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Tangihanga – death customs

by Rawinia Higgins

The tangihanga is the enduring Māori ceremony to mourn the dead. The body lies on a marae and people come to pay their respects. Tangi retain traditional practices which have changed little despite European influence.

Understanding tangihanga

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The traditional process of exhuming and reinterring bones has been replaced by the ceremony of hura kōhatu (unveiling the gravestone), usually a year after the tangi.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

Mythological origins

Hine-nui-te-pō – the goddess of death

The mythological origins of death are associated with the ancestress Hine-tītama and her husband the forest god Tāne. Hine-tītama fled to Rarohenga, where the spirits of the dead dwell, after learning that Tāne was also her father. She was so overcome by the knowledge that Tāne could not persuade her to return. She said to him, ‘Hoki atu koe ki te ao hei whakatupu mai i ētahi o ā tāua hua; waiho hoki au i raro nei hei kukume i ētahi o ā tāua hua ki raro nei.’1 (Return and raise our offspring in the world of the living; leave me here to draw our offspring down below.) She would be known as Hine-nui-te-pō, the goddess of death.

Hine-nui-te-pō and Māui

The demigod Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga attempted to destroy Hine-nui-te-pō. He tried to reverse the cycle of life by entering her vagina and appearing from her mouth, and so overcome death.

Changing into the form of a mokomoko (lizard), Māui entered her vagina while she slept, but his struggle provided humour for his friends the tīrairaka (fantails) who were watching on. Their laughter awoke Hine-nui-te-pō. She crushed Māui to death, bringing mortality to humankind.

Prior to his death, Māui had asked Hine-nui-te-pō to let people die as the moon wanes in the sky, and rises again. She responded, ‘Let him die forever and be buried in the earth, and so be greeted and mourned.’2

Personification of death

The personification of death is Aituā. Aituā carries the deceased away in a waka. This is referred to in oratory as te waka o Aituā, which is called Karamurauriki and has a bailer known as Tatataeore. The white albatross feathers fastened to the bow-piece and also used to fashion streamers attached to the stern-piece of certain waka allude to Karamurauriki.

Final resting place

In northern traditions spirits travelled to Te Rerenga Wairua (the leaping place of spirits). Once there they descended to Rarohenga and in some traditions travelled to the mythical homeland Hawaiki.

    • John White, The ancient history of the Maori. Vol. 1. Christchurch: Kiwi publishers 1998 (originally published 1887), p. 131. Back
    • Elsdon Best. Maori religion and mythology. Wellington: Te Papa, 1995 (originally published 1924), p. 377. Back

Traditional preparations for tangihanga

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
    • Quoted in J. R. Elder, Marsden’s lieutenants. Dunedin: A. H. Reed, 1934, p. 64. Back

The tangihanga process

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.

Tangihanga in modern times

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.)

    • 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

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Rawinia Higgins, 'Tangihanga – death customs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 May 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins, published 5 May 2011