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Death in Maohi Society

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Maohi believed spirits were causal agents of varying degrees in all natural phenomena. They understood death (pohe) as the predestined time (poi) when the life force or soul (vãrua) of an individual was permanently drawn from the body (tino) by spirits.

The vãrua was believed to be able to travel outside the body when a person slept or fell into a trance during the course of religious ceremonies. Maohi who were particularly susceptible to falling into trance states often became professional diviners consulted at times of social uncertainty such as when a death occurred, or when there was a threat of war between communities.

Maohi believed that the soul left the body by the head. Consequently leaves from one or more kinds of tree growing in the sacred precinct of the family marae would be placed by a priest near the head of a dying person to provide the departing soul with a safe refuge. For on departing the body permanently, the soul was believed to be at great risk of hurt or destruction by roaming malevolent spirits.

The frailties and sicknesses of old age were understood in terms of the vãrua gradually succumbing to the agency of spirits. In cases of sudden death from conditions such as stroke or heart failure, it was believed the vãrua had been violently wrenched from the body by one or more malevolent spirits or the hand of an angry god. Spirits were also believed to play at least some part in causing accidents, injury in battle and illness.

Maohi that they could intervene in the final contest between the vãrua and those spirits working to gain its permanent separation from the body. They thought the vãrua could be strengthened through ritual, even when a person no longer showed evident signs of life and the vãrua was taken to be out of the body (Oliver, 1974: 488).

When it was clear that the time had come for the soul to go, then it was essential family and friends ensured that it went in peace, and felt no desire to remain and hurt the living.

The body would be carefully washed, covered with scented cocoanut oil and dressed in tapa cloth. It would then be laid out on a sleeping mat in the house where the individual had lived.

For several days the body lay in the home. This was a time of prayer and mourning. Relatives and friends would arrive with gifts of tapa and matting, to replace clothing and bedding with which the deceased had come into contact during their illness or after death. For these things were now held to be irredeemably polluted (mahuruhuru) and had to be burnt in a special purifying fire (auahi tutae'e) under priestly direction. Likewise, anyone who touched the deceased, their clothes or bedding during their illness or after death were required to undergo purification, usually by sea bathing.

Relatives and friends joined the immediate family of the deceased in extended bouts of crying and wailing. Mothers, wives and sisters would cut themselves with shark's teeth so that blood streamed over their face and body. On the death of high ranking persons there would be widespread public expressions of grief, and a mourning restriction (ta'imara, mo'e) would be placed on activities such as lighting fires, fishing or eating during daylight.

As spirits played some part in all deaths, the family might feel the need to call upon a specialist in divining called a tahu'a tutera, who sought to determine whether the death had been normal, in the sense that was the predestined time for the varau to depart. If the tahu'a tutera concluded sorcery had been a factor in spirits succeeding in drawing away the soul, a priest would be employed to calm the spirit of the deceased by special prayers and rituals, such as having the body carried to the beach to be sprinkled with seawater.

After several days of mourning, the corpse would either be buried, or placed for several months or longer inside a specially built structure, called a fare tupapa'u (ghost house). In the case of some high-ranking chiefs, their corpse lay within a fare tupapa'u for a year or longer.

However, as Douglas Oliver argues, it is unclear why some Maohi dead were buried immediately and others were placed in a fare tupapa'u. Choice appears to have been dictated practice not by rank, sex or cause of illness, but rather by the capacity and willingness of relatives and friends to continue mourning the deceased (Oliver, 1974: 496).

During the time a body was housed within a fare tupapa'u, prayers and offerings of food and goods were made to keep the spirit of the deceased strong and happy with the living. Elder relatives or a priest would undertake to keep the corpse clean, massage it with scented oil and keep it dressed in clean tapa. In the case of high ranking men and women, the corpse underwent a process of embalming undertaken by a specialist known as a tapua miri, who carefully removed the internal organs, which were buried by a priest in the grounds of the family marae.

Cook provides the earliest European description of a fare tupapa'u in his journal entry for 21 April 1769. Banks describes the structure in his journal entry for 5 June 1769. Various European images of the fare tupapa'u can be examined in the gallery page of this entry.

After a corpse was placed in a fare tupapa'u, further mourning ceremonies might take place. Among these ceremonies was one that captivated the imagination of the earliest European voyagers. This was the mourners' masque (see related South Seas Companion Entry).

Eventually relatives would decide the time had come to clean the bones of flesh, wrap them in tapa and either bury them in the earth or place them within a cave.

The skull would often be retained and kept in the house of the deceased's family or placed in their ancestral marae. In the case of high-ranking Maohi, their bones were buried within the grounds of the marae associated with their title.

By this time, the vãrua was believed to have journeyed over the sea to undergo various trials ending either with a state of union with the ancestral gods or spiritual annihilation.

Much additional information about Maohi attitudes to death and burial practices prior to the 1840s can be found in Douglas Oliver's exhaustive survey of surviving evidence in his Ancient Tahiti.

Related Entries for Death in Maohi Society
Parties: Tahu’a pure, Priests in Maohi Society
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Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Created: 5 May 2004
Modified: 23 June 2004

Published by South Seas, 1 February 2004
Comments, questions, corrections and additions: Paul.Turnbull@jcu.edu.au
Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Updated: 28 June 2004
To cite this page use: http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ss-biogs-P000417

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