Understanding a tangi

Famed New Zealand artist Ralph Hotere's tangi at Mitimiti marae in Hokianga, Northland.
Fairfax NZ
Famed New Zealand artist Ralph Hotere's tangi at Mitimiti marae in Hokianga, Northland.

A tangihanga or tangi is an occasion for communities to gather and show an outward expression of grief for a person who has died.

Formal ritual dominates a tangi from the time of death until the body is interred and vary from tribe to tribe but all dead are paid the same reverence.

When a person dies Maori believe his wairua or soul remains until they are laid to rest.

Immediate family members are known as kirimate (skin of the dead) or whanau pani (orphaned family) and can include their siblings' families.

Kirimate will stay with the tupapaku (corpse) at all times and are comforted by puna roimata (well of tears), usually kuia who sit near the tupapaku and kirimate. Leaving a body alone can cause great offence.

Kirimate are restricted in their roles on the marae. There is no expectation on them to cook or clean, sing waiata or give speeches and it is common to see them ushered away from their usual marae duties by the hau kainga (community).

The coffin is left open and speakers on the marae will address the tupapaku directly often talking about a persons exploits and deeply emotional moments in their lives.

The number of speaker varies from at each tangi and depends on the mana of the person and the size of the visiting group but will always begin and end with the tangata whenua (home people).

Speakers from another hapu or iwi who are related to the deceased will commonly tono (demand) for the body to be taken to their own marae.

It is considered an honour to perform the final funeral rites for a loved one and debate can rage from both sides of the marae.

Modern tangihanga take three days but there is no set rule and can take much longer.

In traditional times tupapaku could be mourned over for weeks before being taken for interment.

The final act of a tangi is the takahi whare where whanau walk through the deceased person's home to bless the house before returning to the marae for hakari (feast).

Food is noa and lifts the tapu or restrictions placed on the community throughout the tangi.