Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television

since 1987

What the ‘new norm’ funerals mean for Pasifika

The spread of the Covid-19 virus and the compulsory self-isolation period has dramatically changed the way we live, with restrictions on how we socialise and gather as a community.

One area that has had a devastating impact on our families is the strict restrictions on the funeral and burial process when loved ones die during this period. The Ministry of Health has banned all public funerals and burials and in most cases, bodies are buried between 24 to 48 hours after death.

“This has been the hardest time in my entire career,” says Tongan/Māori funeral director Francis Tipene, who also fronts the popular reality show The Casketeers. “It’s been heartbreaking to uplift someone from a home or the hospital and telling their family that would be the last time they will see their loved ones.”

This week, Francis and other funeral directors challenged the strict guidelines, knowing how difficult it was for Pasifika families who were in mourning. Changes were made, allowing family members living in the same household as the deceased, to attend a funeral service and burial. But only those living in the home can be present.

“When you’re under such emotional strain, having to follow these rules and guidelines is hard to get your head around,” he says.

Funeral Director Francis Tipene. Photo / Supplied

So far, Francis has tended to nine deaths from Pasifika families since the self-isolation period began last week. Although the funerals have been very small, extended family and friends are involved through live streaming and social media, which is a huge shift on how Pasifika families grieve and mourn. But he says it’s a necessary precaution in order to stop the spread of Covid-19.

“A lot of our church ministers are preaching and extending the message of safety and that has helped take away the pain.”

Francis says there are unorthodox options for families who want to still have a large public funeral after the self-isolation period is over.

“When you cremate your loved one you are given their ashes back. That is something tangible that you can mourn, so when the lockdown period is over, you can have a funeral and have something that people can cry over. Having a memorial service without a body is going down the line of a palagi family. Pacific Island families like to have something tangible to mourn over.”

Dr Sione Vaka. Photo / Supplied

Senior lecturer in nursing and Pasifika Medical Association member Dr Sione Vaka says the restrictions are forcing the Pasifika community to change the way they farewell their deceased.

“The important thing to remember is to reflect on our Pacific culture and traditions. Embalming and prolonging the body for a few days is a relatively new concept. In the islands, when a person died, they were normally buried overnight. Families who lived on other islands would take days to arrive and would say their farewells at the cemetery. In time, our funeral process evolved with technology. So this is a great opportunity to reflect on who we are as Pacific people and return to our roots.

He also says that having a strong faith will be helpful. “We are very spiritual people. Although a body is taken from the earth, our loved ones are always with us spiritually and we will always have that connection.”

By Aroha Awarau for the Pasifika Medical Association

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