Mourning and Grief

The process of Maori mourning and grief at the time of death

Tangihanga (Māori Mourning)
Tangihanga, the traditional Māori mourning ceremony where whanau, hapu and iwi come together under the mantle of whanaungatanga (family relationships) through love, respect and sorrow to grieve unashamedly in the Māori fashion over the loss of loved ones or a loved one. Tangihanga also has a number of stages and procedures that have to be carried out that are important to Māori because it is their personal conviction of tikanga Māori (lore) to this Kaupapa passed down from their tupuna (ancestors).

Tuku Wairua (Spirit-Leaving)
When someone is near death, where there is no more hope and the person is trying to forestall death, this procedure is performed to help the spirit depart from the body lest the wairua become restless and wonder. Traditionally this was performed by the tohunga (priest). Today when someone is dying a family member familiar with this rite will perform this procedure, or a minister or priest are called to give the dying person a holy blessing.

At the moment of death, my tupuna believed the tupapaku (dead body) to be in a state similar to sleep. Though gone from the body they believed still the wairua to travel to it’s old haunts before it’s ascension to Te Rerenga Wairua (going to the top of the North Island to depart
The tupapaku, will be dressed and adorned with his finest traditional dress, body and hair fragranted with oil and kawakawa (leaf). Traditionally the body was tightly bound in the foetus position, garments wrapped around them also that only their head would be showing, sat upright, as if alive still, to listen and see the proceedings. People from the village then gathered in groups to pay their respects to the dead.
A death tapu was also imposed over the building where the death occured. In Northland my tupuna burned the house, the families joining together in building a new one after the ceremony. This no longer commonly practised due to today’s economics and changes.

Tono (Claim)
Tono is the request for the tupapaku to be taken to a particular marae or buried in a certain urupa (cemetery). This takes place where the death has occured. If my mother were to die in Auckland, her marae nearly 160 miles away, the procedure would be that her brothers will confer with us concerning the tikanga of our tupuna, no doubt emphasising the importance of returning her back to where she was born, to the land of her tupuna where they await. If we so wished to have our mother stay a night at home, we do so knowing she will return to her hapu (home tribe). If however we decided to keep her the Kaumatua of the marae is notified and no doubt he will come and tono for the tupapaku. Tono can also arise upon the arrival of manuhiri (guests) during whaikorero (speeches).

Arrival and Tangata Whenua (Home People)
This procedure is viewed in the respects that the tangata whenua, having prepared the procedures to welcome the tupapaku back to it’s marae, await, that they may pay their respects. The kawakawa leaves evident upon the heads of the manuhiri and tangata whenua, one will see kuia standing in front of the marae with taua (mourning wreaths) upon their heads, positioning themselves, awesomely aware and observant towards their manuhiri and others (their dead). Turning their attention to the tupapaku as it lies positioned to enter.

Process of Powhiri (Welcome)
The Māori way and procedure in which to enter onto the marae. The process of powhiri is associated with the welcoming and hosting of visitors upon their arrival which continues for up to a few days. The traditional meaning relating to the waving of the kawakawa leaves by the women indicates a pathway by which the spirits leave this world entering into the world beyond. Oratory is directed as if the person were still alive.

Po Whakamutunga (Final Night)
This is the night preceding the burial. It is a time when the spirit will be sent on it’s way, until all who believe in the life hereafter see each other again. Here whanau members will sing songs in remembrance of the deceased, tell funny stories about growing up, share about the joy of seeing each other again under the circumstances. The coffin is normally closed before sunrise.

Nehunga, Po Whakamoemoea (Burial)
The tupapaku at this stage will make it’s final departure from the marae, and be taken to the cemetery to be buried. Here support is given to them on their final night. Traditionally the tupapaku would be hung up on trees that the flesh may decay, the bones scraped and cleaned, painted then buried. This no longer practised upon European contact and health reasons.

Hakari (Thanksgiving Meal)
The feast after the nehunga that makes people noa (free from the process of mourning). A traditional feast lifting off the tapu that is upon the whanau pani (mourning family)and kirimate, from the time of entry to the marae.

Takahi Whare (Blessing House)
Similar to blessing a house, this procedure is normally performed after burial.Like an exorcism, it is an assurance for the family no other spirit including the deceased will be visiting later. Clothing and other personal are given away by those wanting a memoir, but mostly disposed of or buried preserving the dignity of the deceased.

Kawe Mate (Taking Dead Person’s Memory Home)
A Māori memorial service, held normally at the request as a gesture of love and respect for the deceased by a family. This arises when certain family members could not attend the tangihanga, or when someone lies in state at another marae and is buried in another urupa, or when a particular hui is held on their own marae, the family will take the opportunity to return home the memory of their deceased relative.It is customary in my family to take a photograph of the deceased relative to present as a gift.

Hura Kohatu (Unveiling Stone)
The unveiling service and blessing of the gravestone. After the person has been dead for a year or more the family will then hold a Hura Kohatu service to remember him or her.
The stone is covered before sunrise, the belief that the spirits of those gone and the gods are present watching. This is the extent Māori family go to, to remember and pay tribute to the dead.

Tangihanga to me is the atmosphere of mourning created for me by my tupuna with tikanga according to the way they saw it befitting their deceased. It is a time of grief sharing, all the more so as memories flood back of the many gone and the shedding again of tears as they are remembered. Tangihanga is also a healing time when considering the amount of tears one would shed over the days, I’d say much grief would be wrung out of you, your body worn out over the occasion. Though these are basically the procedures today, when endeavouring on your next journey to Tangihanga, one must also not forget to Tangi (weep).

Based on an Essay for Te Wananga o Raukaua Māori University, 1998
by Eliza Mataa