The first song of greeting that Bob and Louise, our Maori hosts, chose to sing mentioned a god. I asked whether that was the Christian God or a / the Maori god. It turned out to be the Christian God, which, they told me, didn’t interfere with their Maori culture. Maori lore included creationism and there was no reason to believe that the Christian God couldn’t be their creator.
That begged the question of whether everyone in their tribes was Christian, and they started listing off the religions other family members subscribed to — Mormon, Seventh Day Adventists, Muslim. Everyone was different and that was acceptable. After all, it was all the same God. That made a lot more sense to me than the idea that unless you follow a particular flavour of Christianity, you’ll go to an eternal hell. Louise told us that each person chose a religion based on whatever gave them most comfort in their particular time of need.
For many of them, I guess that is when they lose a loved one, and although they look to different religions, the tribe still celebrates death in the traditional way. Family and friends gather around the body in the marai and tell each other stories of their memories. To hear Bob and Louise describe it, there is a lot of laughter and people can get quite cheeky, especially since it’s the last opportunity to get back the chain saw they lent the deceased (to which a son might respond that they thought it was the chain saw he himself had lent last year). Once the stories are all told, which may be days later, the body is rowed across the inlet and carried up to the cemetery.
We visited Bob’s family cemetery, which only began three or four generations ago. Prior to that, Maoris wrapped the bodies in mats, placed them from trees until the flesh had rotted away, then cleaned the bones and placed them in a cave. Like many cemeteries, theirs perched on a hill overlooking the ocean and was full of tombstones. The newer graves were decorated with flowers and toys or useful items. A few items made it further up the hill, as if blown, but Louise suggested that some were poached from other graves by visitors who’d forgotten to bring something themselves.
Like my own culture, graves faced east. People who’d been troublemakers in life were still buried here, but were placed facing the opposite way or even buried standing up so they’d never get any rest.