Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 38, 1905
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– 188 –

The Maori terms for burial are “tapuketanga” and “nehunga,” derived from the verbs tapuke and nehu = to bury. Exhumation he styles “hahunga”, from hahu = to disinter. Cremation he has no distinctive term for, but simply states that certain persons were “burned with fire.”

We have already seen the mythical origin of the burial of the dead, when the Earth Mother said, “Leave me the dead. Let them return within me. I brought them forth to the light of day, let them return to me [when dead]. Mine shall be the care of the dead.” Hence man is buried in the ground; he returns to the bosom of the ancient Earth Mother.

A single word: Ever bear in mind that the elaborate ceremonies and sacred rites described in this paper applied to persons of good birth only, not to people of low social status or to slaves. But little ceremony was wasted on common people, and as for slaves, their bodies would be thrown anywhere out of the way.

The general scheme of burial among the Maori people was—first the burial, or other disposal of the body, until the flesh had disappeared; and secondly the disposal of the bones of the dead in a permanent manner.

Among the Tuhoe Tribe the mode usually adopted was either to bury the body or place it on a covered stage or in a hollow tree until the flesh had disappeared, when, with great ceremony, the bones were for ever disposed of by placing them in certain burial-caves or in hollow trees, or concealed among parasitic plants on tree-tops. In the case of swamp and sandhill burial only was the body and its bones left in its first burial-place— in the first place on account of the difficulty of disinterring the bones, and also for the reason that they were safe from tribal enemies, seek they ever so closely.

– 189 –

Understand that Maoris think much of their dead, as becomes a people who have practised necrolatry for untold centuries. In like manner they think much of the places where their dead lie. Observe the evidence given in Native Land Courts, where two important points in support of a claim to land are that the claimant's ancestors died or were buried on the land. Note the pathetic laments composed and sung by tribes who were forced to migrate from lands where their dead lay. Think of the numberless cases where a captive has asked permission to sing a farewell to his tribal lands and his dead are he be slain by his captors.

It has been stated by some writers, anent the discovery in several places in New Zealand of skeletons buried in a sitting position, that this mode of burial was not practised by the Maori, hence a “prior race” theory is set up. But the Maori did bury bodies in a sitting position, though not invariably so. When one considers the way in which the bodies of the dead were frequently “trussed” for burial, then the sitting position in burial appears to be quite feasible and also natural. Years ago I heard of skeletons being found in such a position in the sandhills on the coast at Ohau, near Otaki. The Tuhoe Tribe sometimes buried their dead in a sitting position, which they term “tapuke whakanoho.” (For other evidence concerning sitting-burial, see “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute,” vol. vii, pp. 67, 68, 88; vol. xxxiv, p. 126 (Moriori), 129; vol. xviii, p. 24: vol, i, p. 20, of Colenso's second essay. Also, at p. 20 of vol. i of these Transactions is a reference which reads thus: “In a circular pit in the Waikato a number of human skeletons were found in an erect position, each with a block of wood on its head.”)

The graves used by Natives are by no means deep—about 3 ft. or 4 ft. in depth, as a rule. As the bones are to be taken up in a few years it is perhaps better not to bury deeply, inasmuch as decomposition would be delayed thereby.