The Exhumation of George Te Umuariki Temara
He Kupu Whakapuaki
I submit this essay for the benefit of the descendants of George Te Umuariki Temara. He has mokopuna born and living in America, Australia and other parts of the world. The essay is also about the ritual and practice of modern exhumation that was a normal part of our culture but now relegated to history. It is also recalls our kaumātua and their culture and knowledge that they practised in their time and reminds us of how we have changed in comparison.
The essay was first submitted for a research under the auspices of Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku over a decade ago. The essay was written at the close of last century.
My father, George Te Umuariki. Temara was born in 1922 at Ruatāhuna. He spent part of his childhood in Ruatoki, living with his relations – the descendants of Heteraka Te Wakaunua – at Te Rewarewa. When he reached school age he was taken by another branch of his relations – the Twists of Ngāti Manawa – to Waikaremoana. At that period in the late 1920s, the building of the dams at Kaitawa, Tūai and Piripāua were in full swing and many of the people of Tūhoe were employed there.
He spent part of his schooling at Kōkako in the company of people like John Rangihau. Later his birth parents, Temara and Moetu, took him back to Ruatāhuna and he completed his primary schooling at Huiarau Māori School. After primary school they sent him to St. Stephens School then located in Parnell, Auckland. His older brother, Makarini, was also a student there. He distinguished himself on the rugby field and his academic achievements may have been similar had his parents not pulled him out of school. They could not afford to send both sons to St. Stephens and George’s academic life was sacrificed to allow his older brother to continue at the institution. This was a common practice born of necessity. George returned to Ruatāhuna and took up employment as a farm hand at the Ruatāhuna Land Development Scheme.
When war broke out in 1939, he attempted to enlist, but was deterred by his elders. Some three years were to pass before George was permitted to enlist in the army. In the meantime he had married and had three sons, Tiaki, John and Hōri. He saw active service as a radio operator with the 28 (Māori) Battalion in Italy towards the end of the war. When he returned at war’s end, he and his wife parted. In 1947 he married Māori fashion, Puti (Nani) Tinimēne and in early 1948 I was born. They were to have 7 more children, one of whom died at a young age.
George was employed in different jobs, from working for the Ministry of works on the Ruatāhuna to Waikaremoana stretch of SH 38, moving to Te Rotoiti for the same Ministry, to driving buses for the Auckland City Council. This was his last employment when TB took his life in February 1963.
At that time I was a student at Wesley College in Counties. I was not overly affected by the death of my father. I saw my grandfather Tamahou Tinimēne in that role and I called him pāpā. My birth father I called by the Māori rendition of George, which is Hōri. I also saw my grandmother as my mother although I called her Nan. They had taken me in as soon as I was born in accordance with the traditions of the time where the upbringing of the firstborn was the prerogative of the koroua and kuia. This was a common practice with my generation and the generations before us.
I was nevertheless annoyed with my college where I also boarded, for not telling me immediately the moment they had learnt of my father’s death. Instead, with the weekend looming, the principal chose not to spoil my weekend and kept his death from me until the following Monday. My annoyance turned to anger when I arrived at my father’s marae to find that he had been buried earlier that day. My tears were more in frustration at the oversight of my college - and also for my father. Tangihanga has a way of playing havoc with the emotions and even the staunch are affected.
At the whaikōrero to me, the elders of the marae exploited the situation politically to further show their displeasure at being trumped by my grandfather, a man of forceful character, complimented by size and muscle. As I listened, it dawned on me that a debate of serious immensity had taken place regarding the place of burial for my father. Tūhoe tradition clearly decreed that the body should be buried at the urupā of the marae where the tangi took place, or at the place where his pito had been severed and deposited. My grandfather challenged this and wanted to bury George at the family plot at Heipipi, some ten miles from the marae of the tangi. The trouble was, George had no affinity by whakapapa to that plot and in a Māori way, his sleep would be fitful without connection to the land to which he belonged. Secondly, the urupā at Heipipi was a very small one with only four people buried there. My sister Enid was the last person to be buried there in 1951. I guess she would have been glad with the company of our father.
It was clear that the six rangatira of Tamakaimoana were no match for the verbal mastery of my grandfather who got his way. As a result, the six of Tamakaimoana were forced into imposing a condition on my grandfather. The condition was that in the event of his death, my grandfather was to be buried at the same urupā. This condition was accepted and there the kaupapa rested in an uneasy truce.
When he died in 1968, my grandfather lay at Pāpueru, a mile further on from Heipipi. This is the marae of Ngāti Tāwhaki. Tamakaimoana attended the tangi in considerable numbers. When they found out that Tamahou was to be buried at Papueru and not at Heipipi, the same six kaumatua of Tamakaimoana who had suffered the verbal assault of my grandfather six years earlier vowed to disinter George and to return him to his rightful urupā where his sleep would be sound.
There was one obstacle however, that deterred them from executing this task immediately and it was in the person of Hikawera Te Kurapa, a tohunga of great renown in Tūhoe. He was an older brother to my grandmother Pareraututu and therefore a brother-in-law to my grandfather Tamahou. Hikawera in his measured way, conferred with the elders of my father’s people, and persuaded them that the compact could still be fulfilled. He suggested that George would be hahu-ed from Heipipi and reinterred next to Tamahou at Te Weraiti. That seemed to quieten Tamakaimoana somewhat although there were detractors who thought that Tamakaimoana had suffered a second loss of mana. My older half-brother John, lost all confidence and respect for the ability of the elders of Tamakaimoana. Until he died, John continued to bemoan the spectacle of the six Tamakaimoana kaumātua falling victim to one person at my father’s tangi. Conversely, he was drawn by the power of Tamahou’s argument. This was to be a problem later.
In 1978, I was given reason to ponder the whole issue of my father who lay buried at the small urupā at Heipipi. This was stimulated by my wife’s grandfather, Wī Whitu, the last of the tohunga hahu tūpāpaku who worked to the doctrine of Rua Kenana of Maungapōhatu.
I thought about the implications of my father lying in an alien urupā. It occurred to me that both my grandparents - Tamahou and Pareraututu (who died in 1969) – and my mother, who died in 1976, were also lying in an alien urupā. Like my father, they had no whakapapa connection to the land where they lay which was Ngāti Tāwhaki land. Yet the tohunga Hikawera had convinced Tamakaimoana that my father could lay next to my grandfather – in alien land? At least at Heipipi George had us, his children, as reason enough for being buried there. He also had his daughter for company. But to uplift him to Pāpueru seemed an iniquity. I decided that I would do something about it.
Wī Whitu and I talked about the hahu ceremony and his experiences. He discussed the cultural obligations of hahu, the issues of tapu and the ways to accommodate tapu, to render it so that its negative side was neutralised. Tapu was the big factor in the hahu ceremony. It included going to the water to recite karakia before the task, to stay separate from the whānau, gather and focus your thoughts, prepare yourself as a medium for the wairua who will guide you to the spot where the body is. There is the pō takoto, the night of mental preparation. He spoke of the need to expedite the hahu in the hours of darkness and if it was necessary to do it during the day, then one should be very careful not to swipe at a fly, which may happen to buzz around your face. To do so, was to invite the maddening buzz of an imaginary fly, even long after the hahu. Only a tohunga of note could bring about relief for the afflicted. He also spoke about which parts of the bones to disengage first, which bone of the hand to tiki atu so that all of the other bones would follow (ki te tika tō tiki atu i taua poroiwi, whai katoa mai ētahi)
Wī then asked why I was interested in hahu. On learning the reason, and hearing my request that he be the one to exhume my father, he understood and readily agreed. I shared my thoughts with my immediate family who were nervous supporters.
The hahu didn’t happen. The leaders of Ngāti Tāwhaki were determined to take my father to Te Weraiti and were only waiting for the law and the policies of the Department of Health to take its course. They were going to hire an undertaker to take care of all this but this was going to be costly. That was a problem.
The seventies became the eighties. Wī Whitu died in 1983. Hikawera followed in 1985. The eighties disappeared into oblivion. Still no action from Ngāti Tāwhaki or from Tamakaimoana. No action from me too.
In 1994, my uncle Te Mākarini died. He was my father’s older brother and a worthy leader of our hapū. He too, had expressed concern that the outstanding issue regarding his younger brother was not resolved. His tangi was one of the biggest held in Tūhoe. In fact he was taken to Mātaatua, as his own marae, Uwhiārae, was too small to cope. At his tangi, rituals which had lain dormant for years, were enacted. Guns resounded to mark his arrival at the marae and his departure from this world.
At the conclusion of his tangi, my son Tamahou-the-second was getting ready to rush off back to Wellington to sit his university examinations the following day. He asked me where we were spending Christmas which was three months away. I thought that the question was unusual as he already knew we only spent Christmas in one place – the Caboose at Ruatāhuna. He persisted and somewhat annoyed, I asked what the significance of his question was. He suggested that we should consider spending Christmas at Heipipi and that we should take the opportunity to hahu my father and take him back to Tamakaimoana land.
After Tamahou departed and I was on my own, I contemplated the question he had raised. It was significant that the disinterment of my father should come into focus on the day his older brother was buried. Also of significance was that the issue came from an unexpected source – my son. I was overcome by a sense of pride tinged with a bit of shame at my own shortcomings. This was soon replaced by a desire to complete what I had committed myself to some 20 years earlier! I became obsessed with the prospect in that short time, so much so, that I drove around to my uncle Davis’ house a mile down the road to announce to him that I was determined to exhume my father and bring him home. Was he with me or against me? My uncle was overwhelmed. He broke down and disclosed that the unresolved issue of his brother had been a heavy millstone for him all those years. He believed that he was somewhere in the centre of the problem. Amid his tears he went on to recount his recollections of the events.
When my father died in Auckland in 1963, my uncles, Tione, Davis and my grandfather Tamahou, went to retrieve him from Auckland Hospital. They duly did this and returned to Ruatāhuna. At Murupara, Tione made some lame excuse about not being able to continue to Ruatāhuna and that he would follow later. Davis became concerned at being left alone with the mercurial Tamahou. He also suspected that his brother Tione had some premonition about forthcoming raruraru and jumped the waka only an hour away from home. Left alone with Tamahou, Davis was prepared to do any bidding that Tamahou imposed, he was so intimidated.
As they neared Pāpueru, the first marae coming into Ruatāhuna, Tamahou told Davis to turn into the marae where a huge crowd awaited them. Tamahou then informed Davis, in a matter of fact way, that their journey had come to an end and that George would not be going any further. My father’s marae, Uwhiārae, was another 10 miles further on. With no support my uncle Davis was always going to agree.
After the pōhiri, Davis made his way home – without his brother! He arrived at Uwhiārae to find the marae in a state of readiness and expectation. On discovering that Davis had left the body at Pāpueru, his elders were incensed by his spinelessness and suggested that he, Davis, should take the place of the tūpāpaku, for the wharemate had already been prepared to receive George. To leave a wharemate empty was tempting the darkness of the Māori world.
Having expended their vexations, the kaumātua discussed the tactics for the recovery of the body. Suitably informed and fortified, they went to Pāpueru to demand the release of their kin. There the proper rituals of contact were enacted and taken to the extremities, invoking te umu pokapoka a Tū –the hot ovens of Tū. Words became the taiaha and patu of the actors.
The kaumātua from Tamakaimoana were some of the most eloquent and respected orators of Ruatāhuna and Tūhoe. There was Rongo Te Mangere Teka, a tall and straight kaumātua who always performed with his short bone meremere. He was a master of the whakaito style of whaikōrero. Tamiana Tawa was short and stout, but the sophistication and length of his oratory more than made up for this. When excited his voice would break into falsetto and his tiripou became his Excalibur with a wairua of its own. Riaka Te Kaawa was a spare koroua. One of the oldest of the Tamakaimoana force, the elegance of his oration and the music and cadence of his voice, still resonate in my ears. Except for a rolled up hat, which he used like a meremere, he performed without weapons. Then there was Paetawa Miki, tall, solid, and with a reputation to match. Dynamite had blown off his left hand but despite this handicap, his feats as a shooter and hunter are legendary. In ordinary conversation, he was difficult to hear, being slow and lazy of speech, and with the annoying habit of leaving sentences incomplete. However, in oratory he was transformed into a virtuoso, the tempo and volume of his voice having an amazing turnaround. Through his one good hand, his tiripou gave added expression to the eloquence of his words.
On the other side were Tamahou and Hikawera, two of the tuatangata of Tūhoe. Hikawera was a small man, wiry and tough. He was given the nickname Hopu Kau for his daring deeds of wrestling wild steers in the Urewera bush. These deeds became part of Tūhoe myth. Like his counterparts from Tamakaimoana, he was a distinguished orator, given to expensive words and experienced with the talking stick. He was a senior tohunga of the Ringatū faith and also well-schooled in the tikanga of the Māori gods. Some of the tohunga whom he trained, regarded him with god-like awe.
Tamahou was his brother-in-law. He was a big man, tall, well over six feet, and well-muscled, weighing some twenty stones. He had a reputation similar to Hikawera and Paetawa of the opposing camp. His feats on the marae are also legendary. He was light on his feet, leaping into the air at appropriate points in his oration - amazing, considering his size. There were times when he would balance himself on one foot, while the other was bent upwards in the direction of his rear. This agility moved someone to describe him as a ballet dancer. His nickname was Te Tia (The Deer) an apt description of his speed of foot and hand. He also possessed the honoured status of pū kōrero - expert speaker.
The war of words raged on the marae. The kaumātua of Tamakaimoana had come to retrieve their kin and one way or another, they were going to get their way! In fact, they backed up their truck to the gate of the marae ready to receive the body, and then advanced onto the marae without waiting for the karanga. They fired the first barrage of words, much against the rules of conduct on Tūhoe marae. Tamiana opened the attack addressing the tūpāpaku directly:
Pōkokohua tō upoko, taurekareka, kai-a-te-ahi. Takoto kē mai koe ki konei, ki runga i te marae o tētahi. He kore marae nōu? Arā rā ō marae, e tū mai rā. Arā, a Te Paenga, a Kurī Kino, a Tānenuiārangi, a Te Kawa a Māui. He aha? He kore marae kia takoto kē mai koe ki konei?. Waiho ana ko tō pito ki tērā marae ōu. Ki hea te tinana, ki hea? Ki konei? Pokokohua!
May your head be boiled, peon, fuel for the fire. You lie on the marae of someone else? Do you not have marae of your own? Yonder are your marae. Yonder is Te Paenga, Kurī Kino, Tānenuiārangi, Te Kawa a Māui. So why? You have no marae, so you lie here instead? Only your pito to occupy your marae? Where to the body, where to? Here? Boiled head!
His voice was in falsetto, his gestures with his tokotoko deliberate and measured, his body talk eloquent for one of such stature.
The effervescent Rongo Teka, the exemplar of the warrior, followed him. He quick-stepped forward, brandishing his bone patu in the whakaito style, and emitted a stream of words. At the end of his tirade, Rongo leaped into the air, did an about turn and strutted back to his matua, only to make another about turn, and again quick-stepped towards the tūpāpaku, with another tirade of mostly uncomplimentary words. Again the leap and the retreat, followed by another attack. The disparaging words to the tūpapaku were intended for Tamahou who was spoiling for an opportunity to reply. Tamiana and Rongo were the wind before the storm – te urukāraerae - and they continued the offensive until they expended their energies and stood there in doleful tangi.
Paetawa, reminiscent of Atūtahi stood apart from the matua, resting against his tiripou, his stump in his pocket, his hat at a rakish angle on his head, saying nothing. Riaka also remained silent. He was an uncle, a pāpara, and within the degree of relationship that barred him from participating in whaikorero. Paetawa was also likewise affected. They would have their say later. Their words would be the exhortations of the kirimate to the paepae to show compassion and release George to them.
Hikawera, the keeper of tikanga, stood to fulfil the obligations of the tangata whenua. He welcomed the Tamakaimoana manuhiri, who maintained their vigil before the body. He did not make a committed argument for the retention of the body at Te Weraiti. This was Tamahou’s fight; he could fight his own battle – which he did. He rose to his six feet four inches height and delivered an oration that suggested a fait accompli, a foregone conclusion that George was not moving from Te Weraiti and that was irrevocable. Anyone who suggested otherwise would be met with physical resistance.
From the opposing side ‘rose’ Paetawa, the pillar of Maungapōhatu. The physical equal of Tamahou, his rhetoric was surprisingly conciliatory as opposed to the confrontational stance adopted by Tamahou. This was also a departure from the more robust stance taken by Tamiana and Rongo Teka. He was amenable to any suggestions of compromise that may bring some amicable satisfaction to both aggrieved parties.
Riaka ‘rose to his feet’ excusing himself for breaking with tradition, and daring to speak at the tangi of his nephew. However, he felt obligated to speak under the circumstances, and since he was not addressing his nephew, his rising would not be a direct contradiction of etiquette. He appealed to Tamahou’s sense of justice, decency and compassion. His oratory was interspersed with touches of passion, and yet sagacious and delivered with the dignity that only the wisdom of the old is capable.
This certainly had an effect on Tamahou. He softened his position and yielded with some difficulty, that the tangi could be at Uwhiārae. But the burial was to be at Heipipi! There was an exchange of views from the opposing camp and then Paetawa stood and indicated that they were in agreement to the ultimatum.
George was taken back to Uwhiārae.
There another conflict erupted. Now that they had George back at their marae, Tamakaimoana were reneging on the accord reached at Te Weraiti. Tamahou was incensed and was threatening to physically remove George that very minute and take out anyone who dared to oppose him. Tamakaimoana were equal to the challenge – for a short time! My older brother John summed up the situation in a few terse but revealing words:
“Boy, it was rude. Six rangatira Tamakaimoana, one rangatira Tamahou”.
And then he made a downward sign with his thumb and made a sound similar to passing wind.
Tamakaimoana moved to regain some moral ground. They issued a counter ultimatum that in the event of Tamahou’s death, he was to keep George company at that lonely cemetery at Heipipi.
And so George was buried at Heipipi.
A Matter of Process
The hahu was set down for 28 December 1994. I was to be the chief hahu person, nominated by me and seconded by me. But before the hahu, there were processes that we needed to fulfil.
Our hapū Tamakaimoana needed to be informed and we did this at the Saturday Sabbath where most of the hapū congregate. There was unanimous support. We then went through a process of hapū learning about hahu. No one from the hapū knew anything about hahu except me. There were eyewitness accounts of bones being transported from the place of exhumation to the place of burial. Auntie Kitty and others talked about seeing the reburial of exhumed bones and bodies at Maungapōhatu in the 1940s. There were comical anecdotes of tohunga hahu who were under strict tapu, being fed by ‘feeders’. The tohunga would sit on the ground with hands behind their backs while being fed. The feeder would then offer the tohunga bread. He would lean forward take a bite and then chew. The feeder would offer him tea that he would drink, then indicate he was ready for the next bite. The feeder would offer the bread and when the tohunga leaned forward, the feeder would withdraw the bread, frustrating the tohunga. Another trick was to offer the bread in a vertical way rather than edge-on. The tohunga would manipulate his head at weird angles to get a bite, and in frustration, lick at the bread. These light-hearted stories made the learning process interesting - and hid the lack of knowledge about the actual hahu. There was an impatient desire on my part to put my university hat on and to teach the natives about hahu. Patience won out. After several wānanga, and by suggestive direction, we had a much better understanding.
We also had to meet Ngāti Tāwhaki about the process. For years, they had been silent on the question of exhuming George and burying his remains at Te Weraiti. On a Saturday after the Sabbath, we went to Te Weraiti to meet with the leaders of that hapū. They received us without going through the formalities, which suited us fine. We arranged some seats in the sunniest part of the marae and had our hui. My uncle Davis laid down the purpose for our visit and talked of our desire to hahu George and to take him back to Uwhiārae. When he finished, Mihaka Herewini of Ngāti Tāwhaki rose and said that because they had not done anything to exhume George, there was no reason for Ngāti Tāwhaki to object. The matter was thus brought to a good conclusion.
With the full support of the hapū, preparations commenced immediately. An auntie from Waikaremoana, Te Mauniko Eparaima, rang to summon us to Waikaremoana with a truck to pick up a pig. When we arrived we were stunned by its size – it resembled a steer. We brought it back live to Ruatāhuna.
Closer to the time and just after Xmas 1994, we went to Rotorua on the Ford F100 pickup to collect the kai. With the pickup loaded we were about to head back when my wife Hema, asked what we were going to put the remains in. I told her that I was quite happy to put them in a pillowcase like the old tohunga used to do. She wasn’t impressed with that suggestion and ordered me to go and buy something more suitable for the nineties, like a casket. I wasn’t too happy with the expense - and no woman tells Pou Temara what to do. We went around Rotorua looking for a funeral parlour, and before long we found one. The person on duty was a Māori woman and there was immediate rapport. I told her what we were going to do. She advised us that after thirty one years, there would only be bones left but there might be some parts of the coffin still remaining. May I see her cheapest casket? She took us around to have a look at the cheapest made out of cardboard and costing $50.00. I was more than happy with that – but Hema wasn’t. What are your next cheapest? The nice lady showed us an excellent wooden red one costing $500.00! Dying is certainly expensive. We settled for that one and moved the pickup closer to the casket. When the nice lady saw the kai on the back, she said that she would fetch some water, to sprinkle over the kai and casket, because casket and kai don’t go together. I sprinkled water over the kai and casket, loaded the casket, and put the kai on top! We then set off for home.
At the entrance to Uwhiārae marae at Ruatāhuna, I indicated that I was turning in to drop off the kai. But Hema was familiar with my perverse sense of humour and instructed me to desist. She knew that my relations would be horrified to discover a casket with kai on top of it! With my intended fun spoiled, we continued on to Mātaatua marae where our bach is. Hema ruled that the casket be left in the meetinghouse, Te Whaiatemotu, until it was time to use it in two days’ time. We unloaded the casket and then went back to Uwhiārae marae to unload the kai.
Back at the bach, we heard the drone of a truck going past in the direction of the meetinghouse, Te Whaiatemotu. It was the whānau from Papueru returning a truckload of marae mattresses that they had borrowed for Christmas. We watched as the truck reversed to the entrance, the chief of the group, Golly, directing the truck. The helpers got off, and then they casually disappeared into the meetinghouse. This house has only one window and it is very dark inside even during the day. Suddenly there was a rush of bodies from the house, coming to a halt some considerable distance from the house and their truck. Some had turned very white. They looked around, engaged in nervous animated conversation, pointing and scratching their heads and other parts that suddenly itched. They then got onto their truck without unloading it, and droned off, looking suspiciously in the direction of our bach. We stayed out of sight. I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle while Hema was very worried. Soon word got around the valley that there was a tūpāpaku at Te Whaiatemotu – but no one in attendance. I loved it.
The next day, we went to Heipipi to the urupā to get it ready for the exhumation in the early morning of the following day. My father had not been buried on the little hill that formed the urupā proper. He was buried at the base of the little hill, on flat land.
My cousins cleared the plot of blackberries and dug up the posts of the plot so that all we had to do in the morning was remove the posts and the wire netting. It would be too dark in the morning to start digging around. They then marked out the size of the dig, which was considerably wider and longer than the mound that indicated the place where my father rested. By digging a wider hole, I would have space to do the actual exhumation of the remains.
Having completed that, most of us returned to the marae. I elected to stay separate from the rest; this was a pō takoto for me, a time to prepare myself mentally and spiritually for the task ahead. I was to be careful to maintain tapu from midnight on, until I released myself from tapu. Under this state of tapu I was to refrain from kai, smoking, and be separated from my wife and family. These were the words of Wī Whitu, the grandfather of my wife Hema. Whitu Waiariki, a granduncle who was also a tohunga Ringatū had sent word to say that everything was going to be fine and that he would karakia taurangi from Taupō where he lived. At the same time, my uncle Davis would be conducting a pō takoto at the marae for the hapū.
At 11.00pm that night, I went to the wai whakaikabelow my bach. This was the spot where the tohunga carried out their rituals, where they dedicated koha to God for favours to be realised. On arriving, I rededicated the spot by making it tapu to receive the spirits of the Gods. I built an altar of rocks in the middle of the stream in the fashion that I had observed my koroua Hikawera do in 1985, and which I emulated in 1987 on the death of a prominent Tūhoe elder. I gathered dry leaves, twigs and branches from the manuka, which grew in profusion around the wai whakaika and placed them on the makeshift altar. Then I set fire to the heap of twigs and wood with my Bic lighter, after lighting a piece of rubber as a fire starter. This was a departure from the school of Hikawera, who used the power of his mind to start the fire. But I also remembered that he reverted to his childhood, and later died, after carrying out that particular exercise. Ka pai te Bic lighter, no headache and no hemo.
When the fire took hold I stood in the middle of the little stream called Opūhou. I carried out my karakia to fortify me, and give me strength to carry out my tapu task in a few hours’ time; to render me impervious to opposing wairua, if such forces existed. As I finished my karakia, I dowsed the fire with water to symbolize the fate for such forces. Then I rendered the spot untapu, so that it may not affect anyone who might inadvertently stumble upon it. I also disassembled the makeshift altar. Having done that, I went to the meetinghouse and removed the casket, and loaded it onto the pickup. I then lay down to rest and contemplated the task ahead until sleep overtook me.
Tamahou who had been at Uwhiārae marae awakened me. We got into the pickup and moved up to the bach to pick up the shovels and other tools, which may be needed.
At 4.00 am, we set off for Heipipi from Mātaatua. Along the way others joined us so that we ended up with a large motorcade. I suspect that a significant number were there to experience a hahu ceremony. On arrival we drove straight down to the urupā. Some of my cousins had come from as far as Rotorua and Murupara that very morning. Those who arrived early had slept close by awaiting the arrival of the main group. They were quietly told by the ‘initiated’ to forgo greetings and chatter as we were under tapu. They understood and complied.
My cousins and uncles removed the fence around my father. The plan was for the hapū to take part in the digging, but when they reached the remains of the coffin, I would then enter and exhume the remains of my father.
My relations began to dig feverishly with the minimum of fuss and noise, taking turns at digging without affecting the rhythm of the dig. They dug without the aid of lights, guided only by feeling, luck and we suspect, by taha wairua (spiritual guidance). The whole process of that morning had been pre-empted the night before by a pō takoto, where karakia of both the Christian and non-Christian kind left us in a state of tapu. Only my son, Tamahou refused to take a rest – he wanted to be involved in the whole process. This would be his only chance to view his grandfather.
The dig had only been going for what seemed like a short time, when there was muffled commotion from the hole. The diggers exited the hole, as I got ready for my entry. Suitably dressed in orange overalls appropriated from some uncle who worked for the Ministry of Works, rubber outer gloves, and surgical inner gloves, my mask around my neck, I entered the hole.
Even in the gloom, I could make out the outline of the sides of the coffin. The lid had long disintegrated. The nice lady from the funeral home was right. I worked with a small trowel, similar of the kind that archaeologists use, digging away with this implement and filling a plastic bucket with the soil, and then handing the bucket up to the waiting hands and faces peering down around the rim of the hole.
I noticed that the colour of the soil had changed from light to black, especially at the area of the remains. I was now striking long thin roots. I formed the opinion that this condition must have been promoted by the decay of the body and coffin. Very soon I could feel the bones of my father. I cleared the soil away from his rib cage and the rest of his body then his head. When he was fully exposed to the touch, I quietly greeted him, “Kia ora Dad”.
After observing a moment of silence, I grabbed the skull as prescribed by Wi Whitu. The head was always the first part to be excavated. I gave it a tug to separate it from the body. It would not separate! Try as I might, still no separation. The whole rib cage moved with the skull. There was only one way and that was to break it from the ribcage. This I did with a certain amount of difficulty. Having successfully separated the head, I cleaned it and noticed that there was a fair bush of black hair still attached to the skull. My father was fussy about his hair and his moustache like all returned soldiers of World War 11. I also noticed that against my own perceptions, the colour of the bones was black.
I looked up and all these heads were peering down. I slowly got up and then suddenly thrust the skull upwards, “Ana!” No more heads, only the muffled curses especially from Max. Tamahou put the head in the coffin at the edge of the hole and I continued to excavate the rest of the remains, putting the bones into a pillowcase. I could hear the soft tangi of Tamahou as he wept over the head of his koroua.
As I retrieved each bone, I would clean it and place it in no particular order in the pillowcase. Working by feel only, the larger bones were easy to retrieve. When it came to the small bones of the hands, I failed miserably the teachings of Wī Whitu, to tiki atu the right bone so that all others came away at the same time. All the bones looked the same – and in my defence, this was my first hahu. Thereafter anything that felt lumpy, I put in the sheet. I sieved the soil through my surgical gloved fingers, having long ago discarded my heavier outer gloves.
When I was satisfied that I had excavated all the remains of my father, I handed the pillowcase of bones to the peering heads, who deposited the bundle in the coffin. I then climbed out of the hole as dawn was breaking.
I had done my job to the best of my ability. There had been no falter in commitment, no fear of the unknown. I had worked under strict tapu and would continue to observe that tapu, not partaking of food or water, until the remains had been re-interred.
The coffin was loaded onto my pickup and the hole was filled in no time. The Presbyterian minister, Noera Tamiana, ‘cleared’ the ground that had been the resting place of my father by prayer and the sprinkling of water over the site. From then on that piece of ground would revert to common land.
On the completion of that task everyone went to the stream close by to ritually wash their hands and sprinkle themselves with water. They also cleaned the shovels used in the excavation. Soon the glow of cigarettes could be seen.
At a little after 6 am, the motorcade reached the marae. We had completed the hahu and returned to the marae in less than two hours. The karanga was heard emanating from the house called Te Paenga. The pallbearers slowly carried the coffin and placed it on the whāriki provided at the veranda of the meetinghouse. The kuia and my immediate family were all weeping. This carried on for some time. After a while, the minister said a few words. His words were not delivered in the classical whaikōrero way, as he was part of the kirimate, but he used his position as a minister of the cloth to offer much appreciated words of sympathy. No one else spoke – my uncles were all under cultural restriction, being related to my father.
As the sun rose, the melancholy mood of the occasion was replaced by light-hearted banter. The kuia gossiped about George’s life, and the events that led to his burial at Heipipi some thirty one years previous. They also talked about hahu of the past, and asked questions about the details of our own hahu. All the while, the smoking around me was starting to take effect. I was suffering withdrawal symptoms. I made noises about burying the remains as soon as it was expedient but no one seemed to take notice of my bleating. Emulating my grandfather Tamahou, I rose to my full 5 feet 7 inches height, and in my most authoritative voice, announced that we were leaving for the local hapū cemetery at Pīpī. That did the trick. The carriers casually retrieved the coffin and carried it to the pickup. The mood was almost festive and that suited me fine, as long as we were able to bury my father in the shortest time, enabling my release from tapu and allowing me to have a cigarette!
At the cemetery, the hole was already dug. However we were a little lost as to what kind of service we would use to bury the remains of my father. It wasn’t a full body, and it had already been buried previously. The minister seemed confused. He looked at me inquiringly and I told him, “E hoa, I only know karakia to open houses. The only other karakia I know is a whakawhetai, and that seems inappropriate for the occasion. Just say anything, kia tere!”
As soon as the padre completed his semisemi I discarded my gloves and dropped them into the hole to be buried with my father’s remains. In this way, I was enacting the first stage of releasing myself from tapu. When the hole was completely covered over – and this didn’t take long – I grabbed the shovels and put them on the pickup, jumped in and unceremoniously drove off in the direction of Mātaatua. I was returning to the wai whakaika of Te Urewera, where I would release myself from tapu.
When I arrived, I got the shovels and went to the stream where I stripped retaining my shorts. I again rededicated the site and then reassembled the rock alter in the middle of the little stream. Having completed that task, I placed manuka twigs and branches on top then placed my clothes on top of the pile of wood, including my shorts and old runners. I then set fire to the heap and when the fire took hold, I stood in midstream and performed the whakahoro, a ritual that releases the person from tapu.
When the fire had completely consumed my clothes and was burning itself out, I finished the ritual having washed myself completely. I then dried myself and with the towel around my waist, I kneeled by the stream downwards of the dying fire and washed my hands many times with soap and water. Those were the instructions of Wī Whitu many years previous. I also cut my nails. Normally as part of the process, I would have had to observe a week of not touching food with the hands that had come into contact with the bones of the dead. Someone else would have fed me and there were many offers by my cousins, no doubt attracted by the humorous tales about the mischief that feeders used to play on the tohunga hahu tūpāpaku. Thank you, but no thank you; this is a tohunga of the nineties, and not afraid to use the technology of the nineties. That’s why I wore gloves, so that bare skin would not come into contact with the bones. Clever nē? Kei te mahara pea he kai parāoa noa iho taku mahi i te kura (Did they think I went to school to merely eat my lunch)?
Having convinced myself that all evidence of tapu had been eliminated from my hands, I then washed the shovels and tools. I drove the pickup to the bottom end of the Opūhou stream, and showered it with water. Now, man, tools and pickup were untapu. I then rendered the spot common for reasons already mentioned.
It suddenly occurred to me that I still had this overwhelming urge to have a cigarette. The depth of the ritual had distracted my craving. I threw everything on the back of the truck and rushed off to the bach at the top of the hill. There, I lit up a Sportsman. Ah, Nirvana.
Back at the marae, there was a hākari. The festive mood was still evident. We filed into the dining hall where the kaumātua, Davis, said grace. When he finished, my cousin Bebs came opposite me and with plate in hand, offered a morsel at the end of a fork and said, “Open wide”. Funny.
My uncles got up to mihi and marvelled at their good fortune to be involved in a modern hahu. Tales of Matu Tauaki, Maka Whitu, Wi Whitu and others were again recalled, but the tales always centred on the feeding of these esteemed tohunga. None had actually witnessed the hahu, only the feeding and the pillow cases of bones being hung on the outside wall at the back of the meetinghouses, or the reburial of remains. Maka Whitu is recalled as a hard case. While under restriction after a hahu, Maka was at a party and was being served by another of his party mates. This mate would take a swig, then offer to pour some whiskey into Maka’s mouth. Only a small amount would trickle into his mouth before the mate withdrew the bottle. In frustration, Maka would grab the bottle saying, “E hoa, homai tā tāua kai(Friend, give [me] our food)”, and take a long swig. Tapu? Hmmm.
I also noticed that my older brother John wasn’t present. He hadn’t taken part in the whole process. Some time later when I asked him about it to clear the air, he told me that he didn’t support the return of our father. He argued that Tamahou had won the day fairly and Tamakaimoana had lost miserably. Hence his terse and revealing remarks previously recorded. In his view the gains and kudos should have remained with the victor. I respect his view.
At the end of the hākari, the hapū broke up each whānau returning to their home to carry on with normal life and prepare for the new year festivities. The hahu of George had added to the humdrum of our lives.
As I write this conclusion in May 2020, it’s been 26 years since the exhumation of my father. He died at the very young age of 41 and never had the opportunity to take his place on the speaking benches of his marae. He would be 98 now. I have not regretted the decision to exhume him and return him to his resting ground at Pīpī. I am convinced that he now sleeps the sweet slumber of peace on the bed from which there is no rising. He joined his daughter Enid and is lately accompanied by his children, Jackie, John, Hori, Tahuri, Nika, Kotiro and survived by me and my remaining siblings Ripora, Pareraututu, and Hori. He is rich in grandchildren and their children who are citizens of the world. I end with the words of my hand:
Under the gaze of Manawaru on high
down on Pīpī where I lie
In the sweet repose of those who die,
May I live on as the years go by
You will live on pāpā
- 1. He was also nicknamed Kauriki rendered in English
- 2. This is the urupā of Paitini Wī Tāpeka, a veteran of Ōrākau. His wife Te Waiohine who is also known as Makurata is buried there too. My sister, Enid, is buried there with another person whom I’ve forgotten.
- 3. An experienced person at disinterring the dead.
- 4. This is the reason that hahu are carried out at dawn; to eliminate the presence of flies.
- 6.If you get the right bone, every other bone follows.
- 6.Our name for our bach at Mātaatua.
- 7. Heros
- 8. The star Canopus that stands on his own outside the mass of the milkyway. Read Matariki authored by Rangi Mātaamua.
- 9. Main group.
- 10. Karakia from afar.
- 11. Sacred waters where tapu ceremonies are performed.
- 12. A word created for spoken words of a tapu nature, not kosher.