Memorial structures were not an important feature in Maori-land. Burial-mounds were never constructed, nor were graves marked by stones or posts. Two reasons may be given for this omission. In the first place, no burial in the earth was in any way permanent, save in such cases as when a body was buried in a swamp—trampled down into the mud and so left—or in a a sandhill. Bodies buried in the ground were merely left there for a few years, when the bones were exhumed and placed in a tribal burial cave or tree. This custom has certainly obtained among the Maori people for centuries—i.e., for so long as intertribal warfare has been general. It is possible that there was a period when the dead of the New Zealand Natives were buried in the ground and never exhumed, judging from certain discoveries made of skeletons in various parts. However, this may never have been a general custom. If it was so, then such dead were probably those of the original people of these isles, who seem to have been much less warlike that the later comers of the fourteenth century. The second reason to account for the absence of mortuary structures is this: On account of the savagely vindictive nature of Maori warfare, their eating the bodies of their enemies, and the delight they look in treating such bodies with every foul indignity, as also the custom of utilising the skull and other bones of the such bodies wherefrom to manufacture various implements, it was necessary for every tribe to bury their dead in secrecy, and to take every precaution that enemies should not discover the resting-place of the bodies or bones of their dead. Hence nothing was done to mark a grave where a person had been buried. Perhaps the only marked resting-places of the dead to be seen about a settlement in former times were those constructed within the pa, fortified village.
In regard to cannibalism, and the fierce lust for revenge which so often animated the Native mind, a dreadful illustration is that of the kai pirau —namely, the ghoulish custom which formerly obtained of exhuming the body of a buried enemy, cooking the devouring the same, even though decomposition had set in.
Little wonder that the Maori erected no gravestones. But they often so marked the spot where a man died, or fell in battle, as also a place where a sick man had lain. There were two methods of marking the place where a person had died or been slain. One was to set up a wooden post or place a stone on the spot; the other was to dig a hole (termed. “pokapoka”). Such a post would probably be smeared with red ochre, red being
a favoured and also practically a sacred colour among the Natives. The pokapoka method was often employed whereby to mark places where men had fallen on a battlefield. Relatives of the dead person would make the pit or hole. Te Pokapoka o Taua-ahi-kawai is a place-name at Tara-pounamu. It is where the pokapoka for one Taua-ahi-kawai, of Ngati-Pukeko, was dug. But, observe, Te Pokapoka a Te Umu-tiri-rau, near Karioi, is a very different thing, for it is simply a hole dug as a landmark by Te Umu—hence the active “a”. It is well to be cautions when dealing with the Maori tongue.
The pokapoka for the dead are respected by all members of the tribe. Some tribes term these pits “whakaumu.” The battle-ground of Puke-kai-kaahu, at Rere-whakaitu, had numerous pits on it to mark places where the dead fell during that Homeric combat.
A saying of old, “E kore e pai kia tuwhera te pokapoka ki tahaki, engari me tuwhera tonu ki te papa o te huarahi,” was often heard formerly when the war-trumpets boomed forth their doleful sound. It would be made by warriors in the course of their speeches before going to battle. its meanings is, “It is not well that the pokapoka should be made in a non-conspicuous place, but let it be dug on a path”; by which the speaker implies that if he fall in the fray he wishes the sign to be made in a conspicusous place. The pit for a plebeian would be dug anywhere. These holes were about 1 ft. deep by 2 ft. in diameter.
I will now illustrate another custom of old. When a Maori is taken ill away from his permanent home and ancestral lands, should it be thought that his end is near he will be borne on a litter (amo) back to his home, in order that he may die among his own people and on his own land. In the rugged wilds of Tuhoeland I have known most arduous journeys of this nature made by Natives bearing upon their shoulders a litter or stretcher on which lay a dying person. Over rough country, up and down steep rough ranges, by narrow forest-tracks, and following up or down the beds of swift rivers, the bearers plod on for days, until their destination be reached. Te Puehu, of Tuhoe, lay sick unto death at Te Umu-roa. Then the thought came that he should be carried to Matatua, there to take leave of his people and lift the trail of death. So the bearers of the old chief bore their burden down the terrace lands above the rushing waters of wai-hui, until they came to the steep descent to the Ruatahuna Creek. Here they rested awhile, setting down their burden by the wayside. In like manner when they had ascended the opposite side of the gully they again set down
the litter by the wayside, near Te Whakatakanga-o-Te-Piki, and again rested. At both these resting-places where a person with the tapu of death upon him had lain a carved post or small pillar was set up to mark the spot, which remains tapu. Not only did these posts mark tapu spots, but they also served the purpose of a tuapa, and as a warning to passers-by not to trespass on the place. The post at the second resting-place was destroyed (burned) by the Native Contingent during Whitmore's raid on Tuhoeland, but the first one still stands, as I myself have seen. It is known as “Te Pou o Te Puehu” (the pillar of Te Puehu). These carved posts were usually sheltered by having a roof built over them, which would occasionally be renewed. The posts would also be smeared with red ochre. This Pou o Te Puehu was, for years after its erection, adorned by the Natives, who hung thereon any bright-coloured articles obtained from the coast tribes by barter, such as handkerchiefs, pieces of figured prints, &c. In like manner any tree where the severed umbilical cords of infants were deposited in former times was similarly adorned. This sort of thing would, presumably, be described as a fetish by travellers, and possibly as an evidence of tree-worship.
In regard to the tuapa: This name is applied to a post or slab of wood which had been hewn out of a log with an adze and was erected at the place where a person of rank had died, or in some cases where or near where or near where he was buried. In some cases it seems to have been set up at or near the village where the person died. It would be erected after the burial. This slab seems to have in some way represented the Wairua (spirit) of the deceased. The object was to lay the ghost of the dead person, to prevent his spirit from returning to afflict the living. Such a spirit of the dead is termed a “kehua,” or “kikokiko” or “whakahaehae.” Among the Tuhoe Tribe the first and last of these terms is applied to a ghost (spirit of the dead) as a ghost, but kikokio is applied to those spirits of the dead that afflict the living and are said to often cause death.
Certain rites were performed by a priest over these tuapa* in order to prevent the spirits' return to afflict people, or crops, or other food products. The priest recites an incantation with this object. He then repeats the karakia (spell, charm, invocation, incantation) termed “ahi,” at the same time rubbing a stick upon the ground as if generating fire, but he really kindles no fire. Thus are the evil designs of the wairua, or spirit, abolished or rendered innocuous. To give force, power,
[Footnote] * The general meaning of this word is, “something that obstructs, wards off, prevents contact with.” It is also used as a verb.
to his incantation the priest then, by means of other old-time ritual, raises the tribal hau, or wind, that of the Tama-kai-moana clan being tutakangahau, and that of Te Ure-wera clan urukaraerae. In some cases he will cause thunder to roll by reciting the oho rangi invocation. Having thus shown his power over the elements, he and the local ruahine, or wise woman, take the tapu off himself, and the function is over.
In some cases a stone might be placed to mark a grave—i.e., an unworked stone, a boulder. It would be placed above the head of the body. These would probably be cases where the bodies were buried within or near a village, or in some remote spot where it was not likely to be found by enemies. For the Maori of yore was essentially a necrophagous animal, a ghoul of the first water.