Story: Tangihanga – death customs

Page 5. Tangihanga in modern times

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Location of the body

The body is usually displayed in an open casket. Poroporoaki (spoken farewells) continue to be delivered to the person as if the deceased is still alive, as the wairua (spirit) is believed to remain with the body for some time.

The kawa (ceremonial rules) of the marae dictates where the wharemate (also known as whare taua or whare pōtae – the coffin) is located. Today these are generally either in a separate house to the side of the wharenui, under the window on the verandah, or inside the house either against the back wall under the pou tuarongo (back wall post) or the third poupou (post) on the tara whānui (wide or visitors’) side of the house.

Whānau pani

The role of the whānau pani (also called kiri mate, or kura tūohu – bereaved family) has changed in recent times. The fasting period has been relaxed in many places and the whānau pani may wait until the end of the day to partake in food when the flag of the marae has been lowered and the marae is closed to visitors for the day. However, somebody should remain with the tūpāpaku (corpse) at all times.

Ko roimata, ko hupe – tears and mucus

Tangihanga are important healing processes for Māori, and generally last for around three days. Traditionally this would have been longer, depending on the status of the deceased and the time needed for loved ones from afar to attend. Open grieving and outpouring of emotion is encouraged. ‘Māori discourage people from concealing their emotions. It is regarded as therapeutic for all who participate to feel comfortable expressing their grief openly.’1

Lying in state

During the tangihanga a group can also tono mate (ask for the body) to have the body lie in state at their particular marae, or for a kawe mate (memorial service) to be held at their marae. Arguments over where the body was to be mourned and where to bury someone are seen as recognising the mana of the deceased. This customary practice can prove complicated when cross-cultural relationships are involved.

Changes to tangihanga

Like other elements of Māori customary practice tangihanga have also been affected as a result of changes in technology, and contact with Pākehā culture. The migration of Māori to cities some distance from their traditional marae created the problem of where to hold tangihanga. Often suburban homes have been used as the venue for mourning the death. New generations separated from their cultural roots have had to find new ways to mourn.

Perception of tangihanga

Despite some changes, of all Māori customary practices today, the rituals pertaining to the dead are probably the closest to the form practised before the arrival of Pākehā. For this reason, of all Māori gatherings, the tangihanga is seen as the most significant. Elder Tīmoti Kāretu states, ‘Ki te wareware i a tātau tēnei tikanga a tātau, arā te tangi ki ō tātau tūpāpaku, kātahi tō tātau Māoritanga ka ngaro atu i te mata o te whenua ki te Pō, oti atu.’ (If we forget our cultural practices, particularly those pertaining to the dead, then our very essence of our existence as Māori will be lost from the face of this earth, to the underworld forever.)

  1. Rawinia Higgins and John Moorfield, ‘Tangihanga – death customs.’ In Ki te whaiao: an introduction to Māori culture and society. Edited by Tānia M. Ka'ai and others. Auckland: Pearson Longman, 2003,: p. 88. Back
How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins, 'Tangihanga – death customs - Tangihanga in modern times', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 May 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins, published 5 May 2011