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Grief and ashes: The Casketeers’ Francis Tipene on mourning in Māori culture

Grief is tough to navigate, wherever you come from. An incident involving the public sprinkling of ashes started a conversation this week on cultural belief versus the freedom to mourn however you need to. Spinoff Ātea editor Leonie Hayden talks to funeral director Francis Tipene about the tikanga around ashes and cremation.

On Tuesday night members of New Zealand’s music industry witnessed a surprising tribute – while accepting the Taite Music Classic Record Award, the Headless Chickens’ guitarist and vocalist Chris Matthews scattered the ashes of bandmate Grant Fell (Ngāpuhi) on the stage.

In Māori culture human remains are considered tapu. Some of the Māori musicians present excused themselves immediately, with more weighing in with disbelief at the act on social media later.

It has sparked a lively conversation on the culture clash – was it a punk rock statement or a culturally offensive act, especially coming from the friends and family of a Māori artist? On the other hand, some have asked how it could be wrong if it was done with love and to honour the deceased.

I talked to Tipene Funeral Services’ director Francis Tipene (Te Rarawa), star of the excellent series The Casketeers, about the incident and asked him to explain the tikanga around ashes and cremation – a relatively new practice for te ao Māori – and talk through some of the traditional Māori funeral rites.

What’s your take on ashes being put in public places?

The interesting thing about this is in terms of Māori and tikanga… we still haven’t got there yet. Apart from the ashes being the human remains or the koiwi, as a people we still haven’t figured out our tikanga for cremation. We have a tangi right? The person passes away at home or at the hospital and then their home becomes tapu until the house has been blessed after the funeral. You go home and have the karakia, you want the house to return to a state of noa (free from tapu), ready to live in again. Now, when someone passes and they want to be cremated, such as Dr. Ranginui Walker, we have a funeral service on a marae or at home. We take the body to be cremated and then the ashes are returned to the family.

Now, at that point the family are thinking – we’ve just cremated Dad. Now we need to go home and takahi the whare, or bless the house, so we can continue living in it and that the wairua, spirit has gone on. But upon being told ashes are ready to be taken back home, or to the urupā, there’s a slight grey area there. Do we take them home to the house we’ve already blessed? Do we go straight to the cemetery? Will our whānau let us take the ashes to the cemetery? As a people we haven’t figured out what our tikanga is.

But my personal point of view is that yes, it’s not good for remains to be where people are going to trample all over them.

I have heard that some iwi have had to ban people sprinkling ashes at certain beaches or maunga.

We come across this all the time, iwi saying you can’t scatter ashes there, but a lot of urupā are against interring ashes into the cemetery. What are we going to do? What is our tikanga? Have we got consecrated areas to scatter ashes, to bury ashes? Do we take the ashes home and put them on the mantelpiece? People come to us for advice and I can only give advice from experience I’ve had and that is if you take the ashes home, have a karakia there.  You’ve already blessed the house but we’re in a new phase now and perhaps we just need to repeat the process again. A lot of times people like to hold onto ashes – say Dad passes away, hold onto them until Mum passes away so they can be interred together. There’s all these different things that have been introduced following how our European counterparts do funerals.

It seems natural that our tikanga would evolve. We no longer have tūpāpaku in a sitting position at tangihanga, for example. We don’t put them in caves, we don’t (usually) disinter and then reinter bones. What are some of the very traditional tikanga that has survived?

We always have karakia. So before the body is moved there will always be a prayer. Karakia with our tūpuna can go on for hours. So that has persevered. When a body returns back to a home or to a marae, the karanga, the first call from the female has persevered. It sets the tone of a tangihanga. As soon as you hear the call… even I get into that weeping mode, the feeling it arouses within you brings on those memories. Karakia, karanga, mihimihi, hīmene, waiata all sets the wairua. Everything else can be a little bit all over the place. We make it work for the situation and the circumstances.

Tipene Funeral Services’ director Francis Tipene, star of TVNZ’s The Casketeers.

What about the whānau pani, the grieving family, fasting for the whole three days and things like that?

That would be more common in the Waikato and the Tūhoe area, they’re so staunch with their tikanga. In Auckland and going North we’re a little bit more lenient. However there are some kuia who noho tuturu to that kaupapa (adhere devoutly to that tradition) whether they’re closely related or not, and it just astounds me and I really love it to be honest. They show us, our younger generation, what the tikanga is about.

Are the younger generations in your experience picking it up and carrying it on?

No, unfortunately. There’s always a group, a handful who stay true to it, but those of us urban Māori who are not too familiar, it’s not happening nowadays.

What’s the significance of pare kawakawa and greenery in tangi?

Every iwi has their own protocol. I’m from up North so I wouldn’t want to comment on anyone else. When we have the greenery on our head, in many cultures it’s worn in celebration but here it means we’re on our way to a hui mate. In the old days, once the leaves started to die and go brown and curl at the edge, that was the signal, the tohu, that it’s time to send the body off, put the body in the cave or in the tree or whatever it was that iwi does to later get the bones.

The practice of wailing is common in every rohe, right? Do you think it’s something that especially helps with mourning and closure?

I’ve been doing my mahi for 13 years and I’ve been to many marae, many funerals and I’ve heard many kuia – and men – wail. And there were times when I would sit there and think ‘oh my goodness, here we go again’. At the beginning of this year I lost my grandfather. It was the first ever funeral within my own family! And man, my understanding and maramatanga of grief… I found myself wailing worse than some of the women! I was so sad, and so were all our other whānau. You didn’t mean to wail but I was crying and saying things to my Pops. You love this person so much it just comes out that way. The kuia, when they wail, the pouritanga, the sadness is overwhelming. Once you’ve experienced it you understand. I have a true appreciation and empathy for whānau who are able to publicly mourn. You don’t hear of that being acceptable in our Pākehā culture, certainly none of the funerals I’ve done. It was a true understanding for me, and a change in my career. Kua taka te kapa, the penny dropped.

Do you think that the whole reason for our tikanga, this blueprint our tūpuna have left for us, is because they knew that this was the best and healthiest way to mourn?

Absolutely yes. If you think about why we have these things in place, our tūpuna were so clever. You’ve got grief counsellors now, but they had it all there for us. Sleeping with our mate, laughing with our mate, eating together, crying together, singing. The last night on the marae where everyone’s able to speak. How beautiful is that? You’re able to say your piece, whether it’s nice or not. And you’re able to move on. They were very clever, our ancestors, and I’m grateful.

Read more: Moana Maniapoto on tangi she’s attended over the years.

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