Friday, September 4, 2009

Benita Kape: Unveiling Day

Some months before the full year has passed, the family make plans. The plaque for the grave—this will be kept simple. Two river stones and the plinth on which they stand collect lichen for under these stones our infant son has laid for forty years. All must be spruced up for the occasion; yet in time lichen will return to run over and around the shells that, like an ancient language, inscribe the surface of the stones.

It is the custom of the people that one year following the burial or, at a time suitably close to the first anniversary of that day, a ritual will take place. A plaque will be placed, in this case on the plinth beside our son's. Late in the day, the Stone Mason will complete his work. A cloak will then be reverently arranged and cover all while awaiting the final service.

lightly falling

A year ago, it had been difficult to say goodbye. A circle of a year and the immediate family invite the wider circle of family and friends to gather. There will be prayers and readings; these are a people whose orations are renowned. In the bitter cold of a winter's day, those gathered draw in closer. Kuia nod in respect as the first speaker is motioned forward by the minister. Our surviving son begins in Te Reo. Discreetly given notice earlier by his sisters, "Don't you keep us out here in the cold too long."

near the cemetery
turning back
for a bouquet

And though he forgoes the whakapapa that was recited at the tangi, those present listen intently as he describes a meeting with a clairvoyant over the past few days. Unexpected perhaps, though strangely comforting, as we all gather strength to move on. The forthright eyes of an elder, my husband in air-force uniform, smile back at us from a ceramic photo on the plaque as the cloak is drawn aside. "This was the blanket briefly laid but forever to keep him warm," a niece of Rongowhakatau iwi declares on the minister's final blessing. Leaving the cemetery, we sprinkle water over our heads and rinse our hands at the gate handbasins.

unveiling day
old notes, new notes
in our waiata

Unveiling = a custom of the Maori people of New Zealand.
Kuia = the women elders.
Te Reo = the Maori language.
whakapapa = the names and relationship of the extended families (whanau).
tangi = funeral
waiata = song
Rongowhakatau = one of many tribes on the East Coast
iwi = tribe

by Benita Kape
Gisborne, New Zealand

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