Ngāpuhi had to navigate uncharted territory when the iwi farewelled one of its most respected kaumātua this week.

In normal times a hui mate, or tangihanga, for a leader like Wiremu Wiremu would have drawn many hundreds, probably thousands, of people wishing to pay their final respects.

However, the kaumātua's death at the age of 80 last Thursday came during Covid-19 alert level 2, which meant strict rules around social distancing and the number of people that could attend.

Family spokesman Albert Cash said organisers of the tangi, at Piki Te Aroha Marae, northwest of Okaihau, had to observe Covid-19 precautions, tikanga and multiple requests all while upholding the integrity of a great man.

''Although we didn't have the normal tangihanga we are used to, it enabled whānau and our people to share grief and show their appreciation so that the healing process can occur,'' Cash said.


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It was fortunate his death had not occurred in level 4, which would have led to a broken grieving process and a more difficult recovery.

Covid-19 precautions included keeping marae volunteers and whānau pani (grieving family) to a minimum and ushering visitors on to the marae in groups of 20-30. The next mourners were only allowed on when the previous group had left.

Visitors were sent on their way with individually packaged food and a cup of tea to ensure tikanga was met without people eating on site.

''It's a hugely new world for us, we are trying to navigate how we maintain tikanga as well as good safe practices under the circumstances we are in.''

Kaumatua Wiremu Wiremu during the release of toutouwai (North Island robins) in Puketi Forest in 2010. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Kaumatua Wiremu Wiremu during the release of toutouwai (North Island robins) in Puketi Forest in 2010. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Some of Wiremu's grandchildren were stranded in the UK and Australia while other whānau chose not to travel from around New Zealand and risk bringing the virus.

The whare was handed to the whānau pani for the last night so they could share their memories, and they were provided with technology allowing then to connect with family around the world.

On Friday, Wiremu was taken to the Treaty Grounds and the great waka Ngātokimatawhaorua to honour his commitment to kaupapa waka, and from there to Tou Rangatira, the carved pou near Te Tii Marae.


He was later taken to Hokianga and placed on the other Ngātokimatawhaorua, based at Ōtaua, while his final journey to Korokota Urupā on Monday was on a gun carriage to honour his long service in the New Zealand Defence Force.

Cash said Wiremu had taken generations of young people under his wing, first in the army and later through kaupapa waka.

It was impossible to summarise the depth of his contribution to his people and to New Zealand.

Cash said he was one of many who had been taught and moulded by Wiremu.

''If it wasn't for him I wouldn't have had the opportunities and life experiences I've had.''

Volunteers from Tai Tokerau Border Control were invited to set up a Covid-19 station at the marae entrance to dispense advice, hand sanitiser and gloves. A medic was also present during the weekend.

Co-ordinator Rueben Taipari said visitors were vigilant, kept to their own bubbles as much as they could and willingly shared contact-tracing details, while maintaining their Ngāpuhi sovereignty.

''The historical experience we've had with viruses is still very fresh in our memories so we're taking this seriously,'' Taipari said.