Caring for kaumātua before and after death

Preparing the tūpāpaku (body)

Today, some whānau observe their family’s traditional customs by caring for the body in the same way their ancestors did; they have their own natural methods of cleaning and preserving the tūpāpaku using rongoā rākau (plant medicines or treatments). However, many whānau today use the Western method of embalming; the funeral director prepares and embalms (mixture of chemicals) the body. Whānau may wish to dress the deceased’s body after the funeral director has completed their part (embalming and preparing the body for viewing). Choosing clothes to dress the deceased in is the responsibility of whānau pani, although some kaumātua will indicate their preference of a special dress and brooch, or a favourite suit before they die. Whānau pani may wish to view the deceased at the funeral home before the body is transported to the marae or where the deceased will like in state.

Pato (health care assistant) provides an example of post-death care; she refers to ‘horoi’, the washing of the tūpāpaku:

Pato (health care assistant) provides an example of post-death care; she refers to ‘horoi’, the washing of the tūpāpaku:

Yeah, [waiata] that’ll come with the karakia hīmene. Um, mihimihi[s], and then… with my Dad it was, ‘Oh, can we just have a bit of a break here? because I want to do some things with my Dad?’ And then the kaumātua was going, ‘Like what?’ You know, in Māori. And I was like, ‘Ah, like take the catheter out! And you know, give him a bit of a horoi!’Staying with the tūpāpaku throughout is an important part of the continued caring of the person and whānau as Jeff commented:

Yes, we had one issue and that was, she passed away about half past 10, 11o’clock in the morning. Well they never picked her body up ‘til about 2, 3 in the afternoon so that sort of put pressure on us, you know, we wanted her for one day, her mother wanted her for one day, and the marae wanted her for one day. And, there was issues around time. It was getting her out of the hospital, down to the undertakers to get her body prepared, and I told them at the time, because I had only an hour or so to get someone up there to pick her up, and, and they says, ‘Oh, we’ll take her from here.’ I goes, ‘No you’re not. I want to follow her to wherever she’s going to be, where whoever, her body’s going to be prepared for us, I want to follow that journey.’ He says, ‘Well it’s getting too late in the afternoon, we can let you follow her into [place],’ because that’s where she was, her body was prepared, ‘but she might have to stay in, she’ll definitely have to stay in overnight.’ And that really upset me I says, ‘Well, if that’s only, you know, that’s all I’ve got with her, we’re going to follow through so it was two cars, it was me, daughter, and the sister in-law followed. We wanted to keep that process of staying with her tūpāpaku right through the whole process. So that’s the only issue we had.

Traditional care of tūpāpaku

Historically, the care and preservation of the body was the responsibility of people who had the knowledge and skills to wash and prepare the body following death using traditional methods. This was considered a tapu (restricted) area of mahi (work) and the knowledge and practices are passed from one generation to the next.

During the interview, Whaea T. (community health care worker) spoke about how her father cared for tūpāpaku and carried out karakia as part of his role in the community. Her grandfather was also a tohunga:

My dad was always doing the tūpāpaku down at the river with other[s] and there was a lot of karakia happening… I know my dad was one of them. I think because he was, his father was the actual tohunga. And he did a lot of the medical stuff with rongoā and you know from the bush and stuff like that. But I think Dad was one of those who was, quiet, got that manaaki and… that caring and passion about our people… My dad was… mostly doing quite a lot… it was just because of his wairua [spirit] and that… he’ll go in and whakapai [bless] everything and do the karakia[s] you know…

Whaea T. reflected on her childhood experiences of observing older whānau members who had the role of caring for tūpāpaku at the riverbank:

… it’s like a ritual that they; there were so many karakia going on and also the way they were doing the cleansing and that it wasn’t just with a cloth and everything it was with leaves and stuff like that… To clean the body. And well one thing I was told was that they let the blood out of the body.

She also spoke about how, as children, they were not meant to see what was going on with the tūpāpaku at the river and were kept away from those who were māuiui.

All I know was that they were cleansing down the bottom…; we were shunned to the back, they didn’t want us to see anything… they did a lot to sort of keep us in the background and, give us a bit of a scare… yeah, probably is not a good thing for you know the little ones to see. And so [maybe it’s so the children] they don’t get sick or something I don’t know… because they were quite strict in those days out there and even at our marae used to be… a tree there, and they used to do a lot of mirimiri practices there. And it’s all the tohunga[s] used to be under that, that special tree and it’s still there today.

For many whānau the traditional method of embalming had stopped, Kaumātua E. said ‘It has now [ceased]. Like now we go to the Pākehā [funeral services] to do it… [since] back in late 50s… for us, anyway [it stopped].’ Kaumātua E. spoke about how it was important to care for the tūpāpaku appropriately so that the wairua was able to continue on its journey home. He identified that this process involved settling the tūpāpaku. However, he felt that much of the traditional tikanga and kawa have been lost over time and this has impacted the ability of the younger generations to care for tūpāpaku in the right way:

… And the thing is to settle the tūpāpaku. That’s the main thing is to prepare it for that journey. And you know, the body language of that tūpāpaku will tell you and if it plays up something happens… and a lot of times, because they don’t know the tikanga part, you know the kawa… and a lot of these young rangatahi seem to know but they google it and everything on the google is not the right thing for up home… And then they think they know it all and when we come they, they reject us.

During his Pae Herenga interview, Kaumātua E. spoke about how previously his whānau had used the traditional method of embalming, but now this process is often undertaken by “Pākehā”. He identified that whānau are interested in going back to the traditional ways of caring for tūpāpaku, but are hesitant due to a lack of knowledge:

There is [interest] but the people are frightened of it… wairua… Because they- you’ve got to have the wairua to do it. And if you haven’t got it, you don’t know what you’re doing.

He emphasised that it was important that those involved in carrying out traditional tikanga and kawa felt confident and comfortable in doing so:

It’s something that’s not gifted to you, but you sort of want to do it. You have to want to do it… Because I know a lot of people that are forced and then it backfires.

Today, some whānau do not wish to have their loved one placed into a body bag for transporting (regulations) following their death. Kuia K. recalled a situation where a kaumātua did not want to have his wife who had passed away put into a body bag, or to be embalmed:

I tell you what one of our kaumātua did. When his wife passed away, he went in, he didn’t want a body bag either. He just went in, his wife passed away. He wrapped her up in a sheet and… carried her out and put her in the back of his [Utes]… Put her [in the] back of the car and drove her home. Drove her home, took her in and rang up one of his friends to come. He was going to get a casket. He didn’t want her to be embalmed, you know. ‘Come. I’ve washed my wife, dressed her and I want you to come see, put her in the casket.

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