Story: Tangihanga – death customs

Page 1. Understanding tangihanga

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The tangihanga is the enduring Māori ceremony for mourning someone who has died. It is commonly called a tangi, which also means to weep, and to sing a dirge (a lament for the dead).

The dead play an important role in Māori traditions. They are acknowledged at all gatherings, irrespective of the nature of the meeting, through karanga (calls), whaikōrero (speeches), song and tears. This remembering of those who have passed away serves to remind Māori of their whakapapa and their cultural imperatives – the importance of life, people and relationships.

Tangihanga ceremony

For the tangihanga ceremony the body is usually prepared by an undertaker and displayed in an open coffin. A tangi often takes three days and is held on a marae, but with the increase of urbanisation it can be held in a hall or a private home.

The body is welcomed onto the marae with the whānau pani (the bereaved). Over the course of the tangihanga visitors are welcomed onto the marae and traditional speeches, songs and chants are exchanged.

The fallen tree

There are whakataukī (sayings) which are commonly recited when news that someone has died is conveyed. For example, ‘Kua hinga te tōtara i Te Waonui-a-Tāne.’ (The tōtara tree has fallen in Tāne’s great forest.) Tōtara are tall and strong and the wood and bark were of great use in many traditional items including large waka, houses and everyday implements. The saying carries the message that someone of mana and of great importance to the tribe has died.

On the final day there is usually a service presided over by a minister, priest or tohunga, and then the body is taken to the urupā (cemetery) for burial. Most urupā have a water container at the entranceway, and people wash their hands as they leave to remove tapu.

The ritual of takahi whare follows, where the tapu of the deceased’s home will be removed by a minister or tohunga walking through the house chanting karakia.

The traditional process of exhuming and reinterring bones has been replaced by the ceremony of hura kōhatu (unveiling the gravestone), usually a year after the tangi.

In a ceremony called kawe mate (carry the dead) the memory of a person will be taken to those who were unable to attend the tangihanga. The deceased person is represented by a photograph.

How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins, 'Tangihanga – death customs - Understanding tangihanga', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins, published 5 May 2011