Place of Departed Spirits

One of the comments made after the recent “Morals” article was particularly kind. It said;
“Haven’t commented before, but have enjoyed many of your posts, especially the one about growing up swimming in the river. Looking forward to many more!”

There are aspects of life at Te Reinga that are different from the western city version of life. Nowhere is this more apparent than the Maori people’s recognition of death. Nowhere is that more observable than at Te Reinga, my home village. Here is a description of a Te Reinga funeral for a fictitious woman raised with city material values. While the deceased is fictitious the events described are all real.

The funeral, the Maori word is tangi, was the following Monday. It was a wonderful experience. We flew to the nearest airport in the coastal town of Gisborne. Te Reinga is a further forty mile drive into the mountains and ranges of New Zealand’s east coast. I expected it to be isolated but nothing like this. The nearest shop and hotel were twenty five miles from the small cluster of shanty homes, a school and a livestock trucking company. Te Reinga is set at the point where the Hangaroa and Ruakaturi Rivers merge and spill over bleached white bluffs to create the imposing Te Reinga Falls.

Transcending its isolation is an omnipresent aura of haunted mortality. The rising mist of the falls, the crowding granite cliffs and scrub covered hills – Te Reinga is an appropriate “place of departed spirits.” We parked the car one hundred yards from the meeting house; the Maori word is marae, where Whetu’s body lay in state. The old Maori ladies sitting around Whetu’s open coffin began a haunted cry of greeting. The sound reached our ears only after it had echoed off a dozen cliffs. I swear that sound is the closest thing on this earth to the torment of purgatory. I was physically afraid. We moved towards the gates of the marae and slowly walked up to the veranda with its body and waiting mourners. A few feet from the veranda we stopped and bowed our heads. The wailing cries were a blanket of sound rising and falling around us.

Our group moved forward to the verandah. I could see Whetu’s face, her head hidden under white satin. She may have preferred a city cathedral funeral but this was a community burying one of its own. We shook the hand of each of the mourners and stepped back down from the verandah. Pat said quietly, “Come around here.” At the side of the meeting house Pat washed his hands with water from a bottle.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“It’s a Maori custom to wash away evil spirits,” Pat explained. Alison and I washed our hands too and I felt better.

Thirty minutes later the Church of England funeral service began. It was like no other Christian service I had ever attended. We sat outside, in front of the verandah. Four young girls dressed as angels hovered around the coffin. The oratory of Cannon Rangi Ehu and the Maori tribal elders was eloquent, gentle and strong. Although I did not understand their language, the tributes were just as poignant. With skilled and beautiful timing; a sentence followed by a pause and several thoughtful steps before the next sentence. The words were irrelevant to the meaning. It was more than Whetu deserved. It was certainly more than she would have got in her inner city cathedral. Pat spoke and adeptly employed the same skills to eulogize his fellow administrator and, he said, friend.

For me though the most defining moment was still to come. As Whetu’s ex-husband and her son put the lid on the coffin and screwed it down the congregation sang an ancient Maori hymn. It had the rhythm of a slow waltz. Without even knowing the words the sound carried all the acceptance of grief and the commitment of offering this tupapaku, body, to what ever came next. In this place and sung with the soft, mournful deepness that the Polynesians do best; the compassion was more than I could bear.

The final act of burial took place in the sacred, tapu burial ground behind the marae. Pat had warned us that because of the tapu no one went on to boot-hill, as the locals irreverently called it, without a body to bury. There was no pre-prepared grave; the hole would be dug when we got to the end of the track. There were no head stones or burial mounds. It was just a scrub covered hill. On “boot-hill” we must take nothing with us and bring nothing back. To do so could cause a form of mild insanity, the locals called Maori sickness.

We followed the coffin down a track, across a small stream and into the cemetery. The pall bearers struggled to lift the considerable weight of Whetu up the steep unkempt track. Eventually we reached the shovels that signaled the site of the last grave. I was surprised at the speed Whetu’s grave was prepared and her coffin lifted into the hole. Pat had told us that Maori tradition required the deceased person’s personal effects be buried with the body. I had to smile though as Whetu’s skis were dropped into the hole beside her.

We filed back down the track and prepared to cross the stream. Two Maori ladies dressed in black including matching black gum boots stood in the stream. They used willow branches to splash water on each mourner. “What’s this about?” I asked Pat.
“The water washes away evil spirits. It’s looked on as an important cleansing process,” explained Pat.

I accepted my sprinkling and sat on the other side putting my shoes back on. I noticed Canon Rangi Ehu about to set out on the crossing. He had come prepared. He held a blue and white golf umbrella, carefully positioned to turn aside any drops of the sacred water.
The day concluded with an enormous feast prepared in a traditional Maori hangi. Large stones were heated in a fire and sprayed with water to produce steam. The food was placed on the stones and covered with earth and left to cook. The result was fantastic. Over 200 people were fed with more than they could ever eat. I was introduced to the distinctive flavors of wild pork, venison, puha, and native eel.

Whetu may have preferred a cathedral service followed by tea and cup cakes on the lawn of their Remuera home. My guess was she never knew, “rank is but the guinea’s stamp, the man’s the gowd for a’ that.” She was fortunate that in the end honest people “tho’ e’er sae poor” had marked her passing with sincerity and compassion. I knew of no occasion that better defined this celebration of the past, comfort for the present and hope for the future. I had a feeling though that Whetu was at the gates of heaven demanding to know, “How much did it cost?”