Body snatched before burial in New Zealand in cultural dispute

By Ray Lilley
Wellington, New Zealand (AP) 3-08

A woman’s body was snatched from a hearse on its way to a funeral by her estranged daughter who wanted to give her a traditional Maori burial, police said during March.

The raid was the latest in a spate of bodysnatchings over funeral disputes that underscore cultural differences in New Zealand.

The seizure of Ivy May Ngahooro, an ethnically European woman who was married to an indigenous Maori man, dismayed the rest of 76-year-old family, who had arranged for her to have an Anglican Church ceremony as she had stipulated in her will, The New Zealand Herald reported.

Ngahooro’s daughter, Joanne, who relatives said had not seen her mother in several years, arrived at the funeral home in the central North Island city of Hamilton with a group of people. After arguing with other relatives, the daughter’s group took the coffin from the hearse, loaded it into another vehicle and drove away, the Herald reported.

Police spokesman Andrew McAlley confirmed the facts of the case and said officers had “spoken to both parties to try to reach an amicable agreement, but were unable to do so.” He said no arrests were planned, referring to the case as a “civil matter.”

He said police understood Ngahooro’s body had been taken to a Maori meeting place near Taumarunui, a small farming settlement, to lie in state watched over by family members – as is traditional before a burial.

It was the third bodysnatching case in recent months, fueled by differing funeral practices among European New Zealanders and indigenous Maori who have intermarried.

Last August, the body of Maori man James Takamore was taken from a funeral home the southern city of Christchurch and buried in Whakatane in the county’s north. The case remains unresolved despite a court order to exhume and return the body.

In December, the body of Tina Marshall McMenamin, a Maori woman who overdosed on drugs, was snatched in its coffin by her estranged father and buried on his private farm on North Island’s east coast.

In Maori tradition the burial place of a body is determined by negotiation, said Maori protocol expert Ranganui Walker.

“If we are to avoid unseemly cultural collisions... Maori should understand that in Pakeha tikanga (European tradition) the spouse or next of kin has the final say over burial arrangements,” he said.

Cabinet Minister Jim Anderton said that while the law clearly states that executors or next of kin decide what happens to a body, there have been too many cases of people trying to override the law.

“We need to avoid the awful experience of families having to disinter a loved one after the body should have been laid to rest,” he said in a statement.

Law expert Mark Hanahan said there was some uncertainty in the law because causing “indignity” to a body is illegal but taking one is not specifically outlawed.