Imagine if you will, a backdrop of soft whispering waterfalls, sun-kissed cornfields, and baked grassy hills. At night, you hear the hissing spray of waves and the roaring of the sea, with the haunting light of the moon in the dark of the sky. Among them are the Tangata Whenua (Māori: people of this land) of Waihirere Gisborne: fierce and beautiful Māori who have lived in this area for centuries. Here, they cultivate the land using traditional methods and gather food from the sea while passing on their indigenous knowledge to the next generation and kin. It is within this romantic landscape and ethereal context that provides the setting of this short blog, and the event surrounding the mourning of one of their tamatoa (Māori: Warrior).
Last weekend, my husband and I attended a tangi (Māori: funeral ceremony) to tautoko (Māori: support) our son-in-law and his family as brother and nephew of the deceased. The tangi took place at Parihimanihi Marae and consisted of several days of mourning, celebration, and reflection of the young man who had passed and his legacy and memories that remained.
On the last day of the tangi, the coffin left the marae carried by the siblings and cousins, while the rest of the family walked behind them, en route to their family urupa (Māori: burial plot) that is serenely placed at the summit of their maunga (Māori: mountain or hill) Ahititi.
It was a walk of silence, sadness, and despair, and I felt the grief and pain of the parents and siblings. Embedded in this atmosphere was the wild blowing winds that sprinkled the earthy dust everywhere as if it was whisking away the streaming tears off our faces – albeit temporarily. However, what happened next irrevocably cemented the whole occasion as being surreal and almost other-worldly.
At first glance of the approaching maunga and urupa, we could see what appeared to be the blurred images of wooden life-sized Māori statues evenly spaced up the hill to the burial plot. In fact; these statues were 20 young men dressed in traditional wear – each carrying a colourful carved taiaha (Māori: traditional weapon) beaming with bright green and red feathers. These Warriors were strategically placed on the pathway up the hill that served as a guide for the pallbearers, family, and mourners on this last trail.
Each of these Warriors chanted and sang songs of love and farewell as the coffin approached and then delicately buried the tamatoa next to his ancestors. I can only liken this scene to Royal Soldiers paying their final tribute and salute to a former comrade while leading to his ultimate resting place. We were moved to tears.
As we walked back to the whare-kai (Māori: hall used for serving meals), the entire whānau welcomed us inside the building with loud, joyful singing and smiling faces supported with the sweet, charming sounds of the guitar. The emotional tears and outcry that we had just experienced on the hill subsided – revealing hearty warm-felt glows among us as we joined in sharing an intoxicating spread of kai moana (Māori: seafood), hangi (Māori: food cooked in the earth) and other goodies.
Being of Samoan-Chinese descent and someone who has attended other funerals of different ethnicities, there has not been a memorable event such as this one that (in my humble opinion) ostensibly demonstrated the layers of attachment that connect humans to life, death and spirituality through harmonious relationships.
Death brings outcry, mourning, and grief which is shared when we join as a whānau to ‘lighten the load of broken hearts.’ However, it is also a period of celebration as we reflect on the memories of those that have gone before us. In turn, we think about our present actions and liveable purposes, and what we leave for our partners, children, grandchildren, and future generations. In this way, I believe that for some of us; death is only the beginning.
Dedicated to Wiremu Hemi Julian Koria and (my late father) Afapene Ip Liu Chan Ofe