Whānau say their cultural needs are not met when Māori die

1:34 pm on 10 April 2017

Some whānau say that police and health professionals are still failing to cater for tikanga Māori when a loved one dies.

Casket at a Wellington funeral home.

In Māori culture, someone must always stay with the tūpāpaka (dead). Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

The Māori Affairs Select Committee has heard submissions on its inquiry into the access to and management of tūpāpaku, the Māori word for the dead.

When Keelan Ransfield's colleague died on a Friday afternoon last November, he said she was taken to a funeral parlour in Levin.

Keelan Ransfield

Keelan Ransfield Photo: RNZ / Leigh McLachlan

He said she was left alone for the whole weekend, and police said no whānau were allowed to see or touch her until an autopsy was done on Monday.

"For two days and nights her son-in-law Himiona sat outside the funeral parlour," he said.

In Māori culture, someone must always stay with the tūpāpaku.

"We all understand that an autopsy needs to be done so we all know why the person died. What we want to know is does the immediate family have any other options?"

Mr Ransfield also told Māori Affairs MPs that he was upset by how things were handled when his baby died of Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy in 2005.

Paramedics had told him that a tube they had put down her airway had to remain in place until police arrived after she died.

"I went to pull the thing out of my daughters mouth when the ambulance office stepped in front of me and said that I have to leave it alone until the police arrived.

"At that moment I did not really care what he thought and pulled it out anyway."

Mr Ransfield said police wanted to take his to Palmerston North hospital straight away, at 1am.

Police, health staff and other officials were not clued up on how Māori treated their dead, he said.

Tikanga Māori not acknowledged

It was a similar case for Pākehā woman Marion Davey in 2014 when her partner John Tamanui died.

"There were a number of services that touched us in those first 48 hours but during that time we did not feel that there was any presence or acknowledgement of tikanga Māori," she said.

Ms Davey, who is Pākehā, said people should always be asked if they have cultural needs, regardless of their race.

Marion Davey, right, and Audrey Tamanui-Nunn made submissions to the select committee.

Marion Davey, right, said she did not feel there was an acknowledgement of tikanga Māori at the time of her partner's death. Ms Davey is pictured with Audrey Tamanui-Nunn who also spoke to the committee. Photo: RNZ / Leigh McLachlan

And she said there was an information vacuum and said they were not told they could do things like ask to stay with the body or ask for no autopsy.

"There felt like there was a barrier with any communication with the autopsy and with the pathologist."

The whānau was told that there would be an autopsy because Mr Tamanui had a history of a heart condition.

She said the family assumed the pathologist would cut into his chest area but he was cut around the head.

"We assumed it would be in the heart area and we were quite devastated that it was around the head, which felt like a huge breach of protocol and it was devastating to have to take him home like that.

'Often Māori views are not considered'

Representatives from Te Rūnanga o Aotearoa (the Nurses Organisation) told the committee there was a problem.

Tumu Whakahaere Titihuia Pakeho said it was reaching crisis point.

From left, Titihuia Pakeho, Kerri Nuku and Leanna Mason from Te Rūnanga o Aotearoa / the Nurses Organisation.

Te Rūnanga o Aotearoa (the Nurses Organisation) representatives, from left, Titihuia Pakeho, Kerri Nuku and Leanna Mason. Photo: RNZ / Leigh McLachlan

"Often Māori views are not considered as it is not the norm," she said.

"We acknowledge that grieving starts with touching and being with and keeping our tūpāpaku warm but it is compromised by cultural ignorance within the system.

"People do not know what to do so they do nothing."

Rūnanga kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku said that there was inconsistency in cultural competency in the health sector, and it was impacting Māori staff too.

"While nursing and doctors have a duty of care, manaakitanga, not always are we allowed to execute that because of the system and the structure that we work under," she said.

"And the difficulties and the challenges are as Māori nurses that we often see culture being compromised for technical purposes."

The submissions will be considered by the Māori Affairs Select Committee and could mean a law changes for how tūpāpaku were handled.

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