Volume 85 1976 > Volume 85, No. 3 > Tongareva death and mourning rituals, by Nihi Vini, p 367-374
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In this paper I present a brief description of what happened when a person died in pre-Christian Tongareva, from the time of physical death and the departure of the spirit from the body to the final redistribution and allocation of goods involved in the lengthy burial and mourning rituals. The description is based on accounts given by various hare korero “traditional historians” of Tongareva in 1972 and 1974, 1 supplemented by observations from Lamont and Te Rangi Hiroa. 2


When a death occurred, relatives would gather at the deceased person's house to pay their respects and mourn. The most immediate task was the preparation of the body, which was usually done by close relatives of the same sex as the deceased. If it were a male who had died the preparation would be done by his sons, his brothers, his father or his male cousins—or if none of these was available, his male friends or brothers-in-law. Death and mourning rituals for adults were more elaborate than those carried out for infants (unless the infant was of high status) but followed the same general form. When news of the death became known, people would come to where the body was to be prepared. Those involved in the preparation would go directly into the house where the body was lying. The rest would join one of two other groups, the tangi roroko “mourners” or the hakapehu “comforters” who were engaged in dancing chanting and singing.

The naked body was washed, with sea water if necessary, and then anointed with coconut oil. This done, the priest and the close relatives would enter the house and sit around on the mat on which the body lay. The priest would say a very short prayer of sorrow, regret, comfort and deliverance. Then the body would be wrapped in a pandanus leaf mat together with a living companion and suspended from the roof in a pakererei “a kind of coconut-leaf mat” for about 24 hours. The living companion might be a spouse, parent or other near and beloved relative, and the main intention was to express the companion's true sorrow. When the companion was a spouse any connotation of sexual relationship was entirely absent. It was not the body that the spouse was with but the spirit. 3 Death often occurred unexpectedly, and then words and feelings of - 368 separation and farewell could not be said. It was at this stage, before the spirit was supposed to have left the body, that a spiritual union between the spouses or persons concerned had to take place. The living partner was expected to show his sorrow at the departure of the deceased, and would also ask the spirit of the deceased to do various things, like keeping watchful eyes on everyone of the family or the whole tribe, and making sure that no misfortune came to anyone concerned.

As soon as the living and dead were suspended from the roof, the walls of plaited coconut leaves would be lowered all around the house, leaving no one inside apart from the one in the mat with the deceased. Outside the house almost all the friends and neighbours would sort themselves out into different positions ready to begin the sukai, which consisted of a combination of chanting and dancing by men and women. The main thing in the sukai was to exhaust oneself, hence the raising of arms, the stamping of feet on the ground, the jumping in the air of those taking part, and the hurting of bodies with whatever happened to be in the hands of those taking part, who showed thereby their genuine concern for the deceased. In the words of Lamont, the people would “. . . give themselves up to unrestrained grief, knocking their heads against blocks of wood or stones, or throwing themselves violently on the earth.” 4 (It was the custom during those days for our people to celebrate any parting or welcome in this manner, especially when the parting period might be more than one to three months, and also when the arriving persons had been away for more than one to three months.)

To begin, the men and women would stand in rows, two or three deep depending on the number of people who had come to the function, facing the deceased's abode and the chief mourners, who had to seat themselves in front of the deceased's house. In standing positions the rows of men and women would face one another. Then the tumu “starter” would begin chanting and would be joined by the rest of the men and women. From the meanings of the words in the chants, which determined the movements of the performers, the men and women would begin the sukai. The dancers would raise their hands in the air and lower them towards the ground, waving them slowly at first and then more rapidly, at the same time rising on their toes with their knees partially bent. According to Lamont, the dancers then looked “. . . wildly sideways at each other [as] they commenced a quickstep, beating the ground as rapidly as they could hop from one foot to the other, changing their position occasionally, and elevating now the right and now the left arm, accompanying these gestures with a low gutteral sound. . . .” 5

When they were exhausted, they sat themselves cross-legged on the ground in long rows, the men behind the women. Then the female tumu began another hakaaroaro, a low and mournful wailing song. The rest of the women and men joined in, accompanying the singing with clapping of hands in slow motion to begin with. For this part of the sukai the men had their spears and women their clam shells, which they sharpened on punga “grinding stones”. During the process of sitting down, singing and clapping, the men and women would be genuinely crying. As the volume and tempo of the singing, clapping, yelling and crying were gradually increasing so was the tempo of the spears at the behinds of the women and of the clam shells against human flesh which could be any part of the women's bodies. Lamont observed that “Before they ceased their legs, arms, and faces were streaming with blood, and as they wiped away the ever-flowing tears, now mingling with the red stream on their cheeks, their - 369 visages became perfectly horrific.” 6 On reaching this climax of complete exhaustion the performers quietly dispersed and joined the relatives of the deceased in their mourning.


At the conclusion of the sukai, the priest entered the house with the huatatatau. This was a group of from 6 to 10 people selected by the various kin groups of the deceased. Their tasks included the bundling up, suspending and lowering, unwrapping and rewrapping of the bundle, pall bearing and burial. After each stage they bathed in the roto kaukau “bathing pool” with the priest who cleansed them of their physical contact with the dead. The huatatatau lowered the suspended bundle from the roof and unwrapped the living companion from the mat.

The priest then went through the ritual of farewell and goodbye. With his tahirihiri, a special piece of young palm branch plaited in a form to represent the human body, he approached the corpse, drawing it over the body from head to feet, as if he were extracting something from the corpse. While in the process of doing this imaginary extraction of something from the body, he would be declaring that the deceased's bad deeds would be forgiven and that his good deeds would never be forgotten; that he must go in peace and must come back some time to visit the family and the whole tribe so that no evil would befall them; that he must protect the family and the tribe from evil spirits and existing enemies. At the end of his declaration and request the priest would emphatically shake the imaginary extraction from his tahirihiri on to the ground, at the same time saying e hano ra, e hano ra “go then, go then”. And at the mention of these words the priest would step aside, taking with him the living companion to the front entrance of the house.

As the priest and the companion took their stand at the entrance to the house, the huatatatau moved the mat on which the deceased was lying face upwards, to the centre of the house, allowing the people to file through from the front entrance. They would then sit close together along the edges of the mat, except that edge of the mat by which the people would go past, facing the people as they went by. At the command e hua “let us begin”, the remainder of the people, starting with immediate kin and followed by more distant relatives, friends and others, would slowly walk in, look at the corpse, kneel beside or lie on it (depending on how grieved they might be), embrace it, say their final parting words or express their feelings and requests, and then lower it down slowly, and slowly walk out from the other end of the house. Once outside the house they joined with the others in wailing and crying.

Meanwhile, two female relatives of the deceased (mother, aunts, sisters or sisters-in-law) would be standing just outside the house waiting for all the people to have gone through the process of having their last view of the body. These two would be holding aloft a new sleeping mat, one at the head and the other at the foot of the mat. As the last person left the house these two women would begin a saka, another kind of song, while the huatatatau gathered the deceased's belongings and piled them beside the body on the mat. These normally included an ipu “coconut shell drinking cup”, a tuai “a shell scraping instrument”, a matau “fishing hook”, and maybe one or two other articles known to have been treasured by the deceased. The women's saka would be composed of parting sentiments only. They would be expressions like ei au e “what a pity”, e hano ra “go then”, e moe ra i te moehanga roa “sleep then the everlasting sleep”, kua tau to hora e hano ra “your time has come, do go then”, and ei au e ka ngaro ai koe - 370 i te ngarohanga roa e “it is a pity for you be lost to us for ever and ever”. The women's chanting and dancing would be accompanied by piercing crying and wailing from the rest of the people who by now might be surrounding the house, and who might be throwing their bodies on the ground, hitting themselves with pieces of wood or stones, or scraping their faces, hands and legs with sharp scraping instruments. As soon as the women were totally exhausted they would throw the new mat towards the corpse. The noise would then drop to a very low mourning and the huatatatau would take the new mat from on top of the corpse and put it aside. They would wrap the body in the mat on which it was lying, and then rewrap this in the new mat and sew it up with wooden skewer and sinnet.

As the last thread of sinnet came to the end, the bundle containing the deceased would then be hung again from the roof of the house. A little aperture was made in the mat near the head, as though it were alive, but otherwise the body was completely enveloped. And not until the chief mourner was shut in the house by himself would the rest of the people quietly move off to their own households. Alone in the house the chief mourner could seat himself as he pleased. Ideally, however, he was supposed to seat himself right under the bundle so that the putrefying mess from the corpse would drop right on him. This act signified that the chief mourner was genuinely and deeply concerned over the loss of a dearly beloved one. The chief mourner had to comply with certain rules concerning what he must and must not do during the long mourning period, which lasted for between three and six months—and, occasionally, a year or more. He could never leave the house except to defecate, and when he did venture outside he had to wear a specially made basket which revealed only the legs. The baskets were specially made for this purpose. There was nothing particular about them except that they were at least the size of today's 44-gallon drums. The main thing was that the chief mourner must not lay eyes on anybody until the mourning period was over.

Several other relatives also went into mourning, shutting themselves up in separate houses for long or short periods, as their grief dictated, and if they left their houses during the day they would also wear their mourning baskets of palm leaves. The chief mourner's food and drink would be brought and pushed under the blinds, and he had to leave the left-overs in the same spot from where they had been taken after he had had his meals.

Lamont describes the arrangement concerning food in the following terms:

Although the spirit has been dismissed from the body, as long as the latter remains in a decomposing state the ghostly being hovers about his former abode, and dire would be his vengeance against the survivors if he did not receive his accustomed supply of food, and that in lavish profusion. Ghosts, however, having generally indifferent appetites, two men or more are selected to dispose of what is left. This is a great honour, and is anxiously coveted by all the friends; but it is generally known beforehand to whose lot the distinction will fall. A most absurd scene generally occurs on such occasions. These gentlemen, like certain church dignitaries, modestly disclaim all desire for the honour they aspire to, and, as if to avoid it, seek some hiding place, where, however, they can easily be found, though it takes considerable persuasion, and even force, to drag them to their post, where they daily gorge themselves to an alarming extent. They are bound, however, to supply a certain quantity of coconuts themselves to the feast. The poor women, who have to perform all the cooking, dare not partake of it themselves, it being “huiè atua” [hui atua ‘forbidden’]. 7

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The ghost's food must always be supplied, but prepared away from the deceased's house. This was because this part of the ritual called for a kapa, another form of song, and it was the custom that no noise whatever must be allowed near the chief mourner. Cooking and coconut climbing must never take place near the deceased's house nor dancing nor chanting.


When the body was well decomposed the relatives and others were told. On hearing this, all would gather together in front of the deceased's house, as they had when the body was prepared, and the same people who did the sukai just before the living and the dead spouses were separated would once again engage in dancing and chanting. At the end of this sukai the priest would do a brief religious ritual asking te atua “the supreme God” (in those days Te Ra, who created everything on earth) to accept the soul of the deceased, and to allow the living people to force the dead to leave the house. As soon as the priest finished with his ritual, the dancers performed a kapa. Both men and women surrounded the house, with the women behind the men. At a signal from the priest the men went into the house, and in a sort of a circle would stand facing the outside of the house, while the women remained outside.

Outside the house the women would be very busy lacerating themselves with sharp-pointed instruments, yelling and chanting at the tops of their voices. Inside the house the men would be yelling, shouting, chanting and jumping up and down hitting the blinds and thatch with their spears and other long pieces of wood as if they were chasing the spirit from the interior of the house. Generally speaking the house would be in a mess. The roof would be torn to pieces and the blinds torn and pulled apart as if done by a quick and strong hurricane. When the men and women were finally exhausted, they would retreat to their earlier positions and this would mark the end of this part of the ritual.


At the conclusion of the kapa, the priest and the huatatatau entered the ruined house. The suspended bundle was retrieved from the roof after the priest had performed a very short prayer, and was untied and opened. 8 The priest then called in the chief mourner and the relatives to take their last look at the bare bones, cradle the skull in their laps for a short while and put it back. They then went outside to prepare for the burial. If the deceased were a warrior or chief, he would be buried at the usual burial section of the marae. If he were not, he would be buried wherever the chief mourner wished.

As soon as everyone had had his or her last look, and cuddled the skull, the chief mourner suspended the skull from the doorway or entrance to the house, where it might remain for as long as he wished. The rest of the bones were taken to the burial ground, the priest leading the way. While this part of the ritual was going on, the rest of the people went to the burial ground and awaited the arrival of the decomposed corpse. They would be sitting in a circle, more or less, round the area specifically marked for the burial. The area would be cleared of rubbish, and some fine gravel would be collected in the normal baskets and put beside the marked burial spot. No hole was dug in the ground. However, a rectangle, depending on the size of the deceased, would be marked on the ground where - 372 the bare bones would be placed and then covered with the fine gravel which was collected in baskets.

As soon as the priest and the chief mourner left the house, the huatatatau would take hold of the loose corners or edges of the mat on which the bones were lying and carry them to the burial ground. The chief mourner, still wearing his special mourning basket, was taken to a place near the marked burial spot where he could readily see what was going on. The priest would be stationed at the head of the burial spot, and usually the chief mourner would be near the priest, either at his right or almost behind him. When the pall-bearers arrived they set the mat on the ground at the side of the burial spot to the right of the priest. Everyone present would be able to see it without much difficulty. As these bearers seated themselves around the mat, the old dancing women and men would then perform another kapa. And at the end of this kapa the priest would perform his last rites, which were a presentation of the soul of the deceased to te atua and the remains to the soil. The bones were laid on the burial spot and carefully thinly covered with the fine gravel. Slabs of mixed muddy sand and fine gravel would then be planted around the marked burial spot to stop the gravel from being dispersed by careless passers-by, and also to mark the existence of the burial spot. The priest then removed the basket from the chief mourner and wrapped him in the mat which had previously held the dead body. This mat would remain the chief mourner's comfort until a new partner had been found or until he died.

When this was done, the people quietly and slowly dispersed, leaving the chief mourner if he wished to stay behind. He might sleep there or stay during the day, returning to his house at night. If he wished to stay all day and night, food and drinks would be brought to him. After a few months, if the spouse of the deceased decided to remarry, or the chief mourner decided to completely forget what had happened, the skull would be taken down and buried at the head of the rest of the bones, a little bit apart from the body bones, and covered with fine gravel. The skull was buried face downwards, but was occasionally left upright on the surface, until the mourner was ready to do away with grief.

Before this last act of the ritual took place, word would be spread all over the island or tribe, and big preparation for ceremonial feasting would begin. On the day the skull was to be buried, people would gather at the deceased's house to see the last of the dead person. Again religious rites would be performed by the priest, who, together with the chief mourner, would carry the skull to the burial ground and bury it. As they approached the gathering of people after burying the skull, singing, shouting, yelling and merry-making would begin, and the pehu performers would begin their performance. The chief mourner and the relatives of the deceased would be made to take part in the actual dancing, singing and merry-making. After everybody was exhausted, all would be made to seat themselves round the prepared meal and help themselves to the food offered by the family, relatives, friends and other donors. Whatever was left would be distributed to those who did not turn up and to those, other than the relatives, who donated willingly.

The present-day hare korero “traditional historians” question many details of Lamont's account of pre-Christian customs and offer different interpretations of them, placing greater faith in their own oral traditions. The present-day mourning and burial customs of Tongareva have evolved from these older forms, and retain certain basic features of them. I hope to describe these in a later article.

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  • LAMONT, E. H., 1867. Wild Life among the Pacific Islanders. London, Hurst and Blackett.
  • TE RANGI HIROA (P. H. BUCK), 1932. Ethnology of Tongareva. Honolulu, Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 92.

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1   My main informants were Mama Hereni and Papa Tutu of Te Tautua, and Mama Titi, Papa Poiri, Papa Ta and Papa Tua of Omoka. I am grateful to Ron Crocombe, Noel Matheson, Josephine Baddeley and Antony Hooper for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.
2   Lamont 1867 and Te Rangi Hiroa 1932.
3   This point was especially emphasised by Papa Tautu Tehaamaru, who criticised Lamont for not mentioning it.
4   Lamont 1867:208.
5   Lamont 1867:124.
6   Lamont 1867:125.
7   Lamont 1867:210.
8   According to Lamont (1867:210), the retrieval was done by the deceased's male relatives as soon as they entered the house. My informants stressed that the retrieval had to be done by those who had been concerned with the preparation of the body and who would bear it to the burial ground. The short prayers commended the spirit to te atua and to te pō “spirits of the ”.