Apulu Reece Autagavaia's gloved hand holding his grandmother's hand following her passing (Photo: Supplied)

How Covid is upending time-honoured traditions for Māori and Pasifika families

Covid-19 has changed how all families grieve, but for Pasifika and Māori whānau, it’s disrupted centuries-old traditions, as well as affecting how these families affirm their cultural identity.

When a Samoan dies, the home of the deceased will become the focal point for their community for a two- to three-week period. 

It’s not uncommon for relatives to fly in from Australia, the Pacific Islands and the United States, marquees are often set up on the lawn and extra mattresses to fill the lounge, with cousins converging to help with cooking, cleaning and preparing for the funeral. Almost every night leading up to the funeral will involve visits from different branches of the extended family, as well as friends and key people from the community. These visits are likely to include a formal gift-giving ceremony called the Si’i Alofa, which essentially means to raise up the family in love. This ceremony involves speeches and reciprocal giving of monetary and cultural gifts, particularly finely woven mats, which are considered one of the most valuable items in Samoan culture. The body will often be brought to the house and it’s important it is never left alone, therefore every night the family will sit with their loved one, as a way to keep the deceased company before their final farewell.

Now that we are in level two, funerals can have up to 50 people in Auckland, or 100 in the rest of New Zealand. Funeral homes are being advised to keep services to under two hours, along with ensuring all attendees are registered, contact traced and masked, as well as intensively cleaning the premises after each service. 

Funerals in lockdown have been cancelled, delayed, or conducted virtually (Photo: Getty Images)

Apulu Reece Autagavaia lost his grandmother just as New Zealand went into level three for the first time. He says for Samoans, a funeral is not only a time to farewell a loved one, but also when they reinforce familial ties back to their ancestors and their homeland. 

“The objective of Samoan funerals is manifold but one of the most important aspects is to bring families together and keep the family connections alive,” he says. “Families go to great lengths to be represented as their mere presence invokes and reinstates relationships that have been in existence since their forebears.”

For Autagavaia’s family, very few traditional practices were able to take place as level three restrictions allowed for the merging of only two bubbles. The funeral occurred during level two, but given the size of Autagavaia’s family, just immediate family were present in the chapel, with everyone else attending via Zoom. The family is also waiting for approval from the Samoan government to return with their grandmother’s body, so she can be laid to rest with her husband. 

Autagavaia says while he totally understands the necessity of the restrictions, grieving their loss has been even more difficult for the family.

“It was really hard,” he says. “The grief hit us early and then it’s elongated, as she hasn’t been buried yet. There’s also a whole lot of collective grieving that stopped. Usually when the body comes home, people will sing with the body right through the night. And then there’s just things like the peeling of potatoes with your cousins. If that funeral had happened before Covid, my children would have got to know their cousins from Australia really well. Basically the whole process of experiencing our whole family unit has been lost.”

Tauanu’u Nick Bakulich of Greyson Funeral Services (Photo: Supplied)

Funeral director Tauanu’u Nick Bakulich, of Greyson Funeral Services in Ōtāhuhu, has been working in the industry for more than 30 years. He says the restrictions imposed by Covid have forced many Pasifika families and churches to rethink how to do things. 

“My observation of the Pasifika community is that the messaging has been very effective, and there’s almost a resignation that our practices have to change. Most churches won’t be opening at level two. They obviously can [within Auckland’s 10-person maximum gathering restrictions], but the word on the ground is most will choose not to, because the new cluster is affecting pockets of our community. There’s certainly a level of caution from what I’m hearing from community leaders. 

“So it does make it difficult around what you do at the family home. The difference from level two and three is that bodies can now go home. So do we gather at the home? Every family will be different in how they approach it and how they apply the rules and how they manage the cultural exchanges.”

Bakulich has also noticed the lessening of financial pressures on families. It is not uncommon for a Pasifika family to spend over $20,000 to farewell a loved one. This includes money for the funeral, the burial as well for the exchanging of gifts and the costs of catering for extended family over a two- to three-week period. 

“We’ve probably realised through Covid that there are certain cultural practices that we don’t have to put ourselves through. Some of those practices are things that have negatively impacted on us in a financial sense. Funerals can put a lot of pressure on families. Well, some of those pressures are being taken away, because there’s much less people to host.”

Francis and Kaiora Tipene and the staff of Tipene Funerals (Photo: File)

For Māori, the challenge has been particularly felt by those wanting to take their deceased loved one back to their home marae. With many marae deciding not to open their premises until we return to level one, it has placed added pressures onto funeral homes. Francis Tipene at Tipene Funerals says one of the hardest parts of his role is explaining the new restrictions to families.

“When they’re grieving, they are angry as to why they can’t take their mum or dad home or why they can’t have more people come in [to the funeral home],” he says. 

“It has been the most difficult time of my 15-year career. Now it’s all about keeping our distances, keeping our masks and gloves on, and for us as funeral directors it’s just really weird. It’s everything we’re not about. We’re about embracing and caring and loving and compassion.”

Autagavaia says there’s a Samoan proverb, “E o’u le aso, ‘ae o oe taeao,” which means ”today my turn, tomorrow yours”, which is about the need to support your family, because one day you’ll need their support. As Autagavaia says, nothing can replace having that physical connection with loved ones at a time of loss, and he hopes, as I’m sure we all do, that will soon be possible again.

“It is true that the financial impact has lessened for funerals nowadays. But despite having an online connection and less costs, the cultural and relational physical benefits are lost. There’s a real mental toll to not being able to have that physical support of being able to embrace family.”



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