Whanau: We'll fight order to give up body

By Yvonne Tahana, Juliet Rowan, Jarrod Booker

Police are trying to calm tensions after James Takamore's wife, Denise Clarke, was granted the legal right to have his body returned to her.

Ms Clarke wants it removed from a grave at the Kutarere Marae, southwest of Opotiki, and returned for burial in her hometown of Christchurch.

But Mr Takamore's cousin Tawhai Te Rupe said whanau members at Kutarere, where Mr Takamore is buried, viewed the exhumation order gained by Mr Takamore's partner of 25 years as a threat.

"We'll be treating the threat seriously and, within all our powers, we'll be stopping any exhumation," he said.

Speaking at the marae, Mr Te Rupe said anyone who tried to uplift Mr Takamore's remains would meet resistance. "They'll have a fight on their hands," he vowed.

As chairman of the local Upokorehe hapu's resource management team, he viewed the exhumation order as a threat because it challenged the tikanga (protocol) of Mr Takamore's burial.

"Our tikanga and process has been followed through. We've got to the stage now where he's in a wahi tapu [sacred place]. It's not a public cemetery. It's a private cemetery. It belongs to the hapu."

The cemetery was protected under Maori law, so nothing could be done without consultation.

"At this stage, no contact has been made, so we're not relinquishing the body."

Mr Te Rupe said news of the exhumation order had come as a shock.

Other members of Mr Takamore's whanau approached by the Herald did not wish to comment and referred questions to his sister, Tania McCormack, spokeswoman for his immediate family.

She told TV3's Campbell Live programme that the whanau, and Mr Takamore's mother in particular, wanted him buried at his home cemetery because he was the eldest son and the first child in the family to die.

Mr Takamore was buried on August 21 at the cemetery, which is on a hill overlooking the small cluster of houses at Kutarere and across the road from the marae.

Police say they will not enforce the exhumation order until they have further discussions with both sides of the family.

Ms Clarke was reluctant to speak about the matter out of fear that the information would filter back to her partner's family and create more friction.

But she told the Herald the exhumation order gave her hope that she and her two children would soon have Mr Takamore back near them.

She had had little contact with his family since his burial.

"I've only had text messages from a couple of the family," she said.

"They are making out they are supportive, but I really just don't know who to trust."

Bay of Plenty police district commander Gary Smith said the focus was now on reaching an "amicable agreement as to the proper process to be followed".

"We will not be in a position to make any further comment until we have had those discussions."

Maori Party co-leader Dr Pita Sharples said the move to exhume the body would not go down well with his family.

"They are going to react negatively to this news and, I imagine, physically try and keep the body where it is, because it is our custom."

But Professor Ranginui Walker, former head of Maori studies at Auckland University, believes the episode should serve as a lesson for Maori.

"What happened here is that tikanga Maori and the law clashed," he said.

"It's time Maori learned they live with Pakeha law.

"Before they do such a thing as hi-jacking the body, they should check out the law. It was done in ignorance."

While fighting over a body was honourable to Maori, it was clear that widows had the final say at burial, Professor Walker said.

The 75-year-old believed Maori should state in their wills where they want to be buried.

He said some would not necessarily want to be buried in their own tribal areas.

Exhumation Law

* It is illegal to exhume a body without a permit issued by the Minister of Health after a court hearing.

* Police are given the authority to exhume a body.

* Illegally removing a body can incur a $400 fine or a three-month prison term.

* The ministry handles about 50 exhumations a year.

- additional reporting: Yvonne Tahana

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