The police can hardly have a more delicate task at present than the dispute over the remains of James Takamore, who died last month. The law says they must enforce the wish of his widow and the couple's two children to have his body buried in their city, Christchurch. Maori custom, tikanga, says the body belongs to the man's wider family, who seized it, took it to Opotiki and buried it at their marae.
What should the police do? If they go into the marae cemetery, let alone interfere with the grave, they are likely to face physical resistance from members of the hapu. But if they do not they will be ignoring a court order gained by Mr Takamore's partner of 25 years, Denise Clarke, and denying her and their children a right assured any non-Maori widow at common law.
The police have wisely decided not to enforce the order until they discuss it further with both sides. Ideally, they could encourage the hapu to make much more effort than it has so far to reconcile Ms Clarke to her partner's ancestral burial rites. She has said little in public for fear of antagonising the family but a fortnight after the body was taken she clearly remains determined to have it returned.
This is a case that could be happily resolved with good will on both sides, and it is important that it should be. Many marriages cross this cultural fault line and the country needs to come to an understanding of it. Good will on the Maori side means the deceased's non-Maori partner should be treated with the utmost care, sympathy and patience. Good will from the country at large should acknowledge the warmth and richness of the Maori way of dealing with death.
There is something splendid in the idea that a body is buried where family and forbears surround it, keeping it constant company, as it were. To a Maori eye graves in a general cemetery must look very lonely.
Nobody, of course, should be compelled to acknowledge his ancestry. If a Maori has indicated a wish to be buried at a place more convenient to a partner or immediate family, the law should support that choice. But the indication may have to be recorded, probably in a will, and the Takamore case should be alerting all cross-cultural partners to do so.
Even then, early or sudden death will always catch some unprepared and the law needs to clarify the respective rights and duties of partners and parents when their wishes conflict. The wish of Mr Takamore's mother has been paramount in the motives of those who went to Christchurch and seized the body. For deaths without a surviving parent, problems may be less likely.
In cases where the intentions of the deceased are unknown and the strength of the person's ancestral attachment in dispute, some sort of Maori appeal authority could be the answer. Anything is preferable to the practice of marching into a grieving person's home and in effect stealing the coffin.
It was outrageous when it happened under publicity for the first time to the remains of comedian Billy T James, though now his descendants might be proud of his place on Taupiri Mountain. The children of any Maori person reunited with wider family in death might acquire closer ties to their heritage from visits to the grave.
And the country at large would be the richer for recognising the value Maori place on bringing a body home to rest under the constant eye of a living community. It could become the envy of those no longer blessed with the family plots of old or with origins in a small town where the burial ground is on a sunny hill and people are remembered. Carefully handled, this cultural dilemma could turn out happily for all.