19 Feb 2018

Tissue samples from brother's autopsy turn up on front doorstep

From Checkpoint, 5:55 pm on 19 February 2018

The family of a deceased man who received tissue samples from his autopsy on their doorstep say coronial services need to improve.

Close up of side of shiny wood coffin with hearse in the background

Photo: ( RNZ / Alexander Robertson )

The government announced this month it would endorse a majority of the recommendations of an inquiry into the management of tūpāpaku or dead bodies.

Some Māori have been deeply hurt by insensitive handling of the bodies of whānau, including testing carried out during autopsies.

John Tamanui died suddenly in 2013 from a heart attack and it came as a terrible shock to his sister, Audrey Tamanui Nunn.

Because it was unexpected, an autopsy was undertaken - a foreign and confusing process for his whānau.

"When asked what questions we do have from the coroner's office, you don't know what questions to ask," Ms Tamanui Nunn said.

"To then find they'd taken body fluid and tissues after the fact - that was upsetting."

The family's grief and confusion was compounded by a delivery several months afterwards, Ms Tamanui Nunn said.

Mr Tamanui's tissue samples were returned by a courier and left on the doorstep of his widow's home without warning.

Ms Tamanui-Nunn presented a submission to the Māori Affairs Select Committee about their difficulties with coronial services alongside John's widow Marion Davey.

She feels her brother would have wanted his whānau to ensure no-one else was treated like that.

"He was always a supporter of doing things right and doing things to ensure whanau were safe - he'd be very proud I know he would be."

This month the government accepted a number of recommendations from the committee about the management of tūpāpaku.

This includes creating a national standard for tūpāpaku, that supports tikanga Māori and the expectations of other cultures in New Zealand.

For Albert Sadler, who helped to return tūpāpaku to whānau in Northland, the changes have been a long time coming.

He wants bodies to be returned to whānau faster.

"Some of our whānau are left without for days which in tikanga is very much inappropriate," Mr Sadler said.

Mr Sadler said he understood the need to carry out autopsies - but felt Māori tikanga was not being followed.

Many whānau were not even aware that organs, tissue and bodily fluids had been taken for testing by the coroner, he said.

"They've been through the grieving process and buried their loved ones, somebody has knocked on the door and said here's your relative brain or something like that - for me it's really quite disgusting they do that."

Māori Affairs Select Committee co-chair and Green MP Marama Davidson said the task now was to ensure the recommendations were followed through.

Over the next few months the government will work with the police, coronial services and funeral homes to develop codes of best practice.