The Hui: Grieving whānau open up after COVID-19 restrictions prevented tangihanga for beloved pa

Matariki is a time for Māori to remember loved ones who have passed since the appearance of the last star cluster, marking the end of one lunar year and the beginning of another. 

This year, the rise of Matariki is particularly poignant. Due to the restrictions put in place by the Ministry of Health throughout the COVID-19 response, many whānau were unable to hold tangihanga - Māori traditional funeral service - to farewell their loved ones. 

Tangihanga, typically held on a marae, is integral to traditional Māori culture. It allows friends and whānau to gather, visit the deceased, pay their respects, and honour their life with speeches and songs. 

For the Maxwell whānau, the restrictions implemented to combat COVID-19 were an added burden at an already heartwrenching time. Henry Maurice Rangi Maxwell died on May 10, aged 59. 

"It's only been two months, so that bond hasn't been broken," daughter Renae Savage told The Hui, in an exclusive story for Sunday's Matariki special.

Two months on from the loss of the beloved father of eight and grandfather to 17 mokopuna, the Maxwell whānau are hoping their story will ensure greater consideration will be given to tikanga tangihanga in times of crisis. 

Maxwell, who died due to an ongoing heart condition, passed during alert level 3 of the COVID-19 response. Under level 3, the Government set stringent regulations regarding funerals and tangihanga, to ensure New Zealanders adhered to social distancing protocol.

"There were restrictions around how many people were in the bubble at the time, and it was restricted to 10. We were already exceeding that number just with our immediate whānau," said daughter Haley Maxwell.

"Māori protocols were fighting against corona protocols. That's when the strain was felt by the family, because we knew what we needed to do - but we had to follow the Government's guidelines, or else," Renae explained.

When friends and family heard word of Maxwell's passing, the immediate whānau were inundated with messages, Haley said, as people pushed to pay their respects and mourn his loss. 

For another of Maxwell's daughters, Davika Wilson, the restrictions were not enough to stop her and her husband from being there for the whānau during the difficult time. 

"I said to my husband, 'we've got to go despite the restrictions, the warnings and the timing. We left in the middle of the night," Wilson told The Hui. 

The Maxwells were forced to consider how the restrictions on tangihanga would impact their pa's farewell. 

Henry Maxwell and his wife.
Henry Maxwell and his wife. Photo credit: Maxwell family / Supplied / The Hui

"There's eight of us kids and we've all got spouses, so we knew we couldn't adhere to just 10 people. There are 17 grandchildren of their own, plus around 30 whāngai [adopted or fostered] grandchildren, so it wasn't going to happen. Not to mention all of dad's siblings," Renae explained.

Speaking to The Hui, Harata Gibson, the chair of Te Poho-o-Rawiri Marae in Kaiti, a suburb of Gisborne, said Māori know how to take care of their own business, customs and practices. 

"This was no different. A tangihanga is just another gathering, despite the restrictions," she said.

She argues that the restrictions placed on tangihanga were extreme and excessive, reiterating that marae serve as a critical support system for bereft whānau. 

"I've been taught that one of the main reasons for a marae is to support grieving families, that's what we do... but during COVID the Crown said, 'no Māori, you can't'. That's my biggest gripe, and it hurt my heart for Māori," she told The Hui.

Throughout New Zealand's outbreak, Tairāwhiti - the Gisborne region - had just four confirmed cases of the virus. Gibson believes that marae could have run tangihanga safely - if given the chance.

"There could have been a process for us... it's up to Māori to determine what that was and how to do it. Not for the Government to say how to do it."

Two months on, Maxwell's whānau and friends have finally been able to come together to say their goodbyes. 

"We didn't have a body, but we could still grieve. Let's weep our hearts out, especially those who didn't get the opportunity to go to this house... it's now settled," Gibson said. 

Despite the COVID-19 restrictions placing an added burden on an already grieving family, the Maxwell whānau have acknowledged one positive.

"It was just him in his wharae (house) with his babies, his wife and the people that he loved the most in the world," Haley said. 

"What he left - the love that we have for each other as a family was definitely because of our dad."