New Zealand:  The Maori

The Tangihanga: Mourning Ceremony     New Zealand consits of two large islands, the North and South islands, and includes a number of small islands in the surrounding area.



The tangihanga is a mourning ceremony that preserves the present-day Maori culture and sustains their historical legacy. By serving as a reunion, participants come together, their customs and ties reaffirmed. Through the three-day celebration of mourning, speaking, singing, dancing, and feasting, the core values of Maori are exemplified and reinforced. Though the ceremony has evolved through time, the tangihanga now holds more value for the Maori than ever before. This is due to the elements such as cultural displays, opportunity for communication, enculturation, and a revitalization of solidarity. With each tangihanga, Maori culture continues into the next generation.

Top Marae meeting house:  this is where the tangihanga takes place. Hongi: "sharing of breath," a common greeting between the Maori.


This page focuses on the Maori people, the natives of New Zealand , who have preserved their death customs despite continuing erosions of their culture. Through one particular mourning ceremony, the Tangihanga , Maori views and core values are defined and reinforced. The most important values enforced are those of solidarity, socialization, reconnection, cultural displays, and historical continuity. In essence, the sole purpose of this ceremony is to unify a culture that faces outsider opposition.


Context of New Zealand

Comprising just over one-hundred-and-four thousand sq miles, the country of New Zealand rests comfortably in the Southern Pacific Ocean . The long coastlines, mountainous terrain, and coastal plains are characteristic of this land, which is divided into two main islands with a few small islands nearby (See Figure 1). The largest of these surrounding islands is Stewart Island . In all thirteen regions of New Zealand , the climate varies with noticeable differences between the North and South Islands , but predominately New Zealand maintains a temperate climate. The seasons are opposite to the United States , as seen by New Zealand 's cold month of July and its warm days of January (Wright 2004).

New Zealand 's history is born in legend, beginning with its discovery by the great explorer Kupe. After this man came his people, Polynesians traveling the epic journey from Hawaiki to the north of New Zealand one thousand years ago. These first settlers are the present-day Maori. For hundreds of years these natives lived in isolation, naming New Zealand landmarks in their native language that are still used today (Hoadley 1992).

However, with the 1820s came the Europeans, who began to settle and in result introduced conflicting beliefs and social organizations (Oppenheim 1973: 20). With friction between the two worlds, Maori became for a time disengaged from mainstream society, especially with their different language. Eventually however, these natives earned their deserved recognition as the largest minority of New Zealand . It is important to note that the Maori have maintained the cultural differences that first set them apart from the Europeans, even though their customs evolved in large part.

For example, one important aspect of Maori culture that remains to this day is the marae , a courtyard and meeting house (See Figure 2). Important ceremonies, such as the Tangihanga , are held here. With any meeting or celebration, Maori greet their family and friends with hongi , the pressing of noses (See Figure 3). Sharing breath is the intended effect, as two people are united together in this physical force of life. For the Maori today, unity as exemplified in the hongi is the focus of a tangihanga and an extremely important necessity to the preservation of Maori ways.



Origins of Tangihanga

The Tangihanga origins are not traceable prior to European discovery of New Zealand . It can be implied that this custom existed before this point however, and even began with the Polynesians. The earliest reports of the Tangihanga were by European explorers, beginning with Cook in 1769 (Hoadley 1992: 16). From this point on, all outsiders have labeled it as a death ceremony. In English, tangihanga translates as “a ceremony of mourning.” Today the name is at times shortened to tangi . It can only be assumed that this ceremony emerged as a method of dealing with death, just as any burial serves to put a person to rest and provide comfort for grieving friends and family.




The Tangihanga ceremony is very complex, but the three notable stages are as follows: mourning, liturgy, and disposal of the corpse or burial. In the mourning stage the visitors approach the marae ; are greeted by the women through cries of Haeremai (come hither) and waving of leaf branches; present a gift to the chief; and press Maori press noses with the Maori in a hongi (See Figure 2). Other events follow, such as a male dance ( haka ), described as “mock warfare” (Oppenheim 1973: 50). The remaining Maori join the dance and the visitors follow. The key event is when all present gather before the chief and wail for half and hour or longer, making sure not to wipe away the mucus ( huupee ) (Oppenheim 1973: 50) from their noses.

In the second stage, the liturgy, songs are interjected by “the speeches of the visitors and mourners, a pattern common in Maori oratory” (Oppenheim 1973: 57).

The third stage is the temporary disposal of the corpse, as a different ceremony includes cleaning and re-depositing the bones. The disposal or exhumation allows time for the body's decay and return to nature. Burial in the ground rather than a cave has only recently become more common, due to urbanization and different religious influences.

In final burial, greenstone is typically placed with the body. A beautiful green color, this artifact dates back to the earliest records of Maori funerals. Today, this stone is carved and sold as jewelry, but there are still treasured pieces remaining within a Maori family or with a buried loved one. One such carving is inspired by a fern plant (See Figure 3), which in its unfolding image encourages hope and renewed life. In this piece a Maori design speaks of rebirth and renewal, and this is yet another form of comfort to the bereaving family ( Aotearoa 2004).




Arohanui greenstone carving by Barry    Inner koru 

                   Figure 4                                            Figure 5

This is greenstone, an important artifact placed with the body after a tangihanga ceremony.

Figure 4: "Ko Te Hei Matau A Maui" (The Fishhook of Maui), is a good luck charm giving peace, prosperity, good luck and good health.

Figure 5:  The koru shape is a scroll shape and is linked to the New Zealand fern plant.  This represents the unfolding of new life, that everything is reborn and continues. It represents renewal and hope for the future.




Prognosis for Tangihanga

Though the Maori have sustained much of their former culture through all the overwhelming challenges, this mourning ceremony is steadily decreasing. Even when the Tangihanga is practiced, certain activities once present are gone and the funeral is performed for entirely different reasons.

Hundreds of years before, these ceremonies were a control against ritual contamination, a fear that inappropriate disposal of the body will bring retroactive consequences from nature (Oppenheim 1973). Today, it is practiced to mourn the loss, comfort the family, talk of the deceased, speak final goodbyes to the person, reconnect with family members, and introduce the next generation to Maori ways. In essence, all Maori custom are evolutions of past customs. This ceremony altered over time in response to European settlement, loss of Maori land, urbanization, and the ideas of Christianity and Catholicism. Due to these influences, the tangihanga is performed at a lesser degree. Today, it is more practical to bury the person instead of laying the body out for decomposition first. With more Maori living in urban areas, there is increased difficulty in performing the tangihanga at the marae. In addition, the Maori have become the minority, thus making their ways unaccepted by most New Zealanders.

This ceremony, though performed less, is still just as moving. Many Maori still insist on the tangihanga, even if it goes against the person’s wishes. There are no laws to stop anyone from holding a tangihanga, though today it is usually for chiefs and those of high importance ( It should also be noted that Maori practices, when perceived as inactive by anthropologists, may very well still be active, though not in existence everywhere and without its “traditional” form (Mathiesen 2000).



The Maori today are no less exceptional, and they remain determined to keep their historical practices alive.  One such custom is the tangihanga, their mourning ceremony.  Instead of dying out, this ritual has merely re-invented itself and provides yet more Maori resistence to outside conformity.  Through this ceremony, Maori people can reaffirm their connections, unite together against antagonist pressure, and display their beliefs and values.  Due in large part to this celebration, the Maori traditions have been passed down to the next generation, and it is clear their world is not going to disapper.


Internet References Cited

  • 2000 New Zealand in History. Whitmore, Robbie., accessed November 1.

    This website, created by a New Zealander, is an account of New Zealand’s past with sections covering Maori history, culture, sports, and word origin.

  • 2004a Fulbright-Hays Seminars. Varcoe, Annette., accessed November 30.

    This site is a support for the American educators participating in the New Zealand Fulbright-Hays Seminars. This provides information on New Zealand, the country’s history, Maori culture, the education system, and lists the resources.

  • 2004b New Zealand and Pacific Arts., accessed November 12

    This site promotes and sells New Zealand and Pacific arts, crafts, gifts, and jewelry and provides descriptions and explanations of such work.

  • 2004c Haere mai., accessed Nov 3.

    This site has been created by Maori members who are covering all aspects of their culture.


    Peer-Reviewed References Cited

    • Hoadley, Steve. 1992 The New Zealand Foreign Affairs Handbook. Oxford, Oxford UP, 1992

    • Mathiesen, Per.--------4 2000 “Patrons of Maori Culture (Book Review).” Australian Journal of Anthropology, 2000, Vol. 11 Issue 3, p 375, 2p.

    • Meijl, Toon van.--5 1999 “Book Reviews.” Australian Journal of Anthropology, Dec99, Vol. 10 Issue 3, p 390, 2p.

    • Merelman, Richard M..--------2 1988 “Cultural Displays: An Illustration from American Immigration.” Qualitative Sociology, Winter88, Vol. 11 Issue 4, p 335, 20 p.

    • Oppenheim, R. S. 1973 Maori Death Customs. Japan, Kyodo Printing Co. Ltd,

    • Rozen, David J. ---------1 2004 “On Ritual and Cooperation.” Current Anthropology, Aug2004, Vol. 45 Issue 4, p 529, 2p. Salmond, Amiria J.M. 1998 “Exhibitions.” Anthropology Today, Oct98, Vol. 14 Issue 5, p 17, 2p.

    • Steward, Jr., Gary A.; E. Shriver, Thomas; Chasteen, Amy L. --------3 2003 “Participant Narratives and Collective Identity in a Metaphysical Movement.” Sociological Spectrum, Jan 2003, Vol. 22 Issue 1, p 107, 29 p.


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