Māori, says Moana, believe the more wailing and carrying-on at a tangi, the better. It’s healthy. It honours the dead. It helps explain death, too. And here she helps explain tangihanga, “the ultimate Māori cultural expression.”
As a child, I remember seeing our mother dressed entirely in black, wearing a hat, veil and sombre expression. I asked where she was going.
“A funeral,” she said.
“Can I come?” I asked.
“No,” she replied. “Kids don’t go to funerals.”
Grandad lived in Christchurch. We lived in Invercargill. He may as well have lived on another planet, geographically and culturally. Mum, a Pākehā, told us about the first tangi she ever went to. Dad’s whānau hosted relatives at home in Rotorua.
“People were everywhere, sleeping on the floor and constantly eating,” she recalled. “We seemed to be forever washing dishes.”
Mum is now so used to tangi that she finds funerals strange.
“How odd,” she’ll whisper, if there’s no singing or speeches at the graveside.
Tangihanga is the ultimate Māori cultural expression, the most resilient of our traditions. Full of ritual and emotion, tangi are a showcase of oratory, song and storytelling.
“It’s theatre, like a live play,” says Selwyn Parata, a Ngāti Porou leader. “Kuia wailing, karanga, moteatea and oriori – these all set the ambience.”
It’s the space where relationships are celebrated, challenged and nurtured. It’s where talk turns to politics, sports, business and gossip. Tangihanga is probably the most powerful networking event in te ao Māori. Emotion is encouraged and drama is expected. It’s a time to balance the ledger of kinship responsibility.
And, at its heart, is whanaungatanga and manaakitanga.
Potty-mouthed Gordon Ramsay, the TV chef, would be lost for words if he saw marae cooks in action, catering for hundreds, sometimes thousands, for three, four or five days on very little sleep. No sweat for them to whip out a song either.
When it comes to tangihanga, it’s all hands on deck. The mana of the marae is at stake. Tangi are talked about years after … stories of coffins spirited away in stealth, full-blown concerts, high drama and shared memories.
I can still see my Uncle Hitiri slowly rise in the pouring rain to farewell my former father-in-law, Bob Jackson, as he lay at Te Puea in Mangere. Bending against the elements, the act of shrugging off his heavy coat seemed such a noble and respectful gesture.
Who can forget the five-hour wait in atrocious storms at the tangi of the three Stirling brothers? No one complained.
“Now we have to adjust tikanga because younger generations don’t want to get wet,” says Selwyn Parata. “And you want them to come to marae.”
I remember the spectacular haka face-off at the tangi of our Ngāti Tūwharetoa Ariki Hepi te Heuheu where a vortex of wairua seemed to engulf the performers. It wrapped itself around Tumu te Heuheu as well, as he stepped into the dark ancestral vault. Alone.
Māori funerals can be hilarious. As the relatives and friends of Maui Prime cracked hysterical jokes at his expense, I half expected Dalvanius to leap out of his coffin and yell: “How dare you?” And then to burst into giggles himself.
What about the time a calf trotted on to the marae behind an unsuspecting Temuera Morrison as he paid tribute to Wi Kuki Kaa? Parekura Horomia took off his coat and morphed into a nimble-footed matador.
Sitting beside the coffin is often the “best seat in town.” One mischievous aunt would give us the giggles with her running commentary on the “city cousins” as they moved tentatively on to the marae. “Aue! Look at those two,” she’d say. “Going the wrong way. No idea.”
Selwyn Parata says the role of kuia was to “provide the ambience.”“We don’t know how to cry anymore. Those old kuia could switch the waterworks on and off no trouble. They’d think of those who passed, those left behind and, because kuia were also fasting, it wasn’t hard to wail. Nowadays some whānau struggle to sing or even share stories.”
It used to be that on the final night, the singing and story-telling lasted until daybreak. That’s how it was at the tangi of Ngoi Pewhairangi, Selwyn said, because no one wanted to sleep. “They loved being together.”
I remember the late Marj Rau-Kupa wailing when the wharenui lights were switched off at 9pm. “What’s wrong with you people? You have to sing all night long!”
At 5am, she threw the switch and ordered everyone up, helpfully rolling stunned children out of their slumber by pulling their blankets out from under them. She insisted manuhiri would arrive “any minute now.” By 6am, fed, watered and poised like coiled springs, we peered into the dawn. Not a visitor in sight.
Hone Edwards counts the recent tangi of Anzac Pikia as very special.
“It was like Matatini,” says Hone. “Everyone knew Anzac’s passion was haka, so Iti Kahurangi, Waka Huia, Te Arawa all turned up to perform on the last night.”
Back in the day, you never took photographs at tangi. Nowadays, tangihanga are not only filmed, but some are live streamed. Hone remembers when, as a Te Karere reporter in 1983, he approached one whānau to film for the very first time.
“A respected Matakite, I believed her passing would interest the motu because this kuia helped hundreds,” said Hone. “The whānau were dubious but eventually allowed cameras halfway up the marae ātea. No filming the atamira, coffin or photographs.”
The passing of Te Arikinui Te Atairangikaahu broke new ground. Understanding that Te Arikinui was near death, Hone gained permission from Tainui and his television board, then approached whānau pani, the bereaved family.
“They didn’t want to discuss it … he karanga mate,” he recalls. “They said I was pre-empting her death. I said it was going to happen and there would be chaos, if they opened the marae up to untold cameras. I had a budget, two outside broadcasting trucks, five cameras and a commitment to share footage with any broadcaster. That was a first.”
At 2am on the morning of her death, the whānau contacted Hone. Te Arikinui’s tangi was filmed daily, a highlights package broadcast each night and the actual burial day went live to air. The tangi of Erima Henare, Parekura Horomia and Api Mahuika have since been live streamed.
Naida Glavish isn’t opposed to filming. She says it helps those absent with the grieving process. She says koha is something else that’s changed. Selwyn agrees.
“Some have a romantic idea about marae – that marae pay for everything.”
Naida says some marae are forced to set fees because koha are so unreliable. Those who can’t afford traditional tangi, take their deceased home. Or stay at the funeral parlour until burial day. It’s not just about cost either.
“Some aren’t on the Māori map, so they’re whakamā,” says Hone. “They take their tangi into their houses where they can relax and express their warmth naturally. Sometimes they share memories around a BBQ. Even a few of my Pākehā mates have taken their funerals into their homes.”
Then there’s cremation. Selwyn says they’ve occasionally placed an urn on to the whariki. Finding out that Peter Buck was cremated (because he died overseas) helped Selwyn adjust his thinking. Patu Hohepa thinks cost is a factor because his whānau were quoted $30,000 to fly a body from Australia to New Zealand. He said cremation was carried out during musket wars and that some ashes and heads were brought home.
Can’t quite see that catching on.
Then there’s the dress code. In the old days, mourners would wear their “Sunday best.” Recently, I’ve seen both sexes rock up in swannies, shorts and trackies. I’ve yet to see a man in a frock though.
“When you pass over, our people describe it as the beginning of the journey beyond the hidden veil … ki tua o te ārai,” says Hone. “I’ve always thought the veil is a perfect metaphor for men in drag also, because it hides all sorts of secrets. Your manliness for one.”
Twenty years after his cousin Witoria (Pussy Galore) Drake died, Hone recalls a clash of two cultures at the tangi – te ao Māori world and the explosive, flamboyant drag queens of K’Rd. It kept him busy.
“Kaumātua couldn’t cope with men running around the marae in dresses with falsetto voices,” he said. “They couldn’t get their heads around it.”
Kaumātua instructed Hone that men cannot wear dresses at tangihanga.
“Shite,” said Hone. “These were queens, not men. Or men who were queens. Whatever, it wasn’t the way my elders saw it. What lay behind the hidden veil was uncertainty, verging on prejudice and intolerance.”
The stroppy queens adjusted their wardrobe and emerged wearing … lavalavas.
“My elders were a tad confused. They couldn’t cope with men in drag, but could cope with men in lavalava, even though lavalava look like dresses,” says Hone. “Some perceptions around our customs do my head in.”
Selwyn (Ngāti Porou) and Patu (Ngāpuhi) report that customs remain pretty much the same at their rural marae. Selwyn believes tangi and marae are the base of Māori culture because they’re about whanaungatanga.
As kids, in the South Island, Amiria Reriti and her brothers loved tangi. It meant fun times with the cuzzies. “At Rāpaki, we’d play hide and seek. At night, we’d be around the fire cooking spuds in foil. Tuahiwi was different … too many bossy, grumpy types there. You were on edge in case you got stuck with some ugly job.”
While I had a relatively late start, my kids have attended tangi since they were babies. They’re used to tangihanga. They know what’s going on and how to behave. They’ve seen dead bodies. They can handle the emotion. After all, Māori believe the more wailing and carrying-on, the better. It’s healthy. It honours the dead. And makes it easy to explain death.
“So Aunty won’t drive her car anymore?” asked my son, as a concerned four-year-old peering into an open casket. “She won’t go to McDonalds again?”
The tangi is important because it helps adults to prepare children for the inevitable loss of their grandparents and parents. And to accept that death is part of life and that life will go on without us in it.
While some ritual may be tweaked, it remains the most authentic of all Māori cultural practices. It is the absolute manifestation of Māori beliefs and an acknowledgement of constant communion between the spiritual and human worlds. If we cease to celebrate life and death in the way of our ancestors, our very existence as Māori will be under threat.
But, for now, the tangihanga – our dying tradition – is very much alive.
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