The sun was hot enough to dry out the very air. Not a cloud could be seen in the never ending sky, stretched blue and unbroken far beyond the lip of the horizon. The church service had gone for over an hour and a half. So many people had spoken their final words for their fallen friend, brother, father. The whanaunga and whānau had gathered to pick each other up and rise, as one of theirs had taken the fall from which there is no ascent.
”Come and have a turn helping to carry Uncle’s coffin, bro.”
Wirepa put his big hand on my shoulder as he said it, and nodded towards the group of pallbearers forming the front of the funeral procession. The hearse was about a hundred metres from the open earth, waiting to accept Uncle into his final resting place. Uncle was my one of my best friend’s father. I was honoured to be asked by her family to do something so important. My friend and her sisters formed a line behind the coffin as it started it’s slow ascent up the hill. Her younger brother one of the pallbearers, her fiancé and my connection to her and the family, another. Other men, older men, took up the remaining four handles, as myself and the young Māori men kept pace at either side of the coffin, waiting to accept the honour of carrying a much loved, and loving man to rest. One of the older men beckoned for reprieve, and I slid my hand under his and gripped the handle.
Māori harmonies filled the air as we slowly made our way up the hill. An acoustic guitar and a ukulele provided the rhythm for the song. Their voices were melancholy, and yet the aroha was impossible to miss. Their had been much singing during the Catholic service earlier, everyone had a song to sing and a tune to play. All who did, sang a song they knew he loved to hear. There was already quite a few family and guests at the top, watching as the procession got under way.
He said he had to work, so I went to the show alone
they turned down the lights and turned the projector on
and just as the news of the world started to begin
I saw my darling and my best friend walking in.
They sang together as I held my head high and felt the weight of the coffin grow with every step. It hadn’t really occurred to me at that point the mana I had earned to be asked, but I was humbled by the gesture. Soon enough, my left arm told me it was time for someone else to take over, and I gestured for one of the other family members to come and take over. Most of the funeral guests had moved around the coffin as it was loaded onto the lowering device.
Although I was sitting right there they didn’t see me
and so they both sat down right in front of me
and when he kissed her lips then I almost died
and in the middle of the colour cartoon I started to cry.
The priest went through his prayers, in Māori first, then in English. I didn’t understand either of them to be honest. I stood in the blistering sun next to the other friends from my circle who’d come to show support. One of the cemetery staff moved to the end of the casket, and pressed a button which started to lower the coffin into the ground. The family asked him to stop, there was more singing to be done. A Māori song, and while I didn’t know what the words meant, I understood perfectly. This was goodbye, and it always looks the same. Even when people are swaying from side to side, shifting from left foot to their right in time with an unheard rhythm. The guitar backed the beautiful crowd of voices. The worker tried again to lower the casket, and was again stopped. Wirepa, and some of the other cousins, had taken up position on the far side of their fallen Uncle, facing him.
His son, my friend’s younger brother, took his shirt off and stepped into the middle of the ring they had formed for him. He slapped his chest and growled, his eyes grew manic, his nostrils flared and his tongue was all the way out of his mouth, pointing down to his chin, and with his slaps, the haka had begun. Ferocious and otherworldly shouts and growls came from his mouth, none of which I understood, but the passion and the fury on his face was clear. He was the leader, the chant was his, and the other cousins, his warriors, answered his cries in a call and response method. From where I stood, they faced me directly, and I had seen many hakas from this family, none so gut wrenching as a son saying goodbye to his father taken too early. I can understand why the whites were so intimidated by this. The haka is a greeting, a goodbye, and a challenge depending on the circumstances and the chants and actions of the warriors performing it. Intimidating is not enough to describe it, beautiful either. Like so much of life I suppose. When they were done, Matthew, my friends brother, went down on one knee, and as the silence ensued, he put his hands to his face. A lone warrior in the dust.
And so I got up and slowly I walked on home
and Mama saw the tears and said “Baby, what is wrong”
and so just to keep from telling her a lie
I just said “Sad movies makes me cry.”
The priest went on with his prayers, repeating the Catholic verses in English. Matt stayed down in the dust, wiping the tears from his face as the casket was lowered slowly. I stood amongst warriors, amongst blood. Amongst something that is worth more to them, and me for that matter, than any amount of money or greed or pleasure or hollow fulfilment this modern life has to offer. Something I will never have. Grief is very personal. Even in front of a hundred people, you’re nowhere to be found, it’s turning you inside out and tearing you to pieces, and all you can do is wipe the tears away as your heart is strangled by your chest. I watched him there, and I thought a million other things to arrive at one. Grief is very personal.
The priest finished his prayers with an Amen. He approached Darryl’s mother, who sat staring at her son’s coffin, and kissed her cheek and pressed his nose to hers. He did the same to the other family members, and then walked over to Matt, still on the ground. He lifted him up, shook his hand, and pressed his nose to his, and whispered his condolences.
"Oh sad movies, always make me cry."
I watched as Kylie, one of my best friends, leant on edge of her father’s grave. Her back was to me, but I could see that she had started to cry by the way she gripped the lowering machine. Her fiancé comforted her as she tossed her final goodbye, a white rose, into the freshly opened soil. The rest of the family did the same, and then we all formed a line to place a flower, or some sand, into the coffin. I chose sand. It ran through my fingers and was caught on the breeze before it disappeared from my sight. He was returning to the Earth that had created him, and joining his people, returning to our mother. I chose sand, and dropped it in the hole.
"… always makes me cry."
Amongst the raised glasses that night, see you soon will be the call, but goodbye will be the sand slipping through their fingers.