Bela: Wake or Vigil
Both a happy and sad occasion
Every human culture recognizes and accepts death as a natural part of life. Rituals, though, are often used by a society to sanctify death and help give closure to those experiencing the loss of a loved one. In Chamorro culture, the commemoration and celebration of death, or finai tai, is both a happy and sad occasion. For those left behind, death is a chance for the extended family and friends to gather together and pray for the repose of the individual’s soul. It is also a time to offer comfort and solace, and to fulfill traditional reciprocal obligations.
The description that follows reflects the strong influence of Roman Catholicism, combined with indigenous Chamorro cultural attitudes that have shaped contemporary mortuary practices in the Marianas. It should also be noted that the bela, or overnight vigil, has changed from customs observed before and shortly after World War II. Even today, families may modify some of the particular practices according to various circumstances.
Contemporary Chamorro funeral traditions
The more recent traditional ritual for death in Chamorro society is comprised of three parts: the bela (wake or vigil), the funeral and the burial. The bela is the time of visitation and viewing of the embalmed body of the deceased. It provides an opportunity for visitors from around the island to come and pay their respects. The bela usually takes place several days after the individual has died, but before the day of the funeral and burial. Traditionally the bela was held overnight into the following day just before the burial. Historically this time span would accommodate travelers from across the island on a trip that may have taken several hours.
If a person is chachafflek, or near death, the extended family usually gathers together to be with the person dying and to console one another. Some members of the family may begin to plan for the bela, as well as make arrangements for the funeral. They will also prepare for the lisayon matai, or the nine nights of rosaries that will be said once the individual has died.
The bela takes place in the home of the deceased, usually in the living room or main area of the house. The body is displayed in the coffin, usually surrounded by floral arrangements and candles, and chairs are set up for people to gather and pray together. If the body is brought to the house before noon, then the noontime rosary is led by a techa, or traditional prayer leader. A prayer vigil and several rosaries will continue throughout the day, usually one every four hours, as people arrive for the viewing.
Visitors may use the time of the prayer service to offer words of comfort or remembrance of the deceased. Most will stay for the evening rosary to console the family and have something to eat. Although the extended family will provide most of the meal, other relatives and friends typically bring refreshments for the guests.
The body is kept at the family home overnight until the next morning, when it is taken to the church for the funeral services. As the body is moved, weeping and other demonstrations of grief are conveyed. In the past there was only a Mass and no further viewing of the body at the church. The priest would offer Mass and lead the responso, a set of special prayers for the dead, and afterwards, the body was taken to the cemetery for burial. In earlier times, as the family and other mourners would proceed to the cemetery, homes along the processional route would light candles and place them on their windowsills as a sign of respect.
Nowadays, the bela is held in the church, with the viewing occurring right before the Mass. At this time, another rosary is prayed, and the deceased’s family receives the line of visitors who come to the church to pay their respects. Often, visitors will give ika’, or monetary gifts meant to help the family defray burial costs as well as to fulfill obligations of reciprocity.
As the family is generally preoccupied during the viewing, a book may be available for visitors to sign and to help the family know who stopped by. A separate record of monetary gifts is kept as a reference for repayment of future obligations. The immediate family takes one last opportunity to view their loved one before the coffin is closed and the funeral mass begins. It is not uncommon for intense emotional outbursts and crying to be witnessed as loved ones express their sadness. During the Mass, family members may participate in different parts of the service, and a relative or close friend may offer a eulogy.
When the Mass has ended, the priest leads the casket out of the church. The pallbearers who carry the casket are usually male relatives of the deceased and are distinguished by their white dress shirts and black armbands. The funeral procession continues to the cemetery where the final burial rites are given. As the coffin is lowered into the grave or placed in its receptacle, mourners drop flowers over the coffin and sing hymns. After the burial, another meal or refreshments may be served at the family home.
Beginning that evening, the immediate family will begin their lisayon familia, a series of rosaries prayed for the next nine nights in private. They will continue to mourn until the first year death anniversary. The celebration of this one-year anniversary represents a time for the extended family to gather once again to pray and commemorate the deceased’s new life and end of the mourning period.
Early notions of death and funeral practices
The Spanish missionaries who first encountered the Chamorro people believed them to be pagans because the natives did not have any Christian practices. The Chamorros believed strongly in the power of their ancestral spirits or anite, who were invoked both for protection and favor, and were appeased through continued respect and worship.
According to the accounts of the first Jesuit missionary on Guam, Father Diego Luis de San Vitores, the souls of those who died a violent death were believed to go to a type of hell called Sasalaguan, the dwelling place of a demon who tormented these souls. Those who died by natural means went to an underworld paradise.
San Vitores also described the funeral ceremonies of the early Chamorros. Individuals near death had a basket placed by their head to invite the spirit to inhabit the basket should the spirit return to visit. At death, the body was anointed with fragrant oil and carried to the houses of relatives for the spirit to choose a home as a refuge when visiting earth.
Expressions of grief were tremendous, with a great deal of tears, fasting and rattling of shells. Mourners would weep and sing doleful songs continuously for several days, as people would gather around the body of the deceased, which they decorated with flowers, palms, shells and other appropriate funerary items.
Persons of higher status had even more elaborate funerals. There were more songs expressing intense sadness; the streets were highly decorated with palms and funeral arches, and the destruction of coconut trees, houses and boats was offered as signs of grief. The deceased was then buried with the status objects representative of their life on earth.
Today, while most Chamorros are Christians and believe death marks not only the end of life on this earth but also the beginning of eternal life, aspects of these early cultural traditions remain as a part of contemporary mourning practices. For example, the gathering of family and friends for continued prayers in the lisayon matai, lisayon familia or lisayon guma and the first year anniversary rosary reflect the tremendous respect Chamorros had for the dead. The prayers and chanting of the techa during the rosary often are likened to the traditional chanting and wailing of mourners for the deceased.
The Chamorro practices of reciprocal giving and sharing of food, resources and support such as chenchuli’ and ika’ are still important in Chamorro society, most especially at times of death. Indeed, the bela and other funerary practices help to solidify social ties and bring comfort and hope to the bereaved family.
For further reading
Archdiocesan Liturgical Commission and the Office of Worship. Archdiocese of Agana Liturgical Guidelines, 2003. Hagåtña: Archdiocesan Liturgical Commission and the Office of Worship, 2003.
Department of Chamorro Affairs Research, Publication and Training Division. Chamorro Heritage: A Sense of Place; Guidelines, Procedures and Recommendations for Authenticating Chamorro Heritage Hagåtña: Department of Chamorro Affairs Research, Publication and Training Division, 2003.
Perez-Iyechad, Lilli. “Death: The Expression of Grief.” Chapt. 10 in An Historical Perspective of Helping Practices Associated with Birth, Marriage and Death Among Chamorros in Guam. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.
Perez-Iyechad, Lilli. “Reciprocity, Reunification and Reverence Among Grieving Chamorros in Guam: An Ethnographic History of Death Rituals.” In Guam History: Perspectives. Vol. 2. Edited by Lee D. Carter, William L. Wuerch and Rosa Roberto Carter. Mangilao, GU: University of Guam Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, 2005.
Spoehr, Alexander. The Ethnology of a War-Devastated Island. 2nd ed. Saipan, CNMI: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation, 2000.
Thompson, Laura M. Guam and Its People. With a Village Journal by Jesus C. Barcinas__. 3rd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947.