‘Tapu Tapu’ by Te Uira.

How do we protect sacred values like tapu and mana as we post our lives — and deaths — online? Do we need new tikanga to define us when we attend tangi from afar? 


Sir James Hēnare once told me that his kaumātua had lifted the tapu off certain aspects of Māori life to protect people. The spiritual restrictions that came with traditional views of tapu were difficult or dangerous in the modern world. But he didn’t see how the tapu could ever be lifted off a tangi. Funerals deal with the realm of death, and nothing is more tapu than that.

I used to agree with him. Now I’m not so sure. Our conversation about tapu happened long before the internet. We now connect to the world online and we can visit the most tapu places on earth without any restrictions that protect us from that tapu.

When a place or a person or an object is tapu, it’s considered to have a spiritual dimension that demands specific respect. We show that respect with ritual. To believe in tapu is to adhere to a way of life where the laws are not written down but revealed by instructions, actions and consequences.

I learned about the tapu of woman (and creation) as I observed the birth of my children and buried their placentas in our hapū’s most sacred place, our cemetery at Wainui, in Ahipara. Within our hapū a cemetery is also known as a “tapu”. The actual name of our cemetery, Ngātotoiti, makes this ancient burial ground even more hallowed. It refers to the menstruation of our ancestress Moetonga. When I was younger and went there with the old people, we had to leave our watches and our money outside. We couldn’t walk among our dead with the accessories of modern life.

I later learned a lesson about personal tapu when a friend of mine made a gentle joke to a kaumātua about his baldness. The kaumātua raged back at him: “Katia tō waha! He tapu te ūpoko!” (Shut your mouth! The head is sacred!) I knew the old man wasn’t embarrassed about the lack of foliage, but he felt strongly that his head and all that it contained was sacred.

My friend was mortified but we all learned a very good lesson. To treat tapu lightly is risky. Over the years, I encountered many more serious stories where someone has died because they (or someone very close to them) had breached particular laws of tapu.

Years ago, Eruera Stirling told me that after the Second World War, he and Pita Awatere, the legendary Māori Battalion warrior leader, travelled all over the country returning the memories and spirits of the soldiers killed overseas to their grieving tribes. When they went north to Te Rerenga Wairua, to the departing place of spirits, Awatere performed a haka to the dead. Eruera felt strongly that the haka breached the tapu of that sacred place. He believed this was the reason Awatere eventually met a tragic end and passed away in prison.

The conviction among our people that a breach of tapu can have severe consequences is a normal part of living and being Māori. To live that Māori life is to also commit to going to the tangi of people who are special to you. It can be emotionally traumatic if you can’t go. You feel a lesser person for being unable to fulfil your need to feel the tapu of death, to say farewell properly and to be brought to peace by the tikanga.

Since the pandemic, there’s been an explosion of online gatherings. Personal devices make connections between us easy and inexpensive. This technology is now deployed on marae, especially for big hui. And the biggest hui are usually tangi.

If someone of great mana has passed on and thousands of people come to pay their respects, it’s normal for the waiting mourners to be offered a big screen that shows the happenings on the marae. For crowds who sometimes have to wait for hours, this simple service is a welcome example of modern hospitality.

It only takes a couple of clicks on a device to broadcast that same footage to the whole world. Some iwi are choosing to do just that. When it comes to the tangi, I have concerns that technology jeopardises tapu and tikanga.

When Sir Toby Curtis passed away recently, I couldn’t go to his tangi, but I discovered that it was being broadcast live on Facebook. I knew this decision was made with the support of the whānau and iwi. The invitation in my feed was like a karanga welcoming me into that sacred space where the full life of a wonderful man was being celebrated.

As I watched, I realised I was observing speakers from Ngāti Whātua. They were delivering their speeches with all the skill I’d observed when I’d been to their own leader Joe Hawke’s tangi several weeks earlier. I sat there lapping up the rich oratory . . . and then I saw the end of Toby’s coffin. I was relieved the image was brief, but I started to feel uncomfortable.

That simple sighting of a coffin was a startling reminder that I was in a tapu space enjoying the proceedings, but at the same time I was definitely not there. I’d not been through the normal tangi protocols. I hadn’t spent any time or effort to travel to Tapuaekura marae. I hadn’t waited for an hour and a half in the rain with other people for our turn to go on. I hadn’t reminisced with anyone about Toby. I wasn’t dressed in black. I gave no koha. I didn’t get to press noses with his bereft family. I couldn’t smell the essence of death. I didn’t get to sprinkle my head with water to cleanse the tapu as I left the whare for a feed and catch-ups with others. I wasn’t there to share.

I felt I didn’t deserve to see the coffin, nor anything from inside that packed meeting house. There was also nothing to stop me flouting the ordinary restrictions of a tangi. I could have had a whiskey and a cigarette as I watched. No one would know.

But I also knew that there would be so many others who would rejoice at the chance to join in.

Toby’s eldest son Piripi is grateful that many of their own Pikiao and Rongomai relations who were overseas were able to connect to the tangi. That connection is more precious than my concerns. And there is now a permanent record of one of the most memorable Te Arawa gatherings of recent memory.

Piripi and I agree that this is a vital time to create new tikanga for online tangi.

One of the most important tikanga at any tangi is whakapapa. To reveal the family tree of the deceased and to explore tribal lineages is serious and tapu. Those who have been taught genealogy have often endured strict tutelage from learned elders. They may have done so in a state of tapu.

Some of my elders used to recite whakapapa at speed. This made it harder for listeners to remember what they’d heard. They were less likely to use the words in inappropriate ways. I knew a clever guy who had once used whakapapa without permission. The elder who had taught him erased the information from the young man’s mind. This was an unnerving example to me of the potency of tapu.

Piripi said that during his father’s tangi some were reluctant to recite whakapapa, knowing that their words were being broadcast and could be recorded by others. That lack of control over our traditions (and data) at a tangi raises serious questions about the new tikanga we need to protect tapu online. Without the right restrictions in place, we risk the loss of tapu, and perhaps the death of tangi.

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the fact that, during Tā Toby’s tangi, a screen was put up in the kitchen. All the workers felt they were participating more fully in the proceedings. It had the added advantage of helping them to be right on time with meals for the hordes of visitors. There was also a view that tapu could only exist in a time and a place, and only together. In this case, the marae ātea and the wharenui were the tapu areas. Anywhere outside of that combination of time and place could not be considered tapu.

To deal with tapu has always required restrictions on behaviour. Maybe we need new rules if we attend a tangi online. After ticking the box that says I’m not a robot, maybe I could tick another one to say I will not eat or drink while observing the hui, and then a final box for my iwi ID and my koha. Maybe everyone going to the hui has to meet in a portal at a certain time. Maybe there is a special time for digital visitors to join the hui. Maybe whenever the home people feel a need to utter tapu words, the recorded sound can be turned off.

We’ve done this stuff before. We’ve always protected our values by creating new tikanga for the new worlds we are pushed to inhabit. We must also prepare for a virtual world that’s not physically connected to Papatūānuku. The way we keep alive that connection to her will be one of our greatest issues as we explore Ranginui, the cosmos, and new places to live. These new tikanga of today are our first steps towards a new Indigenous existence tomorrow: off-planet.


Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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