Urupā Tautaiao: Revitalising ancient customs and practices for the modern world

  • Hinematau McNeill Auckland University of Technology
  • Marcos Mortensen Steagall  (Translator)
Keywords: Decolonising design, Indigenous design, Ngāti Moko, Maori Knowledge, Urupā tautaiao


This urupā tautaiao (natural burials) research is a Marsden funded project with a decolonising agenda. It presents a pragmatic opportunity for Māori to re-evaluate, reconnect, and adapt ancient customs and practices for the modern world. The design practice output focus is the restoration of existing graves located in the urupā (burial ground) of the Ngāti Moko, a hapū (subtribe) of the Tapuika tribe that occupy ancestral land in central North Island of New Zealand. In preparation for the gravesite development, a series of hui a hapū (tribal meetings) were held to engage and encourage participation in the research. The final design which honours pre-contact customary practices, involved collaboration between the tribe, an ecologist, and a landscape architect. Hui a hapū included workshops exploring ancient burial practices. Although pre-contact Māori interred the dead in a variety of environmentally sustainable ways, funerary practices have dramatically shifted due to colonisation. Consequently, Māori have adopted environmentally damaging European practices that includes chemical embalming, concrete gravestones, and water and soil pollution. Mindful of tribal diversity, post-colonial tangihanga (customary Māori funerals) incorporate distinctively Māori and European, customary beliefs and practices. Fortuitously, they have also retained the essence of tūturu (authentic) Māori traditions that reinforce tribal identity and social cohesion. Tūturu traditions are incorporated into the design of the gravesite. Surrounded by conventional gravestones, and using only natural materials, the gravesite aspires to capture the beauty of nature embellished with distinctively Māori cultural motifs. Low maintenance native plants are intersected with four pou (traditional carvings)that carry pūrākau (Māori sacred narratives) of life and death. This dialectical concept is accentuated in the pou depicting Papatūānuku (Earth Mother). Etched into her womb is a coiled umbilical cord referencing life. Reminding us that, although in death we return to her womb, it is also a place that nurtures life. Hoki koe ki a Papatūānuku, ki te kōpū o te whenua (return to the womb of Papatūānuku) is often heard during ritual speeches at tangihanga. The pou also commemorates our connection to the gods. According to Māori beliefs, the primeval parents Papatūānuku (Earth) and Ranginui (Sky) genealogically link people and the environment together through whakapapa (kinship). Whakapapa imposes on humankind, kaitiakitanga (guardianship), responsibility for the wellbeing of the natural environment. In death, returning to Papatūānuku in a natural way, gives credence to kaitiakitanga. This presentation focuses on a project that encourages Māori to embrace culturally compatible burials that are affordable, environmentally responsible, and visually aesthetic. It also has the potential to encourage other indigenous communities to explore their own alternative, culturally unique and innovative ways to address modern death and burial challenges.

Author Biography

Hinematau McNeill, Auckland University of Technology

Professor Hinematau McNeill is Tapuika, Ngāti Moko and has always maintained active involvement in Māori communities, which informs her research.  As a Treaty negotiator for her tribe, she was responsible for the historical portfolio. Tapuika settled with the Crown in 2014. She has served as a Trustee on the tribal Post-Treaty Settlement Board. One of the first Māori woman appointed to a national governance role in Women’s Refuge ,she advocated for mandatory reporting. Hinematau was also invited to the prestigious  Iwi Leaders Forum.   Additionally, an interest in artistic practice-led research has invigorated  her postgraduate work and afforded emerging scholars to operate creatively in a way that values and acknowledges indigenous epistemologies and ways of working. She believes that when indigenous knowledge is truly valued, it is not only a decolonising force, but can enrich our collective lived experience.