Death is inevitable. But for many it remains the last taboo. Modern medicine means we can prolong life like never before. Assisted dying legislation currently before Parliament may mean – in special circumstances – we can control death like never before.

Health Central’s Death series will explore the health aspects of death & dying in New Zealand. This is the sixth of eight in-depth feature and opinion articles.

In 1902, going anywhere by sea was a risky business, particularly in (even more) sparsely populated New Zealand. No matter where on these green isles you were at the turn of the 20th century, help was rudimentary, and response times were measured in days, if not weeks, if not at all.

When the steamship SS Ventnor began to go down within sight of the lush Hokianga Heads, pummeled by an October 1902 storm, the 13 crew aboard must have known that they were beyond help – and so it proved.

The 499 Chinese miners who were packed into the lower decks, however, probably didn’t mind at all – for the salient reason that they were already dead.

At least, that’s how someone brought up in the European tradition might think of it – death to your average pākehā means getting on an elevator headed in one of two directions (one supposedly a lot warmer than the other), or there’s the more reductive view – one’s switch is irrevocably flicked, and that’s that.

Regardless of your standing on the matter, if you were raised in the European tradition it’s likely that you believe that on death, one’s earthly remains are vacated one way or another – via the law of conservation of energy, or the flight of the soul.

But many of the descendants of those Chinese miners would strongly disagree. According to the traditional Chinese belief system, someone unfortunate enough to meet their end away from the ancestral home village, and leaving no remains to focus a family’s mourning, is destined to remain in a state somewhat analogous to the Christian idea of purgatory: you become a ‘hungry ghost’.  

The remains of the 499 Chinese miners aboard the SS Ventnor were on a final journey. They’d mostly come from the Guangdong region of China, tempted to New Zealand by Otago gold. There are 499 stories behind why each came to be on board, but all were on their way back to China, to the warm embrace of home soil.

Wong Liu Shueng – who introduces herself ‘Liu Shueng’, according to the Chinese custom that puts the family name in front of the first – decided 13 years ago that she needed to get away from the urban bustle of Auckland, and realised her dream to build a home in remote Rawene, on the south side of the Hokianga Harbour.

Liu Shueng’s connection to the story of the SS Ventnor came about because she finally conceded to a friend’s pleading to join her on a beginner filmmaking course and needed a topic on which to base her film project. A keen amateur historian, Liu thought of a series of books she’d read recently by the eminent Dunedin doctor, historian and archivist James Ng, Windows on a Chinese Past, in which was mentioned in passing the saga of the Ventnor.

A phone call to Doctor Ng led to more phone calls, and since then Liu has been working closely with local iwi Te Roroa and Te Rarawa, who call coastal Northland home. Liu says that what’s become apparent over the course of the intervening 13 years is that, for all the geographic disparity, the traditional Māori and Chinese cultural belief system has plenty in common, especially where death and respect for ancestors is concerned.

“Like Māori, we have this tradition that you belong to a village, and you should always go home to your village. It doesn’t matter where you live – everybody has a clan, and a village.

“In a way, you are defined by that village, and I think Māori people would recognise that concept. You are of a certain generation, a link to the past – I’m the 21st generation. That was drummed into me as a kid.”

By the way, using a conservative estimate, that means that Liu Shueng’s village was founded some 535 years ago.

After 1902, time and tide did its work, with somewhat grisly results: over the intervening years, remains from the wreck of the SS Ventnor were washed up on the shores of the Hokianga Harbour.

For the local Māori who found these remains scattered around local beaches, the instinctual respect with which these bleached bones were treated speaks to the similarities between the way both cultures perceive death, and a shared belief that the ancestors are always present and must therefore be treated with the respect they deserve. Liu says that these shared traditions and the saga of the Ventnor have created strong connections between the two communities.

“If you were riding your horse along the beach, and you’re Māori, and you see a skull poking out of the sand, and you’ve heard this story that this ship that went down with all these Chinese people, well, they know about bones, and they know about ancestors.

“Sometimes they buried them, sometimes they placed them in caves, and sometimes they put them in sacks and tried to get them back to China.

And that’s what links Māori and Chinese communities in this story: the shared respect for our ancestors, and our determination to do the right thing by them.”

Another group of Te Roroa people happened one day upon several intact coffins floating just beyond the breakers, near where the Ventnor went down. Using horses and carts, the coffins were transported to an area near the tribal urupa, where the remains were buried.  

Snow Tane is an elder of the Te Roroa tribe. He tells the SS Ventnor story from the tangata whenua perspective.

“Māori are very spiritual people, and so at the time when these koiwi (bones/corpse) began to wash up, those who found them treated them with the utmost respect. They ended up interring these koiwi in a place just off the beach, on the side of a hill covered in flax. From that moment on, that area became sacred to us, and it still is.”

Make no mistake, those who found the bones knew exactly where they’d come from. Everybody had heard about the wreck of the Ventnor. Why then did the locals treat these koiwi in exactly the same way they would have if they were Te Roroa bones?

“Basically that’s what our tikanga [protocols] ask of us. We’re taught from a very early age that when people pass on, they’re treated with the the utmost respect. That’s regardless of tribe, culture, or nationality. We apply the same tikanga now as we did 115 years ago, when the Ventnor sank. In fact, my grandfather was one of the people who performed the interment of those koiwi.”

One thing that has struck over the course of this story is the place of the ancestors in Chinese and Māori culture. They don’t go anywhere, and they must be respected, nourished, remembered and consulted.

“It that respect we’re very similar”, says Snow. “In our culture, for example, every time we have a hui, where we come together and meet over a number of things, there is a process before we begin that honours the ancestors.

“If you were to were to show up at a tangata ora, for example, we will not only acknowledge you personally, but we will also acknowledge those you bring with you, your ancestors. That’s part of our whaikorero.”

The modern Chinese-Kiwi perspective

Gordon Wu is a third-generation Chinese New Zealander, and is president of the Tung Jung Association of New Zealand. Gordon’s great-grandfather was one of those miners aboard the SS Ventnor.

I went into my conversation with Gordon hoping to gain some insight into the death customs of the ‘Chinese’; to uncover the arcane secret rituals that go on behind closed doors when one of their own passes away. I’m fortunate that I didn’t take Gordon up on his offer of a Skype call – he would have been able to see my naive face burning.

As Gordon puts it, he’s a “Kiwi, but with Chinese style”. He’s a practising Anglican, and therefore follows the teachings of Christ, and believes that the souls of the dead depart for one of two afterlives according to the way they lived, beyond our sight and disinterested in earthly affairs.

When I persisted in asking Gordon about all the fascinating rituals and death practices I’d read about, Gordon was finally able impress upon me the fact that, while he’s familiar with a lot of the customs that his ancestors observed back in China, in his words “they don’t mean much to me”.

Driving this atrophication of the customary link to the past, says Gordon, is urbanisation and its consequent education. It’s happening in China to a degree we here in New Zealand can barely comprehend. In fact, says Gordon, this sea-change doesn’t just affect death practice, but the entire Chinese customary rulebook.

Apparently there was a law passed recently in China forcing young people to regularly visit their elderly relatives, who are increasingly being put in rest homes as we do in the West.

Given that Confucian thought, which still underpins so much of the way Chinese people live, extols the virtue of caring for the elderly within the family, this is a big shift.

When Gordon’s grandparents died, their Anglican funeral was everything Pākehā would be familiar with. But interestingly, following the funeral, Gordon tells me that his family didn’t visit any of their friends or other relatives for 100 days. The idea (as I understand it) ties in with the traditional Chinese belief that misfortune – like death – can taint a family, and therefore that family wouldn’t want to ‘infect’ others with their misfortune.

It seems that for modern Chinese New Zealanders, there persists a much-reduced collection of customs around death, which Gordon thinks are entrenched enough to survive the homogenising effect of urbanisation. The key difference is the metamorphosis over time from belief to custom.

As Gordon puts it: “Being born and bred in New Zealand, I’m more like you [than I am like Chinese people who live traditionally]. I look at these customs, and I’m interested, but they don’t mean anything to me, not emotionally at least. I don’t feel like I have any obligation to the past.

“It’s the family tradition that transmits customs and beliefs around death – and we know that the strong family traditions are beginning to erode as well.”

The Māori influence

Ria Earp has a slightly different perspective, and it could be good news for Pākehā.

If anyone understands death from a Māori perspective and from a broader perspective, it’s Ria. She is currently the Māori Adviser for Hospice New Zealand, having recently moved on from a long tenure as CEO at Mary Potter Hospices. She has also been a senior member of a past government’s Ministry of Health. I can see how Ria must have been a real comfort to those approaching their mortality – there is something very soothing, yet crystal clear about the way she speaks.

For Ria, the most striking differences between the way that Pākehā people die and the way Māori go about it is the presence of family.

“It’s about bringing family together around that person, it’s that view of not dying alone. It’s the need for spiritual care. At the end of life, that becomes more important, because of course you might be meeting your ancestors. Often, in a hospice setting, there will be karakia, and lots of singing. I recall someone by the bedside of a patient for a day and a half.”

While Ria acknowledges that the pressures of urbanisation are taking the same toll on customary practice among Māori as it is on Chinese New Zealanders, like Gordon she points to a few death practices that seem entrenched enough to survive the homogenising effect of our globalised world. Tangi, the Māori post-death observance, stands out among these.

Yet Ria believes that, rather than devolving into shades of grey where customary death practice is concerned, in fact there is the potential for cultures to meet in the middle. She’s seen it happening first hand.

“One of the real differences I’ve noticed [among Pākehā], that I think has been influenced by Māori, is the participation of children.

You’re more likely to see children turning up to the hospice, and you’re more likely to see children more involved in funerals.

“Increasingly, there seems to be this view among Pākehā that the death experience should be expanded, rather than something that should be hidden away – particularly from children – which was a sense that I quite often got.

“I was always surprised when my Pākehā friends would tell me that they were in their fifties before they experienced death. Whereas I think for Māori families, the experience particularly of tangi, of death itself, of seeing someone in the coffin, of children being exposed to all of that, also means that Māori children who are around someone who is dying may be more comfortable and understanding of what’s happening.

“I think grief and loss is another key area where I think the Māori way of dying can positively influence all New Zealanders. These things are more accepted among Māori, I think; it’s seen as part and parcel both of dying and after death. I think in these ways, Māori are beginning to influence Pākehā practice.”

The return

Recently, in collaboration with the people of Te Roroa and Te Rarawa, Liu Shueng was part of a Chinese delegation of descendants of the Ventnor miners to Hokianga. The purpose of the mission was to thank Te Roroa for stewardship of their ancestors, and to see for themselves the last resting place of those who sacrificed so much, in coming to New Zealand seeking a better life for their families.

It’s poignant to recall that a common Chinese nickname for New Zealand at the time of the Ventnor was, ‘land of ghosts’ – those unfortunate miners ended up as hungry ghosts in the land of ghosts. Now, of course, with the help of Te Roroa and Te Rarawa Māori, their descendents know where they are, and can nourish their souls and tend to their graves every year during the Chongqing Festival, also known as the Spring Festival.

There was never any question as to why the Chinese delegation would want to make the trip, says Liu Shueng.

“[The reactions of] Te Roroa and Te Rarawa were just fabulous. In fact, I gave a talk at the commemoration, and two people came up and said, ‘Well, you need to come and see us, because we’ve got the rest of your story’.”

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