Jason's narration of the Tangi
On Thursday night we received word that Jason's Nan was in the hospital and most likely would not make it through the night. The time was 5pm so we acted fast and got in the car. Jason's Nan lives in Kawakawa, almost at the very top of New Zealand, a tiny town that makes my hometown look like a bustling city. From Auckland, Kawakawa is a little over 3 hours away so we hit the road straightaway.
About 2 hours into our drive we got the call that we were afraid would come. She had passed away. Those moments after were quite sad. We talked alot about Nan after that. Jason shared so many stories and memories that I had missed out on.
In addition to hearing all about Nan, Jason also informed me of what to expect over the next few days. You see, Jason's family is Maori on his dad's side. Death and funerals are handled completely different from what I am used to. There is protocol, traditions, and expectations that must be respected and honoured when a loved one passes away.
Nan's body was taken back to her home for the night so that the family could gather and be with her. Her body had been taken to her home even before she was embalmed. When we got there, her body was still warm, for she had only been dead for 3 hours. When we pulled into Nan's driveway I was a little nervous. I felt uncomfortable about having a dead body at home. It just didn't feel right. That feeling quickly passed as we greeted, hugged, and kissed the many aunts, uncles, and cousins that had gathered in Nan's tiny house. Nan looked so peaceful and rested as she lay on the floor of her home. I couldn't help but think that it was a much more appropriate place for her rather than the morgue.
I felt overwhelmed with emotions as I gathered with the whanau. The walls were covered from top to bottom with family pictures. I learnt an important lesson that night in Nan's house. We take nothing with us except for our families. Nan didn't have much-those material things that she did have did not go with her. What she does take is her large posterity. Family. Family. Family. Nan has always had it right-put your family first. I feel so very lucky to have married into the Richards family. The idea of family is beyond strong.
That was just the first night.
The next morning Nan's body was embalmed and immediately taken to the family's marae in Kaikohe. In Maori culture, the body stays at the family's marae day and night until burial. Maoris believe that your spirit does not go on to the spirit world until a proper burial has taken place. When it does depart this world, it does so by boarding a waka (canoe) at Cape Reinga (Reinga means leaping place of spirits).
Te Kotahitanga Marae in Kaikohe-Nan's body laid here for 3 days
When we arrived at the marae for the first time we had to do a powhiri. A powhiri is an official welcome to enter the marae. By no means can you enter a marae without being welcomed. You must also remove your shoes. After the death and before the burial, the extended family stays and sleeps at the marae with the body. A light must remain on the body at all times and 2 female members of the family must be next to the body as well.
As visitors came and went throughout the 3 days, each one had to do a powhiri. They would enter the marae and first kiss Nan's body and then do a Hongi with each person in the room. After which the komatua (elders of the marae) would speak. This process was repeated every single time a visitor came-day and night. Most of the speaking was done in Maori.
Marae and Wharaekai grounds. Note: You cannot eat inside of the marae, all meals are served in the Wharaekai, which literally means food house (building on the left).
The night before Nan was buried everyone stayed up and told stories about her life. I was there for part of it but had to call it an early night-I've never been one to pull all-nighters. Jason was a trooper and stayed awake the entire night along with the rest of the whanau.
On Monday morning we all got in our Sunday best for the funeral service. The service was held in the marae and was a mix of Maori protocol and Latter-day Saint program. Jason's dad conducted with permission from the Komatua (elders of the marae). One of the saddest parts of the whole experience was the closing of the coffin. The mokopunas (children and grandchildren) all took their turn to kiss her forehead one last time. There was a lot of wailing and weeping and I found myself not being able to hold it together either.
Nan's mokopuna carried the coffin out of the marae and all the way to the cemetery. It was a long walk so all the boys took turns to carry the coffin. Everyone else walked behind the casket in the middle of the road. All of Nan's sons had dug her grave by hand. I was very touched by this. It was a labour of love to carry her body and dig her grave by hand. Her casket was lowered into the ground with nothing more than ropes. It spoke very loudly about how much her sons cared for her.
The mokopuna performed a Haka at her graveside. I have an all new appreciation for the Haka. Before, it was just a cool Maori war dance that BYU did before football games. Now, I understand. It is so much more. After the short service at the graveside everyone grabbed a handful of dirt to drop into the hole. The sons and grandsons stayed behind to bury their Mum and Nan. My heart went out to Jason as he buried his Nan. It was an experience that will never be forgotten.
As I walked the long walk back to the marae I was overcome with so many emotions. First, I'm so glad we were here for her passing. In 7 weeks we will be in Arizona and could have easily missed this. Jason got to see his extended family and have a proper goodbye with each of them. He also got a chance to celebrate Nan's life and take part in his Maori heritage. Second, I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to pass on all that Nan taught. I want our children to know what she stood for. I want them to know about their Maori heritage. Third, I am comforted in my knowledge of the Plan of Salvation. How sweet it is to know in my heart that Jason's Nan is in a much better place. That she is no longer suffering and that we will see her again.
I came away from this experience understanding a little bit more about Jason. I have been shown a whole different way to grieve and accept the death of a loved one. In America there is virtually no interaction with the person's body. The body is kept in the morgue with the exception of a very brief viewing. The viewing itself usually consists of clusters of people standing anywhere in the room besides next to the casket. Grieving also seems to be more of a private affair in America. Here in New Zealand it is an open and communal part of someone's death. I feel that it is much more of a celebration of life and family in the Maori way. I have never accepted death in such a positive way as I have this time.
I am grateful for Jason's Nan. I wish I would have been able to spend more time with her. I'll never forget her and I'll make sure that our children know about her.