Te Whakatara! – Tangihanga and bereavement COVID-19


New Zealand responded swiftly to the Covid-19 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) to prevent the spread of sickness and prevent unnecessary deaths. The government initiated a four-level social distancing alert system with specified measures at each level to manage and minimise the risk of COVID-19. By late March 2020, Alert Level 4 required people to stay in their homes in their ‘bubbles’ or family units. Social contact was restricted other than for essential personal movement and travel was severely limited. The Ministry of Health (2020) produced tangihanga (funeral rituals) policy guidelines for Māori, requiring the immediate collection of the deceased’s body by a funeral director. Gatherings to do with death and post-death customs were severely restricted and all marae (indigenous gathering places, land, buildings) were closed and burials could only include the immediate family bubble. In this autoethnographic paper, we draw on one Māori family’s experience of the birth and death of a baby with an anticipated life-limiting illness, during the most restrictive lockdown phase, level 4. We describe the impact COVID-19 tangihanga policy restrictions had on the family. The guidelines prevented them from conducting timely customary internment rituals with support from kaumātua (older men and women) and whānau (family including extended family and friends) in accordance with their cultural preferences. To prepare for future pandemics we recommend mana whenua (local Māori who have authority over their lands and marae) have autonomy to plan and manage tangihanga to avoid unnecessary distress, particularly where there is a known palliative condition.