The Death podcast: Tracey McIntosh

  • 10/06/2019

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Tracey McIntosh is a sociologist and professor of indigenous studies, and the cohead of Wananga o Waipapa - the school of Māori studies at the University of Auckland.

"My mother's Māori - Tuhoi - and my father's family is Pakeha. From a very young age I saw that the way we responded to death on the Pakeha side of the family was very different to the way that we responded to death on the Māori side of the family.

"Death is part of our human condition. We have to respond to it. One of the elements of being human is that we have to be able to do this. We may do it in a different range of different ways, but we have to engage with it.



"I taught death and dying at the university for 20 years. The classes were large - up to 300 people at once - I'd ask the class at the beginning of the semester for a show of hands, to see who had been to a funeral.

"And around a third of my students would never have attended one. These would have been 19- and 20-year-olds. And that for me was astonishing. I just didn't know how you'd gone through life without attending them.

"Tangihanga remains one of the strongest elements of Māori culture. The tangi is one of those incredible spaces that allows us to acknowledge and uphold our relationships, it is so life affirming. It's a recognition that relationships can exist beyond this life, that they will be reinforced.

"Every formal occasion, every pohiri that you go to, the dead will be brought into that. We will stop to remember those that are passed. And then in terms of the korero or the speeches, the dead will be constantly referred to. So we acknowledge the dead and the living. In all of those occasions the dead are bought with us.

"When death and grief are spoken about, and people are exposed to them, it is easier for us to know our role, what part we play in supporting a person or family who are grieving. Western culture is seen as a death denying culture - largely we act as if death doesn't happen, or if it does happen, it happens somewhere else. And we focus on the most atypical forms of death and and not the most ordinary forms of death. So our ability to cope with it is compromised.

"Whereas I would say that for Māori, when someone dies it's actually relatively easy. Thinking about your relationship with that individual, you will know what role you will play.

"Within Māori culture, the tangihanga is so important because it came to be seen as the last bastion - through the process of colonisation, through the process of alienation and loss of land and of resources, they can't take away our death and our death customs. That's why I think it's become so important in terms of reinforcing collective identity.

"One thing we're seeing in New Zealand is just how much the Māori rituals and protocols have informed and influenced other non Māori within New Zealand. Particularly with the death of the young - we're much more likely to see them being kept at home, whether they're Māori or not Māori. So we are shaped and informed by each other's practices.

"One thing that death does is make us recognise our collective humanity and our responsibilities to each other. That for me is really significant, and I feel blessed that I've been within a culture that openly recognises that I have a responsibility for another, that your grief is not just yours, that in my quite imperfect way I can support you. I think that is a part of our flourishing as a people and as a nation."