Life here sometimes feels like an endless stream of funerals and birthdays. The quick transitions from celebrating a new life to mourning one ended can be overwhelming. This past month, I have gathered with family around loved ones taking their last breaths twice, stood over the coffins of relatives at four different funerals, and within the past two years, my young child has seen five dead bodies. One of my girlfriends (who is not from here) expressed deep worry over this: the volume of death we’ve witnessed and the constant exposure of our young children to death and death rituals. We tried to explain to her that for most people here, death is truly a part of life and these things are not uncommon within our culture. From early ages, we are brought to nightly rosaries for the dead, to family viewings, and brought before open caskets. This struck my girlfriend as ghoulish. She shook her head and covered her mouth at the idea of babies being brought before open caskets and people on their death beds. We laughed a little, because strangely, some of our most happy childhood memories are at funerals. They also serve as a time when the entire family is together. Relatives who have been away for years come home and we hang on to this special time wherein we can eat, laugh, and cry together. Some of my happiest death memories include:
– Getting in trouble from our elderly aunts for creating a “Chamoru ABC” rap song outside of the church social hall.
– The old lady who had to swallow back phlegm singing Gogue Yu’us.
– The kids fighting over chips outside of the ICU.
– The completely inappropriate, and sometimes bitingly funny things relatives allow themselves to say when they are approaching death.
– My grandmother throwing a banana peel at a priest who entered her hospital room trying to give her communion.
– My uncles swinging around brown tree snakes at the finakpo’ to entertain and scare the children.
– A cousin snorting loudly while crying as a casket closed… which led us all into hysterical laughter (and left us with pictures of us erupting in laughter over my grandfather’s dead body, which we are certain he will appreciate).
– Reuniting with cousins and their children who have been away for years.
Obviously, it’s a death and these happy memories are placed alongside the deep pain of losing someone; but these rituals that some find “ghoulish” are also what helps us to find peace of mind through difficulty.
I guess it would seem ghoulish…or morbid if it were something you are not used to, if you have been raised with the idea that death is a rare occurrence (or if where you live, death in your circles is so rare that when it happens…you are confused and afraid of the things that surround a loss of life). That’s not the case here. You are introduced to death in early childhood, and as you get older, you begin to look at it differently. The rituals that surround death here are oddly comforting, because during a confusing time, they keep you busy and surround you with support. You are swept away for nine to nineteen days welcoming relatives, attending nightly rosaries, planning, and serving those who come to pay their respects. By the time it’s all over, you often reach a new level of inner peace and exhaustion that helps you to confront the loss on your own with new resolve.
Because we are a small interconnected community, it might seem to happen with an intensity and frequency that people from larger communities might not be used to, that they might be overwhelmed by. My husband is not from Guam; but after several years here, he is now beginning to understand the process, even coming to appreciate its value.
The most frequently accessed part of our island’s local newspaper is the obituary section. My relatives only ever bother with the publication for the death announcements. When free papers are offered at local coffee shops, I’ve seen them skip straight to the death announcements, tearing out obituaries as reminders. My grandmother used to have a constant collection of newspaper obituaries strewn around her nightstand and tables. She needed to plan her week around which funerals she would be attending (and dragging me to). In all honesty, I cannot count the amount of funerals I have been to since childhood. I cannot count the amount of open caskets I have seen. There are too many; and I do not view these memories as trauma. I view them with quite a bit of pride, pride in our people for the beautiful way they come together to support families during a time of loss, pride in the closeness of our families and the amount of love that is shown.
In particular, I am always struck by the beauty of how many people that did not get along well with the deceased show up to offer themselves and their sincere condolences. At quite a few funerals I’ve been to, I’ve seen people with long running feuds set their differences aside to focus on the ways in which they appreciated the person who passed. This has always been an important reminder of the power of death; and that power is not limited to a devastating humbling of those in mourning. Death can also be uplifting, unifying, and beautiful. Our island has taught me this. Our people have taught me this.
I have been taught that when death gets close to my loved ones, I shouldn’t panic and turn away. I have been taught that I should not hide death from my children. I should include them and talk to them about it openly, answering their questions and allowing them to question the world around them. I have learned that it’s important to approach death head on and with love and strength, because it transforms you. I love that when someone is dying or sickly, we do not hide it in hospice centers where only immediate relatives come by to stand vigil. Here, in our families, we literally bring it home. Relatives, close and distant, come into the home to visit those passing; and we laugh and we let our children run wild outside of the sickroom as we keep our loved ones company.
When someone takes their last breath, they do it surrounded by up to twenty relatives, all whispering their love and offering them support as they slip away. Of course it’s painful, of course we cry, and maybe you do not understand the rosaries whispered or why we do it; but doing it so many times has helped me to realize something: there is nowhere else I would rather live or die than Guam. And yes, I will most definitely be bringing my children to every part of the services. Do not worry about them. Watching their families display their unity during a time of loss is a great gift that I know they will take with them into adulthood, something they will come to find great beauty in, in the same way so many of our people have done from generation to generation.