26 Mar 2020

Covid-19 funeral restrictions leave families grieving in isolation

7:59 pm on 26 March 2020

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Families of people who die during the lockdown will be forced to grieve in isolation.

Paraone Gloyne describes himself as an 'activator' of te reo māori.

Paraone Gloyne is concerned not having tangi means people will take longer to heal Photo: RNZ/Justine Murray

Funeral directors will continue to operate through Alert Level Four but funeral ceremonies and tangihanga have been banned.

For some, it may mean never laying eyes on their loved ones again.

Funeral Directors Association pandemic response spokesman Simon Manning said in the event of a death over the next few weeks, people can still call a funeral director, but there are fewer options.

"Three options, one is immediate cremation, a direct burial, where the funeral director goes to the cemetery and buries the person in the family plot - or we hold the person until next month when funerals can be held," he said.

Manning said he did not advise that family members accompany the body during any stage of the process.

For those who chose a direct cremation or burial, it will mean many people will never see the deceased again.

Manning said most people are choosing a direct cremation, with the option to hold a memorial service down the track.

"It's interesting times - weird times- for us all, but you know we just have to respond as best we can.

"It's a time for people to look after each other, I mean our profession is attempting to do that and reassure people that while they can't attend the cremation or burial, it does not change how we care and look after the person that has died."

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RNZ reporter Ben Strang's grandmother died at Wellington hospital on Sunday after a long illness, but her funeral plans had to be abandoned the next day when Alert Level Three was enforced.

"You're hit with, you know, you can't actually have the funeral, you can't farewell her, you can't do all that stuff that comes with it, you can't get up and talk about how great she was," he said.

"It's like that whole process of grief is completely circumvented. You can't do it. You're not allowed to do it."

Strang said the loss is made even more difficult by the fact that people must grieve in isolation.

"The fact that grandad is in a rest home and we had to contemplate the fact that he has just lost the love of his life and now we have to pop him back in the rest home and we are not supposed to visit him for a month after something like this has happened - he has no support."

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Restrictions keenly felt by Māori

The tangihanga restrictions will also have huge cultural implications.

Māori cultural protocols usually see whānau stay with the tūpāpaku (deceased) at all times. Their tangi can stretch several days at a marae.

Cultural expert Paraone Gloyne said the ban on tangihanga is a sad reality, but people understand it is necessary.

"I feel for all whānau and iwi that are going to lose anybody over this period," he said.

"Regardless of having the means through technology to be able to share our grief, it is still not the same as sharing in that mamae together, being together on the marae, or being together at a whare with each other."

During the 1918 influenza pandemic in New Zealand, many Māori were buried in mass, unmarked graves, at urupā around the country. Iwi want to avoid a repeat of that.

Gloyne said he was concerned that not having a tangi may mean it takes people longer to heal.

Te Rarawa iwi leader Haami Piripi said the temporary restrictions were sad but he accepted them.

"At times like these, which are really dire times, we have to in a way compromise the extent to which we practice our tikanga, in order to continue to practice it," he said.

Piripi said people need to be innovative over coming weeks and find a new process that meets tikanga and enables different forms of participation in the tangihanga process.

Deputy Director-General Māori Health John Whaanga said the cultural implications of restricting tangihanga are huge but Māori communities have been adapting for weeks.

"Many of our marae, before we have gone to Level Four, have closed their doors. Many of our iwi and family groups have decided to suspend cultural processes with our safety and the safety of our wider New Zealand community at heart," he said.

"Our people have shown all the way along that they understand the significant public health issues, they understand the need to keep themselves and our communities safe and they have already made changes around tikanga.

"But this is significant, this is huge, this is literally saying that we cannot have any tangihanga processes at all."

Simon Manning said funeral directors are considerate of cultural needs and whānau should be open about what they want, even if they cannot be there in person.

In a worst case scenario of widespread deaths from Covid 19, Manning said those who die of the virus will be buried in a single plot each and there will be no mass graves.

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