The Māori customs associated with death and burial are among the most distinctive and firmly upheld of all, and have survived through centuries of profound social upheaval.
Role of the tangi
The death of any relative immediately places a series of obligations on many people. The bereaved family must gather and be supported by their wider whānau and community. As a result, a tangi will attract people from throughout the country and even overseas to pay their respects, help with arrangements and participate in rituals. According to ancient Māori tradition, when a person dies their wairua (spirit) leaves their body and travels to the far northern tip of New Zealand, to a sacred place called Te Rerenga Wairua (the departing place of spirits). Many of the customs associated with a tangi aim to acknowledge the departing wairua, and support the whānau pani (bereaved relatives).
A tangi on a marae
Most Māori prefer to hold a tangi at a marae with which the departed and their family are most closely associated. The marae must be made ready to host the expected number of mourners for several days. The placement of the body within the marae and other specific funeral customs vary from district to district. However, mourners generally accompany the tūpāpaku (corpse) and the grieving family at all times in the days and nights between the start of the tangi and the burial.
Many marae have an urupā (cemetery) nearby, and this is one of the most tapu places in all of Māori society. No eating, drinking or smoking is permitted within its boundaries since those activities are noa (the antithesis of tapu). People leaving the urupā are expected to wash their hands with water, to reduce the tapu to the safe state of noa.
Some customs associated with the tangi are also being adopted by non-Māori in New Zealand, because they are seen as effective and appropriate to the grieving process. Similarly, some Māori customs associated with childbirth are also practised by non-Māori. One of those concerns the whenua (placenta). This was traditionally buried on land closely associated with one or both of the child’s parents, to symbolise fertility and the continuity of life.
Adapting traditional practices for modern times
The application of old customs to new times and a changing society is a complex and contentious process. However, Māori custom has proved to be both resilient and adaptable. Public debate and the resolution of disagreement are central features of Māori society, and customs concerning the marae and whaikōrero (speechmaking) are designed to assist decision-making. On the marae decisions are customarily reached by consensus, and this is another custom which is proving applicable and valuable in wider New Zealand society.
Professor Hirini Mead describes a number of Māori customs which are both traditional and applicable to very different present-day circumstances. One is the development of urban marae, which are often non-tribal or multi-tribal and may require imaginative revisions of traditional protocols. Another is the use of formal Māori ceremonies in non-Māori settings, such as the opening of the Te Māori art exhibition at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1984.
Most cultures have borrowed customs from other cultures and adapted their own customs to suit changing circumstances. The persistence and adaptation of Māori custom within Māori society, and its selective adoption by non-Māori, is an indication of a thriving, confident and tolerant national culture.