Home > Features > Extended Tongan funeral for King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV

Extended Tongan funeral for King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV

The late King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV of Tonga
The recent death of King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV of Tonga has had a huge impact on the Tongan people both those at home and those who are living abroad. Here is a first-hand account from Queenslanders Rev Dr Alan Morrison and his wife Judy who are currently working in Tonga as ‘Assisted Volunteers’ with Uniting International Mission at Sia’atoutai Theological College in Nuku’alofa. Alan is lecturing in New Testament and Judy is doing various volunteer jobs in the Library and the local school. Judy writes to share with Journey some of the atmosphere and colour they have been privileged to observe.

It’s been a significant experience to be here during the funeral of the King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV of Tonga, who died in Hospital in New Zealand on Sunday 10 September.

The Palace Office has worked long and hard to ensure that all the traditional and formal protocols have been observed, and the result has been an amazing week of celebrations and cultural experiences.

We have been able to be involved in some and to follow others on Tonga TV, which has run programs each evening following events of the day.

The King’s body was returned to Tonga on Wednesday 13 September and transported in procession to the Royal Palace, where it was placed in the throne room overlooking the sea.

The choir from Sia’atoutai was honoured to be asked to be one of the first groups to lead two hours of prayers and singing outside the Palace that evening and we were invited to be part of that.

We sat on mats at the front of the marquee erected especially for this purpose, behind the Tongan staff dressed in traditional mats and special mourning aprons topped by their academic gowns and hoods.

The depth of emotion expressed by the prayer leaders and the inspirational singing of the choir were quite moving.

We could see the front of the Palace and watched the traditional elders/’funeral directors’ moving in and out of the viewing room as they prepared for the procession of visitors to follow.

The singing and prayers went on each night from 6pm to midnight for the week leading up to the funeral, and right through the night on the final evening.

Various churches were rostered to take a one hour time slot each night, and during the day significant members of the community, both traditional and civic, lined up to pay their respects and to view the King.

We were indeed privileged to be invited to be part of that as a small group of palangis from Sia’toutai College, accompanying Rev Dr Dean Drayton , the immediate past-President of the Uniting Church in Australia, who was here as the Uniting Church’s formal representative.

The Palace grounds were supervised by the royal guards in full military uniform and scattered with Tongan officials all dressed in black and wearing enormous straw mats and aprons. The closer their relationship to the King, the bigger the mats.

We were presented first of all to Princess Pilolevu, who sat enveloped in a huge mat under a marquee in the grounds.

We sat in a semi-circle on the mats at a little distance from her and were welcomed by a Tongan official, then Dr Drayton spoke on behalf of the Australian church and we each went forward, bowing low, to shake her hand and each express our condolences.

She is a very gracious and approachable woman (she asked Alan about his work in the College and how he was settling in to life in Tonga) and works incredibly hard for the country.

She and another younger Princess appointed by the new King spent the week receiving groups and accepting gifts from village representatives in long traditional ceremonies at the Palace and the Royal Villa, an estate just out of town where the Crown Prince has lived.

After greeting the Princess, we were escorted to the throne room where we each went forward to bow and pause in front of the King’s coffin, and then signed the Visitors’ Book – our names are there with those of royalty and prestige from all over the world.

The new King, Toupou V, was sworn in immediately after the death of the King in a closed ceremony in Nuku’alofa. He will be crowned in about a year’s time, but has already officially assumed the powers of the monarch.

There is much speculation about how he will handle the role and pressure from the Pro-Democracy movement for significant changes to the governance of the country.

He has already announced that he is disposing of his significant business investments in the country and that has gone down well, though people are waiting to see the details.

There has been an enormous influx of people to Nuku’alofa – Tongans coming from the outer islands and from overseas to be here for the funeral, plus foreign dignitaries.
There has been an almost festive air around as many buildings are swathed in purple and black bunting, people are meeting and greeting in the market, and businesses have been busy selling food for catering and material for mourning clothes.

All the groups which have participated in the singing and praying have been provided with refreshments afterwards – and not just a token. We each received a Tongan-size takeaway pack containing chicken pieces, a sausage, root vegetables, a serve of curry, rice, and a drink! This fits with the Tongan tradition of generosity and hospitality.

The evening before the funeral the people who worked in the Palace burned fires all night along the footpath all the way around the Palace as a sign of their respect.

Hundreds of people poured in to the Palace grounds to be part of the singing and hundreds of others milled in the streets outside – the atmosphere was amazing and the singing spine-tingling.

Even as we returned home, people were still walking along the roads towards town to be part of it – it seemed that the whole island was focused on the approaching funeral.

And they were all there the next day! Once again we had the enormous privilege of being able to go to the Palace with the College choir to hear again the continuous singing and to see dozens of foreign dignitaries bringing their wreaths to be placed around the coffin – huge and colourful.

Most walked across the lawn from a reception tent, but the Crown Prince of Japan and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester representing Queen Elizabeth were driven up in enormous black limousines bearing the colours of their country. It was all an amazing mix of traditional Tongan and European practices.

The delivery of wreaths and signing the Visitors Book took all morning and then at 12 noon the preparations began for the coffin’s final journey to the Royal Tombs – a distance of about a kilometre.

The huge casket was removed from the viewing room and placed by hefty soldiers on the huge bier which had been prepared to transport it to its final resting place.

Then the pall- bearers took over – literally hundreds of them all dressed in black and traditional mourning dress.

One hundred and fifty students from the College were part of the entourage – the idea is that those closest to the coffin should change places often as the load is so heavy, but in reality those bearing the load are reluctant to relinquish it, so the others all walk alongside.

The procession, led by the Royal mourners and accompanied by the King’s Brass band, included groups church leaders, relatives, nobles and government officials.

The whole route was laid with tapa cloth – an incredible sight. A 21 gun continued during the procession and the Free Wesleyan church bell tolled throughout.

At the tombs, marquees had been erected, the whole of the military was on display, the band played throughout and a choir led the hymn singing.

Official guests sat on chairs under the shelters and thousands of others, including us, overflowed from the other chairless tents onto the carefully mowed grass.

Traditional elders sat as motionless guardians throughout on the almost pyramid-like white stone central tomb and the traditional undertaker presided over events from the bier.

There was a dominant Christian emphasis throughout the ceremony – we have sung the King’s favourite hymn, ‘Tell me the Old, Old Story’, so often.

Various clergy (not only from the King’s church) read scripture, prayers, and a funeral liturgy; there was a sermon (emotional and loud) and then began the traditional rites.

The coffin was removed from the bier to the site of the grave alongside it, various traditional rituals were carried out with movement of mats, ropes, tapa, and then the grave was closed and the whole site covered with sand to create an enormous mound.

The sand alone took nearly an hour all up and the final event concluded after 4.30 pm.

It really has been an exciting year. We look forward to the future and wonder what more can happen!

Journey joins the rest of the Uniting Church in expressing our condolences to the Tongan people and to the Queen and the royal family of Tonga following the death of King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV on 10 September after a long illness.

The Uniting Church has a close affinity with the people of Tonga and a long standing partnership with the Free Wesleyan Church in Tonga.

The death of King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV is not only a loss for the Tongan community but for the Tongan Church and Tongan congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia.

Photo : The late King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV of Tonga