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Wahi Tapu

By February 17, 2010February 18th, 20103 Comments

I remember many years ago there was a death in Cable Bay in Northland.  The area was deemed a wahi tapu.  There was to be no access to the restricted area, and the death was communally acknowledged through this marking of space.  I think this was the first time I had heard of this practice of temporarily and formally making a space restricted after death.  It seemed to make alot of sense.

Yesterday a young woman’s body was found in central Wellington city, near the Overseas Passenger Terminal.  According to today’s Dominion PostLocal kaumatua blessed the area where Olivia’s body was found and asked people to avoid using or fishing from Chaffers Wharf until Friday to respect cultural protocol.” This brief sentence and request is one of the few statements which mark Olivia Rutherford’s death.  A story that had been headline news for half a week seems to have disappeared fast off the airwaves.

The moving on of the media reflects broader notions about news, but also about death.  Death in mainstream New Zealand is largely deemed a private thing, the tidy conciseness of reporting death and quickly moving on is a Pakeha notion of allowing the family space and time to grieve.  But in our seemingly increasingly privatised and individualised world, civic spatial practices might operate to mark significance in our communal spaces, to acknowledge that space changes and that the trauma of a death, and the broader communal issues that it might stand for (murder, youth suicide, alcohol abuse), need to be acknowledged, and need to affect the wider community.  They might also need to be more visible than a few lines in the newspaper.

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  • Kaihuia says:

    Actually ‘the moving on of the media’ reflects the strictures they are under regarding reportage on suicide. If she had died at someone else’s hand they would have been all over the funeral and the police inquiry etc. like a pox, without any regard whatsoever to ‘allowing the family space and time to grieve’. Only some kinds of death are a private thing.

  • Pip says:

    In this context you might be interested in this item on the sinking of the SS Ventnor in the Hokianga. It was carrying 499 dead gold diggers. The item talks about steps local Maori and the Chinese community are taking in the area where the cargo came ashore: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/afternoons/20100305

  • richard says:

    thanks Pip – very interesting