Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Death a time for respect

The grave of James Takamore. Photo / Dean Purcell
The grave of James Takamore. Photo / Dean Purcell

I have been to too many funerals lately. The last one, a few days ago for a dear cousin, seemed particularly unfair.

Moana was only 35, a mother of three, a beloved wife. She was beautiful in every sense, and clever, too, though she would have been the last person to mention her achievements. She was as humble and kind as she was gorgeous.

When her law-firm friends (the "Beautiful Moana Trust", they called themselves) organised an event to raise money for an expensive drug to help her fight the cancer that was rapidly spreading through her body, they were taken aback by the response.

Last October, the Freemans Bay Community Centre was packed with people from all walks of life, including judges from the Court of Appeal and High Court, ex-All Blacks, her husband's Massey rugby club mates, Moana's boxing friends and former workmates from Inland Revenue.

The money poured in, and for a while Moana seemed to be winning the battle. But a few months ago the cancer returned in her brain. She died last week, a day after her daughter's fifth birthday.

When I saw her, a few hours later, she was smiling. That was Moana; she had a smile that was lit from within.

As our family were gathering to farewell Moana, the James Takamore case was being played out at the Supreme Court.

James died suddenly in 2007, and, against the wishes of his wife and two children, his body was taken by his extended whanau from Christchurch, where he'd lived for the last 20 years of his life, and buried among family on tribal land in the Bay of Plenty.

He remains there, despite both the High Court and Court of Appeal finding that Takamore's widow, as executor of his will, had the common-law right to decide where he should be buried.

Takamore's northern kin claim tikanga and the wishes of his whanau should trump the wishes of his widow and children. They in turn want the remains of their husband and father to be buried near them. Who is right? Which side has the strongest claim?

These are not questions a court of law should be asked to decide. Law is black and white. Lore, tikanga, culture must bend to serve uniquely human circumstances. Culture, like people, needs to evolve to survive.

Our beautiful Moana was Samoan and Palagi, married to a Samoan. Both the family service and the funeral that followed were a blend of Samoan, Palagi and Maori cultures. It was a New Zealand funeral.

One of the most passionate eulogies was in te reo by a friend who joked that he spoke in Maori because he wasn't very good at English or Samoan.

He finished with a haka because, he said, it best represented how he felt.

Yet, he wasn't Maori, he was Samoan. The next day, at the funeral, it was a haka and Maori lament that accompanied Moana's arrival at the church. It was beautiful and right.

Courts can't tell us how to treat each other with respect and compassion. That's the role of tikanga.

Fighting over the resting place of our dead is a time-honoured Polynesian tradition. We like to keep our loved ones close to us, even after they're gone, but that becomes complicated when there are competing claims.

In the acclaimed movie The Orator, a brother snatches his estranged sister's body from her daughter and husband and takes it home to be buried. To get her body back, the husband must follow Samoan protocol. Yet, it is his words, his appeal to the brother's heart and sense of fairness, that win the day.

That is how it should have been when James Takamore died. In the 20 or so years he had been in Christchurch, he had visited his extended whanau only twice. He'd built a life with Denise Clarke and their children.

The academic, Rawiri Taonui, has written that Clarke and her children tried to honour James' "Maori side". The nearest they could get to laying his body on a marae was a hall, a move that probably horrified his birth family. Had Clarke followed the Pakeha custom of putting him in a funeral home, things might have turned out differently.

Takamore's whanau, Taonui suggested, showed little respect for Clarke and her children.

"There were no elders to shield them or speak on their behalf. They were pressured to speak for themselves, discussion was one brief afternoon, they were vulnerable and taken advantage of by a whanau that created tikanga as they proceeded".

The retired academic, Ranginui Walker, has said, too, that while fighting over a body "was honourable to Maori, it was clear that widows had the final say at burial".

Walker added that while "exercising Maori tikanga among Maori is fine ... when you get into cross-cultural marriages, it should be tempered by Pakeha custom".

I am married to a Tongan, and under Tongan custom, it would be his father's eldest sister who has authority to decide what should happen at his funeral. I don't have to recognise that authority, being Samoan. But even in a purely Tongan context, I would have the right to challenge that authority if it's not exercised with wisdom and compassion.

TapuMisa@gmail.com

- NZ Herald

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