Article Category: Funereal Friday

Bigger Than Life

Posted Friday, Sep 18

From Southern Calls, Volume 6 | December 2014

Excerpts from People Article: D. Michael Land, Forest Ridge Funeral Home, Hurst, Texas

The small Kingdom of Tonga, located near Fiji and Samoa in the Pacific Ocean, was virtually unknown to residents of the United States until around a decade ago when Pacific Islanders began making it big in theNational Football League, and I mean “big!”

Ten Pacific Islanders — sometimes called “Polynesians”– played in Super Bowl XLVII in 2013. University of Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham reported 45 Tongans and Samoans on his roster that year. Tongans and Samoans also made up half the Brigham Young University’s gridders that year with only the University of Hawaii having more. Who wouldn’t want a strong and fast 6-ft. 5-in., 341-lb. guard, or similar strong, fast “wide bodies” on their front line?

Tonga is a Polynesian kingdom of more than 170 South Pacific islands, many uninhabited, most lined in white beaches and coral reefs and covered with
tropical rainforest. The main island, Tongatapu, is protected by lagoons and limestone cliffs. It’s home to the rural capital of Nuku’alofa.

On the island, the traditional Tongan symbol of wealth is a large girth. Pacific Island boys often grow up, carrying rocks, felling and carrying wood from large trees and regularly climbing coconut palms. Size, strength, agility and work ethic is in their DNA.

As the Tongan population has grown, the Mid-Cities, particularly the Hurst-Euless-Bedford area (once farmland between Dallas and Fort Worth) has become the unexpected incubator for college football recruits, specifically Euless Trinity High School, which is where this story begins:

Humans have lived in Tonga for nearly 3,000 years, since settlement in late Lapita times. Contemporary Tongans often have strong ties to overseas lands.
Many Tongans have emigrated to Australia, New Zealand, or the United States to seek employment and a higher standard of living. The United States
is the preferred destination for Tongan emigrants, and as of 2000 there were 36,840 Tongans living in the US.

It was July 30, 2013, — just days before the Trinity Trojans took to the practice field to prepare for the coming season — the entire community was rocked to its core by the news: Two former Trojan players — Polo Manukainiu, 19, a redshirt freshman at Texas A&M University and Gaius Vaenuku, 18, a freshman at the University of Utah as well as a third teen Andrew Uhatafe, 13, a freshman on Trinity’s team — had been killed in a one-car rollover in New Mexico. They had been on their way home from Utah. 

The news spread quickly and an afternoon vigil brought more than 1,000 mourners to the high school’s activities center. “They were great, great kids,” Trinity principal Mike Harris told the gathering. “Great personalities. Not only were they physically bigger than life, but so were their personalities.” While the vigil was underway, Michael Land was visited by the victims’ uncle, who said his nephews had been killed in New Mexico and wanted help bringing them back home for their funerals. Services for Vaenuku were handled separately.

Salesi Uhatafe Jr., right, along with family members carries the casket of his younger brother Andrew “Lolo” Uhatafe, 13, following a funeral service for Uhatafe and his older brother, Polo Manukainiu at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Saturday, August 10, 2013, in Colleyville, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

“In 1997, the year we opened our doors, we were visited by a contingent of Tongans who wanted to find out how closely we would allow them to follow their native customs and we opened our doors to them,” Land explained. “These very large, very intimidating but very gentle people told us what they needed and we accommodated them, a relationship that has grown stronger with time.”

In order for family members to have time to travel from Tonga, the contingent explained the body needed to be placed on a dressing table in a stateroom or chapel for a period of 10 days. During this period, women in the family visit each day, changing the decedent’s clothing several times before dressing them in their white burial clothing.

Land said he also had noticed each time visitors left the funeral home, the decedent’s skin was very oily, so when he inquired, one of the women mourners handed him a kukui nut (known in the U.S. as a candlenut), which resembles a chinaberry. The nuts are dried in the sun and once dry, the pod opens and women chew the nut along with candlenut blossoms. They then spit this into a handkerchief, wrap it tightly and squeeze out the oil which they massage into the decedent’s skin, keeping it supple and moisturized.

Sinai Falemaka, the family matriarch, fans herself as she sits on stage by the remains of Texas A&M redshirt freshman Polo Manukainiu and
Andrew “Lolo” Uhatafe during a memorial service at Trinity High School, Friday, August 9, 2013, in Euless, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Over the intervening years, Land and his partner Director David Medina and the Forest Ridge staff have learned much about the details and meanings of the islanders’ traditions and in many cases are treated as honorary Tongans at funerals and other events. For the funeral directors, the first order of business is obtaining white caskets, often over-sized, because of the large stature of many Tongans, and size also poses certain challenges in the embalming process. “In many cases, the family assists in dressing the body and placing it into the casket . . . and in facilitating that process, they do not object to using the prep room lift, especially when the decedent’s weight exceeds 300 pounds,” Land said. In preparing the two boys for the public visitation, facial bruises and abrasions were carefully covered by the embalmers, but the Tongan women kept wiping away the cosmetizing to show visitors the injuries the teens had sustained. “We cosmetized the two boys, easily, 10 times before the day of the funeral,” Land recalled.

Anticipating a large visitation the evening before the funeral, arrangements were made to have the public visitation in the high school’s auditorium. More than 1,000 mourners — students, family members of the community and football fans — attended. After the last of the mourners left the auditorium and before the attending directors closed the caskets at midnight, family members removed all foreign materials from the boys’ clothing, including plastic buttons and zippers. As Land explained, if a button wasn’t cut off or anything foreign fell on the body, the Tongans believed a child born after the burial would suffer an affliction that could not heal or be cured as punishment.

L. Michael Land
November 24, 1952 – April 19, 2020

According to custom, as the women were attending the decedent at the funeral home and during the visitation, Tongan male family members and others from the community had dug a deep pit and were cooking pigs and chicken in preparation for the funeral. This preparation is a tradition because families in Tonga distribute boxes of food to every mourner at the cemetery . . . and as the men oversee the cooking, they sit, tell stories involving the deceased and imbibe in a native drink — called “kava” or “kava kava.” Returning to the funeral home well after midnight, the Forest Ridge staff had only a few hours’ sleep before transporting the bodies of the brothers to First United Methodist Church of Tonga in Euless. There, they placed the ceremonial mats and opened and veiled the caskets, which remained open until toward the end of the four- to five-hour service.

 “The Tongan service is not only beautiful but very melodious. The singing is acapella and blends native language with some English chants and hymns and there is quite a lot of singing, with ministers, families and friends speaking throughout the service,” Land described.

At the August 10, 2013 funeral service, two busloads of Texas A&M University players and coaches attended, sitting as a group. They were joined by members of the Trinity High School football team, classmates, family, friends, the expected battalion of news media and members of the Hurst-Euless-Bedford communities. At the cemetery, the caskets were led to the grave by a brass band and the women of the families arranged large grass mats on the lowering devices before the caskets were placed. At the conclusion of the graveside service, the funeral directors assisted the women with the duty of wrapping the caskets in grass mats, using duct tape to tape the ends as one would wrap a package. The caskets were then lowered and, as they passed, mourners disassembled the floral tributes for the brothers and threw flowers onto their caskets. Then the men of the family took shovels and hand-closed the graves.

“We are honored to serve this very special community,” Land said, “and see this particular aspect of our professional service as part of our ministry in our community.”

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