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A mourning ritual from another culture, another time

Humans in every culture, in every time have found their ways to grieve. On a trip to New Zealand, I discovered one that was brought forward to current times

I think the one lesson I have learned is that there is no substitute for paying attention. ~ Diane Sawyer

The Auckland Hop On Hop Off bus was transporting us through our last full day in New Zealand. We had already seen the grass-covered cone of an extinct volcano that sits above the city. I snapped a photo of my daughter peering into the top, while we tried to imagine what it had looked like 60,000 years ago when it was spewing lava. We couldn’t.

We’d also passed a suburban park with its own sheep, chomping grass within feet of the busy road. There are 4,000,000 people in New Zealand and 45,000,000 sheep. After a few days it seemed normal to see them anywhere.

We climbed off at the museum which sits above the city in a huge park. We looked down on a cricket match which we couldn’t understand and climbed the steps to the museum which we figured we could. We’d heard about the Maori show there, an authentic depiction of the music and practices of the indigenous people of New Zealand.

We were ushered into an elaborately carved meeting house, asked to remain silent for a welcoming ceremony, and then guided through a series of songs, games and dances. There was a cast of eight, 4 women and 4 men, dressed in traditional garments of muted patterns and ornamental beads. The men wore elaborate loincloths, the women grass skirts. The men held guitars, the women tucked poi balls at the waist. The oldest and most serious member of the troupe narrated.

When the women danced, there was a hula-like sway; when the men did there was a fierceness, emphasized by their protruding eyes and extended tongues. Like all indigenous people, they’d had plenty of visitors that they wanted to scare off.

Midway through the program, the narrator introduced a series of chants. In the absence of a written language, she told us, such chants had allowed the people to remember and carry on their traditional ceremonies. The first one was peppy and harmonious, something that might have found its’ way into South Pacific. The second one was slow, sad and haunting. And long.

The show moved to games done with hoops and sticks that were tossed back and forth with increasing speed while drums set the pace. This was for fun, she explained, but also to build the warriors’ speed and coordination so they would be ready for battle.

At the end of the program, she invited the audience members to approach any of the cast members with questions or comments. Most filed out with a nod and a thank you. I had to ask about that song. And I had to ask her, the serious one.

“It sounded so sad,” I said, “who would sing it and when?”

She looked up, maybe grateful that someone had heard.

“It is a lament,” she said, “to be sung during the mourning ritual.”

I knew it. I know grief when I hear it.

“What is that like,” I wanted to know.

“There is a gathering of all the people affected, that lasts for three days,” she explained.

“And what happens?”

“Crying. Crying by everyone. And singing of laments.”

“And then?”

“On the fourth day, there is no more crying. There is laughter, and stories, remembering the person’s ways.”

“That must be quite a day.”

She looked up and caught my eye. “Today is a very sad day. We lost an important person today, early this morning.”

She told about a well-known Maori woman who had pioneered a movement in the arts community to preserve the traditional arts and ceremonies. There were two purposes, she said. One, to bring the old ways to the next generations, the other to teach Kiwis and visitors about the Maori culture. If we don’t, they would be lost, she said.

This woman was so well-known, she explained, and so revered that, “for her, it will take a week,” since so many people were affected by her passing.

“You will miss her,” I said.

“Many will miss her,” she replied.

We parted with a smile and a thank you, and she turned to see if she had other questioners. She did not. They had all filed out to discover the rest of the museum, or take in the sunshine outside. Summer was ending, and it was time to go back to school. Families hurried on to the next thing on their schedule, on a waning Saturday afternoon. We had to go catch the bus so that we didn’t miss the transportation museum where we could see a replica Auckland street from the early 1900s. And then on to the shopping street where we could grab one last gelato.

I liked what I’d learned. Gather, cry, sing, then remember and appreciate. Worth remembering.

Originally published in The Inquiring Mind blog.

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