Story: Death and dying

Page 2. Bodies of the dead

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Māori practices – tangihanga

In preparing the deceased, Māori would smear the tūpāpaku (dead body) with kōkōwai (red ochre) and oil, then sit it up. The knees were tucked under the chin and the arms wrapped tightly around the legs. The body was then wrapped in whāriki (mats) and cloaks. In this seated position, the tūpāpaku would be placed on the veranda of the main wharenui (meeting house) to receive the farewells of their community over a number of days.

Tūpāpaku were then buried in shallow graves or placed in caves or sometimes hollows in trees. After some time bodies were exhumed and bones washed and scraped. Further mourning ceremonies were held on the marae and the bones were buried in secret places. Māori death practices began to change, and by the early 20th century, most Māori communities were using the services of undertakers and burying their dead, like European settlers, in caskets or coffins. However, traditional rituals to farewell the tūpāpaku over several days continue and tangihanga are still the most significant of all Māori gatherings.

Pākeha practices

In the 19th century most undertakers were also carpenters: they made coffins and transported the dead to the burial site. Families and churches organised most burials. In the 1930s, funeral directors organised themselves into an occupational group with responsibility for bodies, funerals, burials and cremations. Funeral directors have now become ‘grief specialists’ and technical experts in embalming bodies. However, family members are still the main decision makers about what happens to bodies after death.

Laying out

After death bodies are carefully laid out – cleaned, dressed, put in a coffin or wrapped in a shroud. In the 19th century female relatives did these tasks. During the 20th century more people died in hospitals and were then taken to funeral homes to be laid out. While funeral directors in the 1930s and 1940s sometimes discouraged the viewing of bodies by family and friends, from the 1980s this practice was encouraged as part of the grieving process.

Being with the body

For many families it is important to bring the body of the dead back home, or to a marae or community hall. Other family members and friends bring food, send flowers and messages. Mourners may talk to the dead person, pray, sing or just sit with them. Some families choose an open casket or coffin. so that they can see and speak directly to the deceased.


Embalming, where chemicals are used to preserve bodies, was rare until the 1950s, when funeral directors argued that it improved hygiene and slowed deterioration, enabling bodies to be presented in a ‘wholesome’ and ‘beautiful manner’.1

By the late 1970s about 70% of bodies were embalmed, and the proportion rose to almost 90% in the early 21st century. Embalming allows funerals, burials and cremations to occur weeks after a death. Some people reject embalming and prefer early burial or cremation, or the use of new cooling techniques that enable a body to be kept at home or on a marae for a week or so without embalming.

  1. Cyril Schafer, 'Dead serious? Funeral directing in New Zealand.' Sites 4, no.1 (2007), p. 105. Back
How to cite this page:

Ruth McManus and Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Death and dying - Bodies of the dead', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 June 2024)

Story by Ruth McManus and Rosemary Du Plessis, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 16 May 2018, updated 1 Nov 2023