Story: Tangihanga – death customs

Page 3. Traditional preparations for tangihanga

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Te ōhākī

When a rangatira knew that death was near the people were summoned so the chief could give an ōhākī, the final instructions to the people. These often called the tribe to remember to enact utu (revenge) when applicable, but sometimes instructions were given on the distribution of goods.

Death provisions

Often a chief would request a particular food, or water from a particular spring, before death. These were the ‘ō matenga’ (death provisions) which would sustain the spirit in its journey after death.

When someone captured in battle was dying or about to be executed on another tribe’s land, they might request, ‘Tukua mai he kapunga one ki au, hei tangi.’ (Send me some soil from home that I might grieve over it.)

Tuku wairua

A ritual called tuku wairua (release of the spirit) was said over those dying to ease the passage of the spirit into the afterlife. The karakia were chanted by a tohunga.

Preparing the body

Because of the intensity of the tapu associated with death, specialist people within a hapū would be in charge of preparing the tūpāpaku (dead body). They would smear the body with kōkōwai (red ochre) and oil, then sit it up with the knees tucked under the chin and the arms wrapped tightly around the legs. The crouched body was wrapped in whāriki (mats), cloaks and other finery.

Kia tangihia, kia mihia

Often tūpāpaku would be transported in hollowed-out logs known as waka tūpāpaku to atamira (stages), whare mate (temporary shelters) or to the verandah of the main wharenui for the duration of the tangihanga, to be tangihia (mourned) and mihia (eulogised).

Whaikōrero, karanga and apakura (dirges) were addressed to the dead in the second person, as if the tūpāpaku crouched before them was acknowledging these farewells.

Witnessing tangihanga

European missionary Thomas Kendall recalled attending the tangihanga for ‘Toutoro’ (Tautoro) in 1814:

The corpse was neatly wrapped up in the clothing which had been worn by the deceased. The feet, instead of being stretched out as is customary in England, were “gathered up” in such a manner by his sides that I could not discern them. I heard bitter lamentations of the women and the funeral song or ode of the men. I witnessed a mock fight as part of the ceremony, and the whole party, consisting of two or three hundred, feasting upon sweet potatoes by way of conclusion. The women, who were about six in number and related to the deceased, cut their faces, breasts and arms with shar shells until they were covered with blood.1
  1. Quoted in J. R. Elder, Marsden’s lieutenants. Dunedin: A. H. Reed, 1934, p. 64. Back
How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins, 'Tangihanga – death customs - Traditional preparations for tangihanga', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 June 2022)

Story by Rawinia Higgins, published 5 May 2011