Mourning - Society Islands, Heva ceremony

In the Society Islands, French Polynesia, the death of a chief or person of distinction was accompanied by the performance of a ceremony called a heva, which was paid for and organised by the family of the deceased.

Illustration - 'Island of Otaheite'

 © Australian Museum Research Library

The principal mourner wore a particular form of mourning attire consisting of a parae (mask), a fa'aupo'o (headdress), an ahu-parau (breast ornament) of pearl shell, and a cloth or plant fibre skirt. This person carried a paeho (a shark's tooth weapon) in one hand and a tete (a pearl shell clapper) in the other and led the funeral procession. Those participating in the ceremony were covered with charcoal and painted with red and white designs. They carried clubs and spears, sometimes beating villagers as they passed by, apparently maddened by their grief and: 'inspired by the spirit of the deceased to revenge any injury he might have received, or to punish those who had not shewn due respect to his remains.' William Ellis, Polynesian Researches, 1829

The ceremony could last days or even months, depending upon the wealth of those sponsoring it. Mourners might also cut their faces and bodies as a sign of their grief. Immediately following the death of an important person, villagers might also refrain from lighting fires, using canoes for fishing, or even consuming food in daylight hours.

Captain James Cook wrote in his journal for 7 May 1774 that a complete example had been presented to him; it is believed that this refers to the mourner's dress that he subsequently presented to the British Museum.


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