Loss and faith ring out in ritual silence


MAORIS call it upoko runaka, the farewell for the dead. In Christchurch yesterday, they said, it was also much more: a ritual to heal a broken city, and to reconnect its people with the earth that has so hurt them.
It began with the local tribal chief Maurice Gray, dressed in a black suit and holding a tokotoko, a staff carved with his family’s history that is symbolic of his authority as an elder. He strode into an intersection lined with dignitaries and emergency workers and brandished the tokotoko at a small pile of broken masonry that had been taken from shattered buildings in the heart of the city.
And he began to chant, in the musical words of the Maori, in a way that carried right through the silent, ragtag congregation around him. He touched the staff to the bricks and then raised it to heaven. This was to bring peace and gentleness back to the city as the nation staged a two-minute silence yesterday to mark a week since the 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck.
He chanted again, in what he later said was a ritual to acknowledge the loss of the dead, the grief of the living and the damage wrought by the quake. He asked “for the brokenness of the universal soul of this city, which has been fractured and severed, to be remade”.
The umbilical cord that connects this world with the realm of the spirit had been severed by the destruction, he said, and needed to be reconnected. He banged his staff on the ground to communicate with the unborn child in the womb of mother earth whose movements, the Maori say, cause the rumbles and stirrings of earthquakes.
“It’s acknowledging the unborn child and the devastating effects of his actions,” Mr Gray said. “It’s saying that in spite of that, life is prevailing.”
“Do you agree with me?” he demanded of his listeners in Maori. “Yes!” they replied.
Then he stood aside to make way for the Anglican bishop, Victoria Matthews, who offered a prayer for those who walked in the valley of the shadow of death and asked God to guide the emergency workers and volunteers. The Dean, Peter Beck, read Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd”, and everyone joined in the Lord’s prayer.
Then Mr Gray returned and with others – one carrying a fern, the Maori symbol for life and death – sang a Maori hymn.
Last came Puamiria Parata-Goodall, a “caller” for her people who has the graceful whorls of traditional tattoos around her mouth. She “calls” joy for new life when a child is born. She calls sorrow and pain when the curtain between the worlds opens to allow the spirits of the dead to move on. Calling, she said later, belongs only to Maori women.
She let out a powerful cry filled with the anguish of loss. This was manaaki, the Maori tradition of embracing those who grieve.

First published in The Age.