New Zealand law on care and custody of the body
Tikanga Māori concerning care and custody of the body
14.10Tikanga Māori contains a set of distinctive practices and principles that deals with care and custody of a deceased’s body, organisation of final burial arrangements, and decision-making among whānau, hapū and iwi of the deceased. These processes begin to unfold immediately upon death and continue throughout the tangihanga (tangi) held for the deceased.
14.11 It is important in tikanga Māori to maintain the strength of the deceased’s whakapapa (genealogical) connections with past ancestors and future descendants. As a result it is expected that the deceased will be buried in their ancestral lands or the place of their birth. This is not a rigid rule. In contemporary times, many Māori are born or live outside of their tribal territories, and this can affect the outcome of the decision as to burial location and sometimes also whether burial or cremation is chosen.
14.12 The process of reaching decision is important. Emphasis is placed on giving adequate expression to core underpinning values, including maintaining whakapapa connections and allowing time for debate and discussion. The final decision might be reached by way of consensus, compromise, or acquiescence; or by one party exercising greater influence or willpower over the other; but there is usually an emphasis on all present “owning” the decision. It is important that any conflict is not left unresolved, or it is thought that the wairua (spirit) of the deceased will linger and the passage of the deceased to the status of ancestor will remain incomplete. Complete spiritual death only occurs once the tangihanga and its rituals have been properly concluded.
Rituals at the tangihanga
14.13 Tangi can last several days and involve large numbers of people travelling from all over the country to pay their respects to the deceased. They frequently include lengthy discussion or debate as to the most appropriate burial location for the deceased.
14.14 One of the rationales for the tangi is to provide an opportunity for members of the deceased’s whānau and hapū from both near and further afield to make a claim for the deceased to be buried in their own home territory or in a specific place. This is important to avoid breaking the continuity of whakapapa lines and to reinforce whanaungatanga values. Having the deceased in home territory also strengthens the mana of the family group by drawing their descendants back to them. Claiming the body of the deceased is also necessary to recognise the mana of the deceased or their family. It is considered a compliment and a mark of respect, as noted by Nin Tomas:
Without passionate displays and claims of whanaungatanga and whakapapa to raise the mana of the deceased and proclaim ancestral worth, how can his or her ongoing value as part of the community be acknowledged?
14.15The process of coming to the tangi to make a claim for the body of the deceased also challenges the local hapū to demonstrate that they will properly care for the deceased in its final resting place and will fulfil their ongoing responsibilities.
14.16Claims may range in intensity. They may be made merely out of politeness and respect to the deceased. At other times the claim may give rise to heated disputes of a proprietary nature over the body of the deceased, and the body may be moved to a different marae for burial in a different urupā. Speaking up and insisting on one’s claim to the deceased may be important, as walking away or remaining silent can sometimes be seen as implicit acceptance that the claiming party may take the body. However, the party who succeeds in their claim may face obligations and conditions that continue for generations after the burial location has been decided.
14.17It is important for someone with knowledge and expertise in tikanga to manage the process to avoid causing unnecessary distress. This could be a kaumātua (elder) who is experienced in tikanga matters and who is able to take into account long-term considerations and ensure tikanga is upheld, not only for surviving hapū and iwi members but also for their ancestors and descendants.