenda ho koya" ("Lest he should see us"). The spirits of women who die in childbirth, or before the child is weaned, are greatly dreaded, especially if the child were not born in wedlock. It is a common custom to lay upon the breast of such a woman a piece of a banana stem wrapped in native cloth, and to bury it with her. This is done to cheat her into the belief that it is her baby which she has lying on her breast. The child in the meanwhile is carried secretly to a distant town, that its dead mother may be unable to find it if she discovers the cheat. Other precautions also are taken. In some places bits of bamboo are strung loosely on a cord and fastened to the wrists of the corpse, so that by their rattling they may give warning of her approach if she takes to walking by night. Elsewhere the poor woman is buried with her liku or waistfringe untied, that it may fall down when she rises, and the wretched ghost may be thereby compelled to sit down again with shame and confusion of face.7

In several parts of Fiji, when an old man dies a curious custom is observed. Before the body is carried forth to the burial, it is either lifted up by the bearers or laid upon a raised platform. A man(the brother of the child's mother)then takes the son's son of the deceased, passes him rapidly several times hither and thither, and under and over the corpse, and then runs away with him at the top of his speed. This is done in order to bewilder the old gentleman as to the direction in which the child is taken away, it being supposed that he will be very desirous to have his grandson with him where he is, and will therefore seek to kill him. A like custom is observed when the father dies; but it is the father's father who is especially dreaded, for it is supposed that the relationship between the paternal grandfather and his grandchild is closer than that which exists between the child and its father. This idea can be clearly traced to the former prevalence of descent through females, which indeed is still the rule among some of the Fijian tribes. But this brings us into another and a far more important field of research, and a discussion of the subject would be out of place here.

At Lakemba, one of the Windward or Eastern Islands, great [p.146] chiefs are buried in large stone coffins, which are placed on the surface of the ground, a great heap of sand being raised over and around them. The burial of one of the Tui Nayau (Lakemba kings), which I myself witnessed, was conducted as follows:

The body was laid out at full length upon fine mats, with the face uncovered. A lady of high rank sat by in a half-reclining posture with one arm thrown round the back of his head, her face and her whole attitude expressing the very extremity of woe. She was covered from head to foot with a large flowing ngatu, or mantle of beautifully painted native cloth. Four other ladies sat below her, two on each side, and continually fanned the corpse. Profound silence was kept. All work was suspended throughout the island, save the necessary preparations for the funeral. No lamentation was permitted. The tangi vi vaniui (weeping of the land) was expressed by the subdued dolorous blare of conchs8 blown softly by young men who were seated on the projecting part of the mound on which the house was built. At night, rows of lamps made of cocoanut shells and filled with cocoanut oil were placed upon the mound, and on the gate-pasts also of the fence which enclosed the king's precinct In the meanwhile the grave was being prepared. Six slabs of white sandstone were cut smooth and flat with axes, and carefully fitted together so as to form a large sarcophagus, 7 feet. long, 3 feet broad, and 5 feet deep. A suitable spot near the beach was cleared, and all the undergrowth and rubbish removed to a distance. Here the lower slab was placed on the ground; the side slabs and those at the ends were set up in their places; and then clean white sand was brought from the beach, and poured down until a mound was formed about 15 feet square, and somewhat higher than the coffin, which stood in the centre of the mound. The sand was kept in its place by a strong stone wall on every side. No particle of soil was allowed to mingle with the sand, and even the stones of the outer wall were carefully washed in the sea before they were set in their places. The body was rolled up in many of the finest mats, and laid at full length in the coffin; the top slab was put on as a lid, and about a foot of sand was poured upon it. The whole surface of the mound was then levelled, and covered with little blue, green, and reddish-brown pebbles, which were brought in baskets by the women.

A singular custom, called Vakandrondro ("flowing," or rather, "causing to flow"), is observed at Nairai, one of the islands in Central Fiji, immediately after the burial of a young unmarried chief, or a girl of high rank who died in her maidenhood. Say that it is a chief who has lately been buried. The young men [p.147] and the girls bathe and oil themselves, put on their best ornaments, and then gather together in a house under the charge of certain elders. The girls lie down on one side of the house, and the youths on the other. A deep sleep falls upon them. Their souls leave their bodies, and glide swiftly away with an easy flowing motion. Presently they see before them the spirit of the dead chief, who is making the best of his way to Naithombothombo, a projecting point of land which forms the western extremity of Vanua Levu, and whence the spirits of the dead leap into the sea on their way to Mbulu, the Fijian Hades. The young people follow in silence, and watch. They see the ghost arrive at the overhanging rock which is the "leaping-place." He pauses for awhile, gazing intently down upon the waves. The surface of the water is agitated, and lo! the spirit of a dead Toarama rises from the depths. She ascends the face of the precipice. The two spirits embrace, leap together into the sea, and are lost to the view of the beholders, who turn reluctantly away, and go back to where their bodies are lying. As soon as they return the spell is broken. They awake from their sleep, and announce the name of the lady who came from Mbulu to meet the departed chief. This is good news to his friends, for it assures them of his deliverance from the terrible Nangga-nangga, and from other dangers. But some of the sleepers do not awake. Their souls are lingering still at Naithombothombo, consumed by a vehement longing to follow the dead all the way to Mbulu. It is necessary to shout their names aloud9 in order to recall them, and not without difficulty are they at length aroused. This curious dream has all the force of reality to a Fijian who has slept that sleep, and it would be hard to convince him that it is nothing more than a dream.

But perhaps the most striking of all the Fijian burial customs are those of the Nakelo tribe who live on the banks of the Wainimbokasi, one of the numerous outlets by which the Wailevu empties itself into the sea. On the death of the Tui, or king, the path through the Nakelo lands to the river boundary is weeded and swept clean. The dead chief is laid out at full length, with his narrow waistcloth carefully arranged, his club in his hand or lying across his breast, a turban on his head, and his face painted. The house is filled with people, who sit in silence and with downcast eyes. By-and-by come three old men, the elders of a clan called the Vunikalou ("source of the gods") holding fans in their hands. One of them enters the [p.148] house, while the other two wait in the doorway. He flourishes his fan over the dead man's face, and calls him, saying, "Rise, sir, the chief, and let us be going. Broad day has come over the land." And the soul of the dead man rises at his call. Holding his fan horizontally at a short distance above the floor, and walking backwards, the old man conducts the spirit from the house. The other Vunikalou join him at the doorway, holding their fans in like manner about two feet above the ground, as a shelter for the spirit, who is evidently supposed to be of short stature. Thus they go along the path, followed in reverential silence by a great multitude of men, no women being allowed to join the procession. When they reach the river-bank, one of the Vunikalou climbs a tree which grows thereby, and cries with a loud voice, "le Themha! Lae mai na wanka. Lui manda mai na mua vesi,' ("Themba, bring over the canoe. Let the vesi end be first.") This call he repeats three times; and thereupon the people flee in all directions, and hide themselves. Themba is the Nakelo Charon, who ferries departed souls across the river. The ends of his canoe are of different woods, one being vesi, the best of all the Fijian hardwoods, while the other is made of ndolo, or uto, which are inferior kinds. Hence when Themba hears the vesi end called for, he knows it is a great chief who is coming, and makes his arrangements accordingly.

The Vunikalou, after summoning the ghostly ferryman, wait by the riverside until they see a wave rolling in towards the shore, which they say is caused by the approach of the invisible canoe. They aver that a blast of wind10 accompanies it, and that the wave dashes its spray over the bank. When this sign appears, they avert their faces, point their fans suddenly to the river, cry aloud, "Ni vondo, saka" ("Go on board, sir"); and forthwith run for their lives, for no eye of living man may look upon the embarkation.

The spirit of the dead chief being thus conducted beyond his dominions, there remains his body only to be disposed of, and this is done with little ceremony. The grave is dug about hip deep, and the chief is laid therein, rolled up in mats, face to face with one of his strangled wives, or his mother if she were living at the time of his death, or better still, his grandmother, if she were to the fore. An old cocoanut is broken by a blow with a stone, being held so that the milk runs down upon his head. The meat of the nut is then eaten by the Vunikalou, the grave is filled up, and there is an end of the Tui Nakelo.


Note. The particulars given in the foregoing sketch by no means exhaust the subject. There are many other interesting burial customs besides those which are recorded in the Rev. Thomas Williams's valuable work ; and they can now be ascertained with but little difficulty, for we are able now-a-days to make leisurely inquiries among many tribes who were inaccessible in Mr. Williams's day. With the exception of the bare statement of widow-strangling on page 137, and the mention of Nangga-nangga, I have carefully avoided the ground which he has so ably covered.


1 It must be borne in mind that the present tense is used in this memoir for the sake of convenience, where the past tense ought to be employed. Most of these customs have been abandoned since the introduction of Christianity by the Wesleyan Mission.

2 It is scarcely necessary to say that she and her friends were heathens.

3 See "Nakelo Burial," p. 16.

4 Williams tells us that at Mbua (Yanua LeTu) only the kinsfolk of the dead are allowed this license.

5 "...... should revenge themselves." Is it not possible that this may explain the fate of those who dug the grave of Alaric?

6 There are plenty of sharks in the Wailevu, but as a general rule they are not very troublesome, probably because they can easily procure fish enough to satisfy their hunger. The natives say that the sharks used to kill many people in the olden times; that they left off their evil ways when the Lotu (Christianity) came; but that since annexation they have begun to bite again. It is quite possible that the natives may be right as to the facts, whatever we may think of their theory. In the old heathen times the refuse of cannibal feasts which was thrown into the river brought the sharks up from the sea, and since annexation a butchery has been established, which has doubtless the same effect.

7 The liku was the sole garment of Fijian women in the heathen days.

8 "Conchs."This is the custom at Tokatoka also.

9 In fainting-fits also, and other seizures producing insensibility, the soul is supposed to have left the body. If not recalled it will betake itself to Mbulu, and so the anxious friends shout after it, bawling out the person's name at the top of their Toices.

10 " A blast of wind." Unless there were a dead calm, the Vunikalou would not have to wait long for a puff of wind at that part of the river.