Protect the voices we are losing during times of crisis.

Margaret Kawharu

(Ngāti Whātua/Mahurehure)

Senior Māori Advisor at Massey University

Guest commentary

As we focus on protecting everyone’s health and well-being from this unprecedented global virus, we are made acutely aware of life and death and the ways in which we manage the transition from one to the other.

Covid-19 guidelines for funerals and burials

New Zealand’s Ministry of Health spelt out the strict funeral and burial conditions that must be adhered to when a loved one dies, from a known or unknown cause or from Covid 19. It acknowledges the difficulties in not being able to mourn according to custom. “Bereaved families and whānau from all cultures and backgrounds will find this time challenging. This makes it even more important to show each other kindness, care, manaakitanga and aroha.”

Tikanga compromise

A few days ago, in response to advice from Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā (National Māori Pandemic Group), those guidelines were amended slightly but significantly to recognise one aspect of ‘tikanga’ Māori. This term was defined by the late Bishop Manu Bennett as the ‘right person, doing the right thing, in the right way’. By adapting the guidelines, funeral directors are now able to permit family and whānau from the same isolation bubble as the deceased, to go to the funeral home to view the body. This is, in essence, to assist the passage of the deceased’s spirit on its spiritual journey.

The tragedy of voices we are losing

As Ernesto Ottone, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture said recently, “COVID-19 has put many intangible cultural heritage practices, including rituals, rites and ceremonies, both religious and non-religious, on hold, with important consequences for the social and cultural life of communities everywhere.”

The tragedy of not being able to give full and appropriate expression to grief, and common ties of kinship and descent in a community setting, is not being able to honour and acknowledge a person’s worth as a living human being and their contribution to the living.

The occasion of death also permits the restatement of a community’s underpinning values, the continuity of connection between past ancestors and future generations, and distinctive practices and principles.

Giacomo Lichtner, Associate Professor of History and Film at Victoria University wrote, “Forbidden Mourning: Covid 19 threatens our collective memory”. While we focus on the plight of the vulnerable, the safety and health of the general population and the impact of Covid 19 on the economy, Lichtner implores us to consider the voices we are losing, the stories that make up our collective memory and how we might “protect, record and cherish them, while we still have a chance.”

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