Burnings for the dead.—On the evening after the burial of any important chief his friends kindled a number of fires at distances of some twenty feet from each other, near the grave; and there they sat and kept them burning till morning light. This was continued sometimes for ten days after the funeral; it was also done before burial. In the house where the body lay, or out in front of it, fires were kept burning all night by the immediate relatives of the departed. The common people had a similar custom. After burial they kept a fire blazing in the house all night, and had the space between the house and the grave so cleared as that a stream of light went forth all night from the fire to the grave. The account the Samoans give of it is, that it was merely a light burning in honour of the departed, and a mark of tender regard.
The unburied occasioned great concern. No Roman was ever more grieved at the thought of his unburied friend wandering a hundred years along the banks of the Styx than were the Samoans while they thought of the spirit of one who had been drowned, or of another who had fallen in war, wandering about neglected and comfortless. They supposed the spirit haunted them everywhere, night and day, and imagined they heard it calling upon them in a most pitiful tone, and saying, “Oh, how cold! oh, how cold!” Nor were the Samoans, like the ancient Romans, satisfied with a mere “tumulus inanis” at which to observe the usual solemnities; they thought it was possible to obtain the soul of the departed in some tangible transmigrated form. On the beach, near where a person had been drowned, and whose body was supposed to have become a porpoise, or on the battlefield, where another fell, might have been seen, sitting in silence, a group of five or six, and one a few yards before them with a sheet of native cloth spread out on the ground in front of him. Addressing some god of the family he said, “Oh, be kind to us; let us obtain without difficulty the spirit of the young man!” The first thing that happened to light upon the sheet was supposed to be the spirit. If nothing came it was supposed that the spirit had some ill-will to the person praying. That person after a time retired, and another stepped forward, addressed some other god, and waited the result. By-and-by something came; grasshopper, butterfly, ant, or whatever else it might be, it was carefully wrapped up, taken to the family, the friends assembled, and the bundle buried with all due ceremony, as if it contained the real spirit of the departed. The grave, however, was not the hades of the Samoans, as we have already seen in Chapter III. Prayers at the grave of a parent or brother or chief were common. Some, for example, would pray for health in sickness and might or might not recover. A woman prayed for the death of her brother, he died, but soon after she died also. A chief promised to give a woman some fine mats, he deceived her, and off she went and prayed at the grave of his predecessor in the title. The man took ill and died. She confessed what she had done, but said she did not pray for death, but only pain to make him smart for his deceit. And so the custom was carried on, but with fluctuating belief in its efficacy.