Tuku Wairua – Departing During Covid

By Amokura Panoho

Reading time: 9 minutes

The ritual of a tangi (funeral) is steeped in tikanga (Māori tradition). With the advent of COVID restrictions on public gatherings, adhering to the requirements now in place for tangi have many Māori questioning how this will impact our tikanga. Amokura Panoho provides some insights after a recent personal experience.

On 4 February 2022, our whānau (family) lost a special lady, Marina Eriwata, the second youngest daughter of our grandparents, Edward and Rawinia Eriwata. She passed at 86 years of age after a short illness. When I got the call the day before in Auckland that she was in hospital and failing, I immediately organised to fly home to New Plymouth.

By Amokura Panoho

Reading time: 9 minutes

The ritual of a tangi (funeral) is steeped in tikanga (Māori tradition). With the advent of COVID restrictions on public gatherings, adhering to the requirements now in place for tangi have many Māori questioning how this will impact our tikanga. Amokura Panoho provides some insights after a recent personal experience.

On 4 February 2022, our whānau (family) lost a special lady, Marina Eriwata, the second youngest daughter of our grandparents, Edward and Rawinia Eriwata. She passed at 86 years of age after a short illness. When I got the call the day before in Auckland that she was in hospital and failing, I immediately organised to fly home to New Plymouth.

I was fortunate that I arrived in time to be part of our ritual of tuku wairua (releasing of the spirit); partaking in the last moments of her life, sharing stories, songs, laughter, and tears with members of our extended whānau who came and went as the hours ticked away. Then shortly after we had karakia (prayers) that evening, our beloved mother, grandmother, sister, and aunt passed away.

Marina had eight siblings, and was a mother of nine children with twenty grandchildren, the last of her generation still living in Taranaki. Under normal circumstances her tangi would have been a significantly large gathering of her descendants and extended whānau.

COVID, however, changed all of that.

Two of her children lived overseas. Despite attempts to get special dispensation for her eldest son to get home from Sydney that in normal times would’ve meant a couple of hours journey, it was not possible. Instead, both he and his sister in London had to witness their mother’s last moments via Facetime. Technology at its most usefulness.

With Aunty’s passing, the focus now shifted to supporting the whānau to prepare for her tangi at Mururaupatu Marae, in Kaipakopako (Bell Block). Our usual marae, Owae, was under renovation, so prepatory discussions had been held with the marae trustees of Mururaupatu. Like most marae committees throughout the country, they have the responsibility to ensure the safety of all users of their marae, and were mindful of the Code Red restrictions with a maximum of 100 people within the wharenui (meeting house).

The first big discussion for the whānau was, how do we maintain and respect the wishes of the marae trustees during the tangi?

The next big discussion was, how do we manage those whānau who are not vaccinated?

And who and how will we police this while at the same staying within a kaupapa Māori tikanga (correct Māori custom)?

Difficult discussions that many Māori whānau have had to partake in over the last two years since the advent of COVID-19 upon on our way of life in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Under normal circumstances, tangihana (the ritual of a tangi) is the ultimate showcase of Māori tradition, of the local iwi (tribal) lore, waiata, oratory and purakau (storytelling). In Taranaki, the tangi are held inside the wharenui, so as a result, the tupapaku (deceased) will lie in their coffin surrounded by images of their relatives who all bear witness to the rituals they themselves were once part of.

For our whānau in particular, it is an occassion where we express our manaakitanga (support) with the way we present and prepare our kai for our manuhiri (visitors) to feast upon. Being a whānau that is only just recovering from the loss of language and land, we have prided ourselves on these elements instilled in us by our parents, aunts and uncles.

Tangihanga are also the spaces where relationships and roles within the whānau are tested: who is the chief ringawera (cook) in the kitchen, who is managing the koha (donations), who is the kai karanga (the main caller) who will sit on the paepae (the orators’ seats)? For many of us it will be the first time we have stepped up to these roles, our Aunty Marina’s passing a signal to the next generation – our time has come.

Challenges to our tangihanga practices because of health restrictions is not new. Distrust around the purpose and impacts of the restrictions is also not new.

Te Rangihīroa, (Sir Peter Buck) from Ngāti Mutunga (North Taranaki) wrote in his widely-respected book The Coming of the Māori of how during the early 1900s people had to deal with Māori scepticism around introducing mainstream practices during the holding of tangi.

“The tangi custom was a source for the spread of infection …. It was Hori Pukehika of Whanganui who discovered a useful slogan in the song of Turaukawa … as follows.

Tokotoko tao, The spear of wood,
Kotahi te turanga; one at a thrust,
Tokotoko te rangi, The spear from heaven,
Ka ngaro te kai, food disappears,
Ka ngaro te tangata. Man disappears.

… thus, we were able to say that non-infectious diseases were like the wooden spear (tokotoko tao) which only affected the patient struck. If he refused to go to the hospital, we could not force him. But an infectious disease was the spear from heaven, or tokotoko rangi and the government had to step in to prevent man from being swept away.”

Te Rangihiroa also wrote of how Pakeha reformers during his time at the Department of Health tried to abolish tangi by law. Instead, he and his contemporaries, (Sir) Maui Pōmare, Tā Apriana Ngata, Dr Ned Ellison and co., influenced the Māori Council by-laws which in turn influenced the number of days tangihanga were held as well as sanitation practices of marae throughout the country. Cultural practices were being changed to recognise the impact of diseases that were introduced into the country, for which Māori traditions had no remedy.

Today, the rituals of tangihanga have changed significantly even from the time of Te Rangi Hiroa, partly due to the growing influence of Christianity, partly due to urbanisation of Māori and language loss, and party due to the financial burden that hosting of large tangi have on the whanaupani (bereaved family).

At the tangi for Aunty Marina, we adhered to the instructions of the Marae trustees while at the same time responding in an appropriate way to our whānau who were unvaccinated. Some of those whānau respected the whanaupani public post on social media as to the tikanga being adopted during the tangi, by staying away and only coming to the urupa (cemetery).

In the end, our whānau stepped up to the responsibility we had, and we honoured our aunt in the best way we could. At the heart of our process was whanaungatanga (kinship) and manaakitanga. I know she would be proud.

The author’s large extended whānau, represented at the 50th wedding anniversary of the author’s grandparents: Edward and Rawinia Eriwata.
Back row (left to right): John, Edward (snr), William, Edward (jnr).
Front row (left to right): Lily, Charlotte (my mother), Rawinia, Edwina, Rosie, and Marina. Missing is one sister, Rosie.

Source: Te Rangi Hiroa – Peter Buck, The Coming of Māori, page 413

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