Story: Tangihanga – death customs

Page 4. The tangihanga process

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Whānau pani

The role of the whānau pani (or kiri mate, or kura tūohu – the bereaved family) is to mourn. Grieving takes many forms and in traditional times this included haehae (laceration of the body) with shells or obsidian, or even whakamomori (suicide). For the whānau pani, particularly the pouaru (widow), whakamomori was considered an acceptable way of expressing grief.

Speak no ill of the dead

The whānau of Mihi Kotukutuku were taken aback when three busloads of Te Arawa people turned up at her tangi on the East Coast with the express purpose of insulting her, till they remembered the saying ‘A chief does not bother to quarrel with a commoner’ – they were paying her a high compliment. Years earlier she had dared to speak on their marae as a woman of rank (they did not allow women to do this). People at tangi are not expected to speak only good of the dead.

The whānau pani would not partake in any other activity but would remain beside the tūpāpaku (corpse) and refrain from eating.

Pare kawakawa

The greenery or pare kawakawa worn around the head as a wreath during tangihanga has become a symbol of the tangi for many people. Kawakawa is a medicinal plant important to Māori. It is used in a wide number of rituals including the launch of canoes, the opening of houses and the dedication of children in the tohi ceremony.

Te hahunga

The practices for hahu or nehu (the burial of the body) have changed over time. Traditionally the tūpāpaku were buried in shallow graves, or placed in secret places including caves or trees. In some cases the tūpāpaku would be weighted down with something and buried in the sea or in a deep pool of water. After a time the tohunga would return and collect the bones for the hahunga (exhumation ceremony). The bones were washed, scraped and painted with red ochre, and returned to the marae and mourned over again, in a similar ceremony to the tangihanga. The final committal of these bones was done in secret so that enemies of the hapū could not uncover the dead and desecrate their remains.

Cremation was – and is – rare and usually happened in cases of disease, or when the person had died in enemy territory (to prevent their bones being captured by enemies)

The hākari

The hākari (feast) is an important part of all Māori death customs. The whānau pani are symbolically welcomed back amongst the living. Early observers noted that the hahunga ceremony was just as much about feasting and recalling the hapū or iwi together. They would not only remember those who had been exhumed and reinterred, but also could reassess the tribe’s future.

How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins, 'Tangihanga – death customs - The tangihanga process', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 August 2022)

Story by Rawinia Higgins, published 5 May 2011