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Te Kāhui Kura Māori, Volume 0, Issue 2

Finding a place to rest: perspectives on kiri mate, kawe mate and hahunga in the context of the “bodysnatching” debate

Finding a place to rest: perspectives on kiri mate, kawe mate and hahunga in the context of the “bodysnatching” debate


In 2007 the burial of Christchurch resident James Takamore sent New Zealand media into a frenzy. Takamore’s body was taken from a Christchurch funeral home by members of his mother’s family, sparking a dispute between his Pākehā widow in Christchurch and his Māori relatives in the Tūhoe rohe. But the dispute was not limited to Takamore’s family; members of the public expressed dismay over the lack of police intervention, a result of a loophole in the law relating to who “owns” a corpse.  Many claimed that the issue was race-related; some of these pointed out a lack of understanding of Māori customary practice whereas others believed that the issue highlighted an example of “reverse racism”.

On August 17, 2007, James (Jim) Takamore died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Takamore was at that time working as a school caretaker for Linwood College in Christchurch, although he was raised in Tāneatua, east of Rotorua (The Press 22/09/2007). The day before Takamore was to be buried by his wife in Christchurch, his body was removed by members of his birth family and taken to the Bay of Plenty for a Māori burial and tangihanga (The Press 25/08/2007). On August 21, Takamore was laid to rest in the urupā of his mother’s family, at Kutarere (The Press 22/09/2007). This burial occurred in contravention of a court order instructing that the body be returned to his widow, Denise Clarke, in Christchurch. On August 22, The Press reported: “[i]t is understood the police were notified of the injunction less than an hour before the burial and did not have the manpower to prevent it.” (The Press 22/08/2007). Takamore’s Māori family were branded by the media as ‘bodysnatchers’ (NZ Herald 24/08/2007). Clarke then obtained a license from the Ministry of Health, entitling her to have Takamore’s body exhumed and returned to her and the rest of his Christchurch family (NZ Herald 07/09/2007). However, this only caused further family dispute, with Takamore’s cousin, Tawhai Te Rupe, vowing that anyone coming to exhume the body would “have a fight on their hands” (NZ Herald 07/09/2007). Again, the police declined to act on the exhumation order until they’d had “further discussions with both sides of the family” (NZ Herald 07/09/2007). In early October, Clarke and her children made the journey to her husband’s burial spot in Kutarere. “We didn't really want to see the family,” she said, “but we did want to get our point across. There was discussion from our side of the family, but nothing from theirs." (NZ Herald 15/12/2007). By December, the exhumation license had expired, and to this day, the legal case remains unresolved.

The Takamore incident is not the only one involving allegations of ‘bodysnatching’. In 2007 another case involved the paternal family of Tina Marshall-McMenamin taking her body from a Lower Hutt funeral home and burying it in the family urupā in Rangitukia (NZ Herald 14/12/2007). This case was labelled a racial issue by local media due to the fact that, although Miss Marshall-McMenamin had Māori whakapapa, she was not raised in a Māori environment and allegedly felt no connection with her Māoritanga (NZ Herald 14/12/2007). The burial of May Ngahooro in March 2008 also brought claims of “bodysnatching” (NZ Herald 06/03/2008), and in the same month there were intertribal arguments over where to bury the Ngāti Hine rangatira, Tamati Paraone (Northern Advocate 24/03/2008). In a less recent but no less controversial incident, the burial of comedian Billy T. James also caused dispute between different factions within his family (The Press 25/08/2007). A common thread in many of these cases is a dispute between the Māori and Pākehā sides of a person’s family. However, the Paraone case shows that these disputes can also arise between different Māori groups within the family.

The Billy T. James case led to a different kind of legal saga when James’ cousin, Bill Awa, brought a case against the Sunday News for defamation after they labelled him a “bodysnatcher” (Evening Post 07/08/1997). The term has now become commonly used in the New Zealand media in cases such as these. But is it a fair label? The word carries with it a plethora of negative connotations – it implies theft, underhandedness, and disrespect for the dead. It evokes images of midnight grave robbery, and its eponymous ancestor, the 1955 film Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, is based around the idea of aliens who come to Earth and take over people’s bodies in parasite-fashion (Walker 2007:581). For many Māori, the implication that Māori are ‘invading’ Pākehā to snatch something is ironic, given the historical context. However, in a literal sense the term describes the events. In each of these cases, there was a ‘body’ and it was removed without permission, or as some would have it, ‘snatched’. Bill Awa ultimately lost his case, with the judges stating: "One race is entitled to comment adversely and even narrow-mindedly on the practices of another save as prohibited by statute” (Evening Post 07/08/1997). This statement reveals that the judges saw these issues as race-related, and saw the label as unfair, although one of them, Justice Thomas, feared that the joint statement “could be construed as endorsing racially insensitive comment” (The Evening Post 07/08/1997).

Clearly, though, the main reason that these family members do not see themselves as ‘bodysnatchers’ is precisely because they are family. Takamore’s family saw it as both their right, and their duty to ensure that their relative’s body was buried within the tribal region. Family spokesperson Tania McCormack told TV3’s Campbell Live, "It was decided he's got to be brought home to his marae. We can't leave him -- Christchurch is a long way from home. This is home right here." (The Press 22/08/2007). Hector Matthews of Te Rarawa commented:

It does go back to our cultural view that the most important denominator is whanau, not individual, and that's really the heart of all this. We're living in a society which is based on individual rights and that's a good thing, but with Maori, whanau have the paramount rights. (The Press 25/08/2007)

Matthews’ sentiments are supported by Māori studies scholarship. Salmond (1975:182) describes how the whānau pani (also called pae mate or kiri mate) are the important mourners at a tangihanga. Mead (2003:138) writes:

Members of the kiri mate are under the tapu of death and there are restrictions upon what they can or cannot do. They keep together as a group and sustain one another through the whole ceremony ... The burden is often referred to as ‘he kākahu whakataratara’ (a cloak of nettles) or a ‘kapua pōuri’ (a dark cloud).

Most interestingly, though, Mead (2003:139) confirms that traditionally, it is the whānau pani who makes the decision over place of burial.
So the central question from a tikanga Māori perspective becomes: who are the whānau pani? In most Pākehā funerary contexts, it is the widow, widower, or next of kin who has the primary right to make decisions pertaining to the body of the deceased, but does it therefore follow that in Māori custom the same people constitute the whānau pani? After Billy T. James’ funeral, Sir Kingi Ihaka, the then Maori Language Commissioner, said: "When you are alive you are your own boss but once you are dead you become the property of the tribe." (The Press 25/08/2007). The concept of whānau pani is known and respected by some non-Māori New Zealanders. For example, ex-Prime Minister Helen Clarke used the term in her poroporoaki to Dame Te Atairangikaahu: “I send my aroha to you, the whanau pani, and with my Government express deepest sympathy at the loss of Te Arikinui, Dame Te Atairangikaahu” (New Zealand Herald 17/08/2006). However, the definition of whānau pani becomes more complicated when considering a Pākehā widow (who probably considers herself to be a “widow” and not a “pouaru”). Is Denise Clarke a member of James Takamore’s whānau pani, or not?

Hector Matthews weighed in on the argument when he spoke to The Press (25/08/2007) about the Takamore case "It is rare the wife is not listened to. That's what's caused the biggest ruckus here. Now you have people digging their toes in." Yet his comments – quoted earlier in this article – show that, in fact, Matthews’ understanding of tikanga coincides with Ihaka’s view that a person’s birth family, their whānau, has the most ‘rights’. Matthews also pointed out to The Press (25/08/2007) that the “mother [in the Takamore case] will be saying what if this woman gets married in 10 years time? When the kids move away from Christchurch, who is going to look after his grave? In their view, in 100 years time, his people will still be there; his marae will still be there.” But Ranginui Walker maintains that widows have always had the right of veto: “While fighting over a body was honourable to Maori, it was clear that widows had the final say at burial” (Herald 07/09/2007). The editorial of the Timaru Herald (08/09/2007) at the time of the Takamore case questioned whether Māori cultural belief was even relevant; “the fact that he was a Maori married to a Pakeha woman does not somehow give his Maori family the right to override Ms Clarke and her children's wishes”. There is no authoritative word on whether a widow is considered a member of the whānau pani.
Matthews emphasises the importance of the concept of ūkaipō which he describes as

...all tied in with the placenta . . . Where it is buried ties you to the land, to the place where you were born and where your ancestors come from . . . That concept is deeply embedded over centuries and what it tells Maori is there will always be a place for you, no matter where you go, no matter what you do. If you come back here this will be the place you can call home and we guarantee we will look after you. I guess the central part of that concept is that your iwi is permanent; your genealogy is permanent and I guess marriage is not always permanent. (The Press 25/08/2007)

The concept of ūkaipō, along with tūrangawaewae, is very important to Māori. Mead (2003:369) defines tūrangawaewae as a “place for the feet to stand; home”.  In this context, people unfairly labelled ‘bodysnatchers’ see themselves as returning the body to its spiritual home. Takamore’s sister, Tania McCormack, said “We can't leave him -- Christchurch is a long way from home. This is home right here." (The Press 22/08/2007). She also noted the cultural importance of the whenua (placenta) and the pito (umbilical cord) to Māori, saying;

It's quite a concern for us -- his cord is here -- but we can't stretch it to the South Island. It was really important for us to get him home, especially for his mum -- for nan. She was like, she has to bring him home, there was no two ways about it. His father is buried here and he's the first of the children that's been lost, so it was really important.

Hanson and Hanson (1983:64) write about the importance of ‘homeland-burial’ to Māori; “it was, indeed a matter of great importance to Maoris that they died on their tribal land. They might demand to be taken on long and difficult journeys while critically ill with this end in view.” They also state that the Māori view of death was linked to a concept of repatriation, drawing a metaphorical link between the body’s return to its earthbound homeland and the return of the person’s wairua to its spiritual origin (1983:91-92). This issue became more apparent to non-Māori in the time following the two World Wars, when Māori expressed how upsetting it was for them to have their relatives buried in Europe and the Middle East (The Press 25/08/2007). Māori musician Dalvanius Prime, gave his point of view “how would they like it if we buried their grandfather or grandmother in another part of the country, away from their homeland?” (Daily News 23/08/1997).

Can the furore about these incidents be put down to cultural misunderstanding, racism, or as some have called it, “reverse racism” (“Fletcher” in NZ Conservative Blogspot 06/03/2008)?  The writer who used the term “reverse racism” seemed to be referring to the preferential treatment he believed Māori were getting. The victim of the so-called racism is then himself (a Pākehā rather than a Māori). The Oxford dictionary (askoxford.com) defines “racism” as “discrimination against or antagonism towards other races”. Racism can be shown by anyone, and can occur in spite of who the ‘other races’ are. His use of the word “reverse” refers to an unexpected role-reversal, which in turn assumes that for him, the norm is for brown-skinned people to be discrimated against by light-skinned people. The writer is not necessarily accusing the Māori players in the story of discriminating against the Pākehā, but does highlight inaction by Pākehā police and other officials as a form of racial discrimination against their own race – or perhaps a deliberate diversion of his criticisms of Māori. But can we claim that this dispute even arose from racism?

Outspoken journalist Jim Hopkins wrote in the New Zealand Herald (24/08/2007) that the Takamore case showed preferential treatment of Māori people and of Māori culture. He even took the idea a step further, controversially claiming that Māori was no longer a ‘culture’, but rather a ‘cult’:

. . . specifically, the cult of Maori past, a local reinvention of Rousseau's noble savage (if you'll pardon the unpalatable phrase) which has seen the creation of a mythic phenomenon unique in human history, a people of absolute virtue and no apparent vice.

Other people agreed that racial prejudice was at the root of any action (or inaction) taken by police and politicians. NZ Conservative Blogspot was rife with angry comments like this one from ‘Zentiger’ (06/03/2008): “on the radio tonight, the police used the pathetic excuse that they didn't act for fear of making a cultural error. Does this mean breaking the law is only applied to "white people"? Do they realise for one moment how stupid they sound?” [1]

Not every commentator saw the issue as one of Māori values versus Pākehā values. Northland coroner Brandt Shortland said the problem was one of poor communication rather than racism. “We've had burial disputes involving two Pakeha families. In cases like Mrs Ngahooro's, it just so happens one part of the family is Pakeha and the other Maori” (Northern Advocate 24/03/2008). Indeed, several of Takamore’s Māori relatives sympathised with his widow. Four of his siblings did not attend the Kutarere funeral and one spoke (anonymously) to The Press (15/09/2007) “I feel bad for her and the kids ... I would feel terrible if they took my father's body away.” Indeed, Martin Van Beynen suggests that Takamore’s life can be seen as a “race relations success story” (The Press 22/09/2007), because in life he was confident and capable in both Māori and Pākehā worlds.

In an article about the Bill Awa case, The Māori Law Review (16/10/1995) emphasised cultural misunderstanding rather than bigotry as the primary issue in these cases.

‘The Maori way of approaching the question of burial is therefore part of a complex spiritual and metaphysical process which is intertwined with the extreme importance of recognition and acknowledgment of ancestors; and family; and the burial process is closely intertwined with land and the place from which one sprung.’ European-style rational analysis could not do justice to the ‘coherent vision of an indigenous people’.

The article claims that people thinking in a ‘European’ way are unable to understand the Māori view. Further, any attempt to translate or explain the use and meaning of tikanga Māori would be futile. Is this kind of exclusivist rhetoric useful, or is it more likely to inflame people like Hopkins, who believe that Māori claim to be a spiritually superior race?

Mead (2003:23) believes that there are certain fundamental Māori concepts that can be used as a guide to understanding tikanga: “whanaungatanga, mana, manaakitanga, aroha, mana tupuna, wairua and utu, may be described as conceptual regulators of tikanga, or as providing fundamental principals or values of Maori law.” He (2003:135) also points out that “tikanga dictates that the deceased should be taken to the hapū marae”. When Denise Clarke was granted a license to exhume her dead husband’s body, the stand that his birth family made was based on tikanga. His cousin (Tawhai Te Rupe) claimed that the exhumation order challenged Māori tikanga:

our tikanga and process has been followed through. We've got to the stage now where he's in a wahi tapu [sacred place]. It's not a public cemetery. It's a private cemetery. It belongs to the hapu. (New Zealand Herald 07/09/2007)

Here, Te Rupe suggests that an exhumation cannot proceed without contravening tikanga.
Anne Salmond (1975:193) describes hahunga in her book Hui, also pointing out that the custom has largely been replaced by the modern practise of hura kōhatu.

In pre-contact times the body was buried for a period, then exhumed, and the bones were scraped and coated with red ochre. A second mourning ceremony was held before the bones were finally hidden away in a secret place where malicious enemies could not desecrate them. With contact, this custom was discarded, and Maori people began to erect gravestones over their dead instead. The unveiling ceremony is not as a rule used by Europeans in New Zealand, except for public monuments, bridges or foundation stones, and it seems that in this case, elements of European ceremonial have been transformed during the period of contact into a peculiarly Maori event.

Hanson and Hanson (1983:97) as well as Mead (2003:68) give similar descriptions of the practice.
There could, then, be possibilities for an exhumation in accordance with tikanga Māori. What if the body was exhumed according to a combination of Māori and Pākehā custom? Perhaps a tohunga could perform the exhumation alongside police. There have been several recent examples of tikanga Māori being combined with European practice in order to create a more cooperative approach to sensitive situations (Frame 1981:110). Lawyer Donna Hall told the Herald (25/08/2007) that carrying out an exhumation of Takamore’s body would have to take Māori customary law into account [2].  To make this kind of bicultural approach possible, there would have to be some give and take from both sides of the family, working with mutual respect and understanding for each others’ culture.
Ranginui Walker claims that in the Takamore case, Māori were not showing appropriate respect for the culture of the Pākehā wife or the Pākehā law of New Zealand:

…exercising Maori tikanga (custom) among Maori is fine, but when you get into cross-cultural marriages it should be tempered by Pakeha custom, which is backed by the law . . . What happened here is that tikanga Maori and the law clashed...

He further stated “It's time Maori learned they live with Pakeha law.” (New Zealand Herald 07/09/2007). However, the law of New Zealand is not clear here.

Under current law a person cannot be charged with theft of a body as there is no property in a human body, although charges can be laid over indignity to a dead human body. However, the taking of a casket can be deemed as theft. Indignity caused to a body is also a possible offence. (Northern Advocate 24/03/2008)

So although the media may label Takamore’s family as ‘snatchers’, New Zealand law does not share the thieving sentiment behind the accusation. If a will is made, the case becomes clearer. Then, the executor has the right to decide where the body is to be buried (Dominion Post 22/12/2007).

So if a will is made, and the body is accordingly buried outside the tribal region, then how can the Māori relatives of the deceased address the issue of tikanga without a body to bury? The process of kawe mate could provide a possible answer. Salmond (1975:188) translates kawe mate as being to “carry the death” (which is indeed the literal translation). She says “there is no real central ceremony for a kawe mate. The rituals of encounter follow almost exactly the same form as when a coffin is first brought onto the marae, except that the group bring the spirit of the dead man instead; and it is the encounter itself that is all-important.”

The custom of kawe mate is generally used as a way to acknowledge the links between two groups of people while both groups recognise those who have passed on and their (inter-tribal) relationship. In Tikanga Māori, Hirini Moko Mead (2003:144) discusses the

obligation upon the kiri mate to take their mate to neighbouring tangihanga. If there is another death in the tribal region they are obliged to go there. If there is a relative lying at a marae miles away they are required to go.

Examples of this were seen at the tangihanga for Sir Hepi Te Heuheu. A group had brought with them from Northland the late Matiu Rata's kawe mate, which linked the two deaths conceptually, acknowledging the closeness of the two events (The Evening Post 04/08/1997).

However this custom could also be useful as a means of including Māori tikanga in the burial process while still respecting the wishes of the next of kin (whether Māori or Pākehā). Salmond (1975:188) points out that this custom was often followed in the exact set of difficult circumstances exemplified in the James Takamore case: “if a man has been buried away from home under protest from his kinsfolk, the owners of the marae ‘carry the death’ back to his original birthplace to settle any ill-feelings”.  In this way, Takamore’s whānau could have carried out the kawe mate ceremony in keeping with tikanga Māori, while still respecting the wishes of the widow and her right to ‘tono’, or to make the final decision about burial.

Examples of muru in The Institution of Muru (Maning 1912:103-110) show that, traditionally, Māori law (as governed by tikanga) was generally respected even when certain parties may have hoped for different outcomes. In the case described in ‘The Great Muru’ (‘A Taranaki Veteran’ 1919:97-102), locals accepted that their guns be taken, as that was customary law. Similarly today, a criminal will (generally) accept that they go to prison, as the outcome of their actions under the law of the society they live in. So, if we accept that within both Māori tikanga and the law of New Zealand, the right to decide where someone is buried lies with their next of kin, then perhaps the kawe mate process could be employed as a way for whānau members to follow appropriate mourning tikanga at their own marae while respecting the rights of the other members of the whānau pani.

Oppenheim writes about tikanga meaning the “correct” way of doing things, and this relates to decision making around burials:

…when, as is not infrequently the case, disputes break out over where the body is to be buried and other matters relating to the dead person, they are thought to do so because of feelings of aroha, and their resolution will be seen to be “correct” insofar as the claims of all parties are thought to be properly heard and acknowledged (1973:22-23).

Does this idea of ‘correctness’ still hold if one of the disputing parties is Pākehā? Before European contact with Māori, the tangata whenua of Aotearoa lived in a society governed by customary law, and the basis for that law lay in a shared belief in and understanding of certain fundamental concepts. The Māori families involved in the above incidents of “bodysnatching” were applying these fundamental concepts.
Experts such as Dr Rawiri Taonui have suggested that clearer communication between the different factions involved would have prevented these occurrences of “bodysnatching” (The Press 08/09/2007). However, can we expect people to act with generosity and logic when a close family member has died?

One suggestion that appears repeatedly in the various media sources quoted here is that people (particularly Māori) leave precise, written details of where and how they would like their burial to be. Professor Ranginui Walker claimed Māori should write their burial wishes in their wills (New Zealand Herald 07/09/2007), and Hector Matthews said that Māori would almost always respect the wishes of the deceased, if they were known. He says “usually, however, everyone thinks they know what the deceased wanted” (The Press 25/08/2007). This idea has a root in tikanga Māori, in the concept of ōhākī, or “The Last Instructions” (Oppenheim 1973:39). Oppenheim (1973:40) states that “oohaaki was regarded as binding upon its hearers and considerable anxiety was felt that it should be suitable guidance for the chief’s followers”.

It would be presumptuous for me to conclude by giving my ‘ohākī’ on these matters. Even when people are grieving, room must be made for listening to the other point of view in order to make the best decisions. In the Takamore case both Denise Clarke and Tania McCormack felt their side wasn’t listened to, and yet the pressure was upon them, as members of the whānau pani, to make decisions and act upon them. This paper has shown how the media can cloud the issue for those not directly involved. Furthermore it has argued that within tikanga Māori are rich and specific traditions for returning the mate to the earth. And yet, in this bi-cultural realm, only good and prior communication across cultures will illuminate the reasons for these practices, and ways that non-Māori tikanga can be incorporated in laying our loved ones to rest.


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1 With Māori contributing around half of the New Zealand prison population (www.justice.govt.nz), it is ironic to suggest that Māori are exempt from New Zealand law.

2 She also addressed the source of the conflict, saying, "This is not an invented practice but a widely held and widely practised customary law - that you go back to the bloodline, you don't go back to the partner".