In Polynesian cultures, a funeral process often resembles a mini-army operation.
After a death, those closest to the deceased will have chosen/self-appointed lieutenants on stand-by. When decisions are made about how things will proceed, those lieutenants co-ordinate the logistics of mourning. If a funeral director is involved, they are absorbed into the process.
In Samoan, we call it a maliu. For Māori, it is tangihanga or a tangi. In Tongan, the funeral process is a putu. While they exist in their own versions, and have been tweaked as people have left their ancestral homes, family and community remain at the centre.
It is why Polynesian funerals are such big, multiple-day events. Those who want to pay respects, share their grief and break bread make time to come together. For someone raised in this culture, it is hard to imagine death without these types of customs. It was not until an old netball coach and default whānau member died last year did its value come to light.
Georgina Salter, 67, was surrounded by loved ones in her Oamaru family home when she drew her last breath on November 28. At the time, her seven mokopuna were asleep in various spots around the rural property she and her husband David called home.
Over the next four days, that home, in keeping with Georgie's wishes, would transform to accommodate the customs of a Māori tangi. While Georgie had grown up immersed in Te Ao Māori, she had married a Pākehā whose roots traced to England and Ireland.
They had raised their three daughters in Oamaru, travelled the world and had come to call people from various backgrounds family and friends. She believed a farewell at home would be best for everyone.
What unfolded was a hybrid of traditional customs and new practices. Perhaps the most interesting observations were from those who had never been to a tangi before, and those who knew no other way of burying their dead. Importantly, for her family and friends, the nuances in Georgie's tangi helped keep thing going through their rawest period of grief. The absence of marae protocols and customs forced extra conversations between her loved ones about how things should be done. Inevitably, the uncertainty and newness of what was happening brought tears and laughter in their own way.
One of Georgie's nieces, who took charge of the kitchen for most of the tangi, was particularly memorable. In keeping with her aunt's wishes, "cheese and crackers" were served after the formal service that marked her body's departure from her home for cremation. For this, the niece and her kitchen comrades stepped aside after a few of Georgie and David's friends asked to be responsible.
As platters laid with specially ordered, industrial-sized rolls of Whitestone cheese were readied, the niece drifted over to check what was happening. She raised her eyebrows and said to no one in particular: "Yep, we'll be topping those up".
She added a heap of crackers, more "bite-sized" chocolate bits and potato chips. With a few nods, she announced "people are hungry" and ushered a few of us outside to circulate with the food.
It was a moment of comic relief. The reactions of one of David and Georgie's daughters, and her husband, offered a different perspective. For the husband, the burial of his mother-in-law was the first time he had experienced a tangi.
On the fourth and final day, after Georgie's ashes had been returned to the earth and the hākari or feast was under way, family and friends laughed, shared stories and comforted each other in the sun. He turned to me and said: "You know, I get it now. I don't know who came up with the 45-minute funeral service, but this is so much better."
For his wife, it was the period after the formalities which stood out. About two weeks after Georgie was buried, I checked in to see how things were going. She replied: "It's okay. Everyone who was staying left on different days, which was nice because it meant the house didn't just empty out all at once. The last people have actually just left."
She and her two young children remained in Oamaru with her father for another week before returning to their Auckland home.
Perhaps, in her infinite wisdom, these types of experiences were what Georgie intended. Holding her tangi at home made her farewell accessible to the mix of family and friends they had. It also meant a wall of support was wrapped around those who relied on her most.
As the Salter house swelled, then emptied, those who attended and helped did so because they understood the pain of losing a loved one, and the importance of sharing that burden.
It is a significant theme in the multiple-day funeral processes of Polynesian cultures. And while a mini-army operation may not be everyone's choice of mourning, reactions to Georgie's tangi showed it could be kinder on those left behind — even if you are used to a 45-minute funeral service.
• Georgie Salter was appointed to the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to netball, posthumously. Her family are in Wellington today to receive the award on her behalf.