Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 38, 1905
This text is also available in PDF
(6 MB) Opens in new window
– 196 –

Articles buried with Body.

A singular custom, and a widespread one, noted the world over, and even seen among civilised peoples, is the depositing of articles in the grave. I have not been able to obtain from Maoris any corroboration of the opinion expressed by most writers on primitive eschatology—viz., that such articles were intended for the use of the departed in the spirit-world—but rather that such offerings are a sign of affection for the lost one. I have never heard that food was placed in the grave by the Maori, but the dying person was fed for the death journey, as we have seen.

It often occurs, even in these times, that cherished possessions are placed in the grave of a loved relative. I give a few instances as illustrations:—

When the child Haere-huka, a descendant of Maru-wahia, died, the body was buried at Whiria, on the Hikurangi Block, and a prized greenstone ornament was placed in the grave.

Somewhere about 1850 a party of the Ngati-Manawa Tribe, of the Galatea district, went to Hauraki in order to obtain muskets and ammunition. When they left to return home, the grandfather of Harehare Aterea stole an axe which had been placed on a grave of the Ngati-Maru people. On it becoming known to Ngati-Maru that their visitors had desecrated their burial place they raised an armed force, which, under Taraia, marched to Whirinaki, on the Rangitaiki River, to teach the children of Manawa better manners; and it was only by sending to Tuhoe and Taupo for armed assistance that Ngati-Manawa escaped a severe drubbing. But they had to pay for that axe.

– 197 –

We have noted that when a body was lying in state, relatives of the dead would produce their finest garments and prized greenstone weapons and ornaments, which were exhibited near the corpse. It was a token of respect to the deceased. When the burial took place most of these articles would be reclaimed by the owners, but some were buried with the body, or placed by the side thereof in the cave or tree. These also might be reclaimed later on, as when a tribal meeting took place, or a distinguished visitor arrived, or other occasion equally important m Maori eyes.

A child who died at Waikare-moana was buried with her favourite ornament, a brooch made from a crown piece, on her breast. Hence her little sister was given the name of Karauna, the Native rendering of the English word “crown”.

Articles buried with a body are often recovered when the bones are exhumed, but sometimes they are placed with the bones in the burial cave or tree and allowed to remain there. These latter—weapons, greenstone implements or ornaments, &c. —were often the property of the deceased, and would not be reclaimed. “Na te ngakau mamae tena mahi” (“Grief was the origin of such acts”).

When old Puke-tapu, of the Waikare-moana district, died, his son buried with his body a manuscript book in which were written the ancient history, genealogies, &c., of his tribe, and which was thought much of, yet it was sacrificed, and much interesting lore that it contained is now lost for ever. Max Muller quotes a similar case as having occurred in modern times, when an English poet placed the manuscripts of his own unpublished poems in his wife's grave.

Suicides were buried as any person would be who died a natural death. Wives were not buried in the same grave as their husbands, even though buried at the same time, as would occur when a wife committed suicide at her husband's death, a frequent occurrence in former times. The custom of exhuming the bones would tend to single burial, in order that the bones might not get mixed. A child is sometimes buried in the same grave as a parent or grandparent.

Male relatives of the dead prepare the grave and bury the body. They are tapu while so engaged, and the whakanoa rite is afterwards performed over them in order to remove the tapu.

The Tuhoe Tribe do not seem to have had any burial-grounds in former times—i.e. where a number of persons would be buried—for reasons already stated. Matters are very different now that parties of armed ghouls no longer roam the land seeking whom they may devour. Hence, also, the custom of exhuming the bones of the dead is falling into desuetude.

– 198 –

Bodies of the dead were carried to the grave on a litter or bier formed of poles. They were borne head first, whereas in so carrying a living person the head is always kept up-hill.

Among coast-dwelling tribes, more especially where no forest is near, it was a common thing for sandhills to be utilised as burial-grounds. Where dunes of pure sand exist, devoid of vegetable growth, the disturbance of such would leave no traces longer than a few hours, especially so were a wind blowing at the time. Such a burial-place is the ancient one at O-pihi, among the sandhills near the beach, and just across the river from Whakatane Township. This place has been used as a burial ground for centuries past. The saying “O-pihi whanaunga kore” (O-pihi the relationless) is applied to it. “Our ancestors Tama-ki-Hukurangi and Rakei-ora were buried at O-pihi. That was the permanent burial-place of our ancestor from ancient days down to the present times. Afterwards Putauaki (Mount Edge-cumbe) became a famed burial-place. In later times the dead were buried in swamps, in lagoons, on hills, in valleys. Hence burial-places became much more numerous.”

In ancient times no large burial-grounds existed anywhere near Native settlements, but when disastrous epidemics were introduced by Europeans, then such great number of people died that they were buried near the village homes, and many were never exhumed. Sometimes the death-rate was so appalling that the survivors fled in terror to seek a new home, often leaving many dead unburied behind them.

Burial-grounds are tapu and are avoided by Natives. They do not like passing such places after dark, for they have an idea that the spirits (waurua) of the dead are abroad at such a time. How they reconcile this belief with another that spirits of the dead descend to the underworld they are not able to explain.

When a young Native workman was killed by a rolling log on the roadworks at Ruatahuna, Natives disliked passing the spot where the accident occurred, after dark, for some time afterwards, for fear of encountering the ghost-spirit of the dead. Any who so passed after nightfall would sing lustily a Native song while so passing. His companions objected to returned to work at that spot, whereat the deceased man's grandfather proposed to huki te toto—i.e., to remove a portion of the dead man's blood on a stick and, by an incantation or charm, to remove the tapu from the spot.

A burying-place is termed “urupa” or “toma”. A burialcave where exhumed bones of the dead are deposited, is called a “whara,” or “rua koiwn,” or “ana korotu”. The expression “whara” is sometimes applied to hollow trees in which bones are deposited. At Te Tawa-a-Wairoto, near Rua-toki, is a burial

– 199 –

cave where lie many of the dead of Tuhoe. On some of the skulls the tuhi marei kura (see ante) may be seen, marked with red ochre.

The burial-places of enemies, or of a conquered or vassal people, received but scant respect at Maori hands. When the Rua-wahia Block case was before the Native Land Court, Mikaere stated in his evidence that “The Ngai-Tuaraitaua people came from Waitaha, from O-tama-rakau, and settled at O-kataina and at Rua-wahia. they put their dead in a cave named Rau-piha. We used to play there as children, breaking the skulls with stones. That burial-cave was not of our people. Ngai-Tuarai-taua were slain by the descendants of Apu-moana.”

How different the case when the burying-ground contains your own dead! “A thing much dreaded by the Maori people is a burial-cave. No one trespasses there, no person trespass on that place, severe affliction will affect him sorely. Although the person may deride danger from such an action, yet he will not survive. I say, though he seek the priest in order to be saved, yet he will not survive. Those bones are destroying him.”

The tapu from touching a dead body was extremely strong and prohibitory. It rendered the person unclean, and unable to mix with his family or fellows until he had been purified—the tapu taken off him. As a source of such defilement the touching or handling of corpses was pre-eminent, as it is among the Parsis. The special class of Nessusalar, or “unclean” bearers of the dead, among the latter people were also represented among some tribes of Maoriland, where certain persons had assigned to them the task of handling dead bodies (usually one such person in each village), and these persons were continually “unclean” (tapu), so much so that they were forced to live as outcasts from tribal society; shunned by all were they, compelled to gnaw their food as dogs do, on the ground, not being able to touch it with their thrice tapu hands.