Families grappling with how to mourn loved ones under strict COVID-19 restrictions

Families grappling with how to mourn loved ones under strict COVID-19 restrictions

Te Aniwa Hurihanganui for RNZ

Families mourning the loss of their loved ones are grappling with tighter restrictions on funerals and tangihanga, which prevent them from being present at any stage of the funeral process.

During last year's level 4 lockdown, people in the same isolation bubble as the deceased person were allowed to go to the funeral home or urupā.

The whānau of the late Ngāti Kahungunu kaumātua Des Ratima has decided to place their father's body in storage until level 4 restrictions lift.

Whānau spokesperson Bill Gray said they wanted to delay the service and give him the send-off he deserved.

"Our hands are tied, it's the government's directive that we can't do much and we've accepted that," he said.

"I guess it doesn't stop us from using Zoom to remember those wonderful moments in time we spent with this honourable man."

Storing tūpāpaku, or the deceased, is just one of many ways families are dealing with the new restrictions.

Viewings of the tūpāpaku, dressing of loved ones, or taking tūpāpaku home are also prohibited.

The Ministry of Health said in a statement the rules had tightened due to the increased threat of the Delta variant.

For Māori the rule-change is particularly significant. Tangihanga are a sacred cultural tradition, often lasting several days.

Gray said the Ratima whānau felt heartbroken to have to mourn their father's death over Zoom.

"It's foreign to Māoridom that one can use a phone to express their emotions and farewell someone that was so dear and near to us."

Zoom hui to give whānau and friends of Des Ratima the chance to pay their respects have been taking place over the last week.

Donna McLeod from Motueka sympathises with them and all those who are unable to be with their loved ones.

The writer, poet and playwright has been through it before, having lost her father during last year's level 4 lockdown.

"It was really hard for us. My father has been with us for the last five years, he had dementia, and we never expected for him to pass away during lockdown and he did.

"We are mana whenua here and we are so much part of the marae, and even though my father was Pākehā he was still part of that community and so no one was able to come and awhi us and manaaki us and hold us."

McLeod's father was allowed to be at home for a short period before he was cremated.

Family and friends living nearby would walk past their home and perform karakia or say a tribute to him from the roadside.

Others living afar shared memories online, or streamed into Mcleod's home from their computer screens.

"There is nothing like being at a tangihanga and being with a whānau but when we can no longer do that we need to think, how can we still offer all those things that awhi, that manaaki? That is the hardest thing, to use Facebook and to use Zoom, and I know it's not the same but this is where we're heading."

This year during Matariki, family and friends of McLeod gathered at Te Uma where the urupā is located to remember her father and others who were not able to be properly mourned during last year's lockdown.

"We called out the names of those who passed away and that was beautiful. We also just finished a show in Motueka called Unveiling where we celebrated the lives of five of our people who had passed away during that time that we never got to celebrate all together.

"In these down times when we're not in isolation, let's celebrate. But when we can't all be together, let's find ways to be together."

She said her father's send-off wasn't perfect, but her whānau did the best that they could.

She said that's all anyone mourning loved ones could do right now.

"For me and my brothers I guess that's the main thing. We did the best we could in that time. And that's what we have to remember for Māori whānau and all of us really - that we've done the best that we can in this time."