When someone dies, most people automatically contact a funeral director. What they may not realise is that’s not the only option.
After losing her husband three years ago, Sharday Cable-Ranapia is on a mission to show there are other, tikanga-led ways of looking after a tūpāpaku, or body, when someone dies.
In this conversation with Siena Yates, she shares the difficulties she faced caring for her husband after death, and how things can be different for our whānau.
I first met Josh in 2017, and I knew right away that he was the love of my life, given to me by the ātua.
He’s also from Whakatāne. We both whakapapa to Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Pūkeko. We met at Ōhiwa Harbour, Ihukatia, which is my favourite place in the world. I’m a healthcare assistant, and I was there on a day out with a client who got into some difficulty. Josh was fishing with his mates close by and rushed over to help me with him.
We went our separate ways until a whole year later when we met again by pure chance on the dance floor at a local bar. We went on our first date after that, just browsing the shops in Whakatāne and having lunch at our local pub, and he completely won me over. The connection was something else.
Within about a month, I was pregnant with our pēpi. I know that sounds crazy, but ours was the type of aroha I had only heard about in stories — the too-good-to-be-true type of aroha.
Unfortunately, that turned out to be the case.
When our son was only eight months old, we got Josh’s cancer diagnosis. The prognosis was just: “We hope we can buy you some time.”
We only got nine months between his diagnosis and his passing, but we made as many beautiful memories as we could in that time, including our mārena (marriage) just six weeks before he transitioned to te ao wairua.
Because he was such a huge rugby enthusiast, he kept playing until about five weeks before his passing. It was very scary as he was riddled with bone tumours, but he was adamant and there was no stopping him. That was a testament to his “never give up” attitude.
At home, he was still chopping wood, cooking, and catering to our needs until the end. And I have never witnessed such love between father and son as I did with him and our son. He posted videos and photos of him every day. Josh was the cheekiest, most loyal and fun-loving person I think I’ll ever know. And while we only had a very short amount of time together, it felt like a lifetime.
Because we knew how sick he was, and what was coming, it was a very spiritual experience, being together between two realms. So I was prepared for his death — as much as anyone can be, anyway.
What I hadn’t prepared for was the trauma of what came next. The funeral directors came in and they took him from us, and once he was gone, I thought: “Oh my God, what are they doing with his body?” I pictured them pumping him with chemicals, and I was worried he wasn’t going to look like himself.
They invited me to the funeral home to help dress him, and during that process, they pushed his body into a sitting position without even warning me. It was so traumatic to see him handled in that way, and with the smell of the embalming chemicals as well.
Even walking into the funeral place and having someone go, “Okay, sit here, sign this, choose a coffin”, having pricelists thrown at me — it was all rush, rush, rush, and it didn’t feel okay.
I’d grown up very disconnected from my Māoritanga. My mum is Pākehā and my pāpā left when we were children. So, I didn’t know that, traditionally, we’re not meant to leave our loved ones alone after they die. We’re supposed to stay with them until they’re laid to rest. I instinctively knew when Josh passed away that I didn’t want to leave him — that it felt wrong, even if I couldn’t say why. But even though I wasn’t comfortable with it, I thought that was how it had to be done.
Now, I know I could have called the doctor, let them confirm and record the death, and then we could have done the rest as a whānau. We didn’t need a funeral director to take him away, or a coffin, or chemical embalming, or any of that stuff.
But I didn’t know that until afterwards — after my experience made me start looking into all things related to the end of life from a te ao Māori perspective.
After that experience with Josh, I knew I wanted to learn as much as possible, with the goal of becoming an end-of-life doula — someone who helps people and their whānau with their transition to te ao wairua.
Once I decided on that path and told my friends and whānau about it, things started to align. I came across a newspaper ad and a Facebook post for two different wānanga which opened up a whole new world for me.
One of the wānanga was with Ngā Pou Herenga, the Funeral Guides’ Collective, a group that educates people on alternative affordable and eco-friendly funeral options, largely based on Māori traditions.
The other was with tohunga Weherua of Tūwhenuakura who teaches traditional preserving methods for tūpāpaku.
The kōrero I heard at those wānanga absolutely blew my mind. I thought: “Why am I only just hearing about some of these wonderful things? My people used to do things this differently? This sounds a hundred times better than what I’ve been through.”
That was when I first found out that, not only can you keep your loved ones at home and care for them yourself, but that was tikanga. There was a traditional and cultural process of staying with the tūpāpaku from the time of their passing to the time you lay them to rest in the urupā.
I learned about the importance of allowing our loved ones to rest whole and intact, and that, rather than invasive chemical embalming, we have our own natural methods of both cleaning and preserving the tūpāpaku where nothing needs to be removed from them.
One of the wonderful things I learned about was the use of manaaki mats and other cooling methods for the tūpāpaku. The mats, or plates, use dry ice and other cooling agents and they sit under the body, or the coffin, to keep them cool and preserved, so you don’t need to embalm them.
The manaaki mats are often used for pēpi, because the beautiful thing about them is that they allow you to still cuddle your pēpi between the time they pass and the time they’re laid to rest, rather than having them taken away to be embalmed, which can be really traumatic.
I also learned about natural methods of embalming.
Things like using paru, or soil, to make panipani paru kirikiri, an ointment for the tūpāpaku. Or you can apply other natural resources to the skin, which vary from rohe to rohe. So, if you’re on the coast, you could use sea salt. If you’re in the forest, you can use kawakawa and kokowai. And if you’re near volcanic areas, you could use sulphur mud.
It’s a fascinating process. These things are absorbed through the skin, so they work from the outside in. When they’re absorbed well, you can feel how cool tūpāpaku become.
I remember speaking to a kaumātua after one of Weherua Rongā’s wānanga, and he said: “I can’t believe we have forgotten that’s how we used to do it. We used to roll tūpāpaku with a stick and release bodily fluids that way. We would take them down to the awa to prepare them. Nobody used to come and take our bodies, we just did it all ourselves.”
He had forgotten these things over time, but that wānanga sparked a memory of watching his people caring for tūpāpaku in the old ways. After that, he decided: “We need to do this. We’re not doing it the other way anymore.”
He and I also talked about how going without caskets and embalming could be a huge saving for whānau who often go into debt for a long time to pay for funerals and tangihanga.
An average tangihanga is $7000–$10,000, and most people just don’t have that. We sure didn’t. I’m still recovering financially from Josh’s death three years on. It’s such a shit thing to struggle with when you already have so much to deal with. If we reclaimed our practices and started to have these conversations, that could be different too.
Our tūpuna traditionally used woven caskets, or they wrapped tūpāpaku in cloth dyed with paru and kokowai. Not only are these things cost-effective, but they wrap our loved ones in elements of our whenua. It cares for them, and it cares for Papatūānuku.
The thing about caring for your loved ones after death is that it’s a beautiful, full-on act of love. It’s the last act of love you can give them, and I really wish I could have done that for my husband.
Unfortunately, it’s become a common belief that you must hire funeral professionals and have chemical embalming and a coffin. These things aren’t actually required by law. It’s always been legal for whānau to care for their loved ones themselves, from death until their burial or cremation.
So, we could’ve just been at home with Josh, washing him, using cooling agents to preserve his body. We could’ve wrapped him instead of having a coffin — and that would’ve been huge. Because one of the hardest things for me when Josh died was that our baby kept trying to jump in the coffin and I had to pull him out all the time.
But Josh shouldn’t have been in a coffin. He should’ve just been laid down normally, where we still could have that last awhi and touch. It felt so wrong in a way that even my baby recognised, and that’s the trauma of it all — that our little boy wasn’t able to do those things. He was restricted by this strange box when all he wanted was to be touching his pāpā.
I think now that it would have cut out such a huge chunk of our grief and trauma if we’d done it the way that our people used to do it.
So that’s why I’m now on this journey of learning, reclaiming and revitalising our practices, because other people need to know they have options. My goal is to set up a service to help whānau through this journey and to care for tūpāpaku in the old ways.
While there will still be whānau who prefer for someone to come and take the tūpāpaku away, and that’s perfectly okay, I’d like to open another avenue for Māori to reclaim our traditions, to replace other colonised processes — if that’s what we want to do.
There are a lot of whānau already taking care of their loved ones on their own. There are also some Māori funeral professionals who help whānau with these processes — and it’s beautiful.
When I think about my own journey, I think about how much this type of knowledge and community would have helped me. And while I’m gutted that I didn’t have that, it’s okay, because it’s set me on a new path to help other people.
I think maybe that’s one of the reasons Josh and I were given to each other by fate.
So that I could help him transition to te ao wairua. So that he could show me love, strength, and perseverance. And so that, even though we’re in different realms now, we can help people together in this way.
Sharday Cable-Ranapia (Ngāti Awa, Tūhoe, Ngāti Pūkeko, Ngāti Hokopū), is a qualified carer and support worker who now works as an end-of-life doula. With the support of Ngāti Awa Social and Health Services, she runs an eight-week wānanga called Te Parekawakawa o Hinenui te Pō which covers planning for death, coping with grief and caring for tūpāpaku using tikanga and methods from te ao Māori.
As told to Siena Yates, and made possible by NZ On Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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