Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Death in Aotearoa

Death in Aotearoa

I hope I die in New Zealand.

That would really be 
A stroke of good luck!

You see, among 
The many theories
About what happens to us
After we die,

The indigenous people 
Of New Zealand,
Called Maori,
Have one of the best.

New Zealand, in case 
You were wondering,
Is an island nation 
In the South Pacific Ocean.

To find it, locate Hawaii on your map,
Then go south, past Samoa and Fiji and Tonga,
Until you see what looks like 
An upside down boot.

That’s it, way down there.
New Zealand. 
It’s where I grew up.
That’s how I know where it is.

Its name in Maori 
Is Aotearoa,
Which means, 
“Land of the Long White Cloud.”

About my hoping 
To be lucky enough
To die in New Zealand…

According to Maori legend,
Upon dying, 
The dead travel north, 
As ghostly spirits… 

To the northernmost tip of Aotearoa,
And from there leave the land,
And enter an ocean doorway…

That leads to the Hereafter.

Without exception,
From wherever they happened to have died,
Northward go 
The ghosts of Aotearoa.

As they journey over Aotearoa, 
Here and there these spirits
Pause and gaze back 
Over the way they have come. 

They see the beauty of the land and 
Think of their homes in this world.
They remember dear ones they must leave behind,
And quietly take up the death lament;

“Haere ra, e Hine!
I te pouriuri,
Te mate o te tangata,
Ko te tohu o te mate…
Haere ra!”

(“Farewell, beloved!”
The door of death has closed upon me.
I join the tribes who must 
Go forth to that dread borderland…
Never to return.

Then the spirits continue north, 
Over mountain and river…
Through forest and field…
In the shadow of ancient volcanoes…

Until the ultimate cape is reached. 
Cape Reinga! 
(The Leaping-Place.)
Sacred to the army of the dead.

Here, at land’s end, 
Upon a jagged cliff 
Grows a venerable
Pohutukawa tree.

Its blood-red blossoms are called 
Te Pua o te Reinga,
Which means, 
“The Flowers of Spirits’ Leap.” 

The giant branches of this ancient tree 
Stretch out over the restless ocean, 
While the exposed roots 
Search the cliff-face for a foothold.

By these boughs and roots 
The arrived spirits descend.
Then, one after another they drop
Into the restless waters below…

… where seaweed swirls 
Like ocean-monster’s hair…

And vanish into the depths!

Here they are met
By the mihi-tangata,
The wailing of the dead
Who greet the spirits’ arrival 
At Tatau-o-te-Po…

Gateway to the Hereafter.

Passing through this gateway
The spirits embark on one last journey…
Following the setting sun 
Northwest  to mythical Hawaiki,

Home of the ancestors.
Dwelling place of the gods!

Thus, goes the legend, 
Our souls depart Aotearoa,
Land of the Long White Cloud.


Standing at Cape Reinga today, 
You can hear the echo of the Mihi-tangata 
In the ocean’s ceaseless murmur… 
In the wail of the wind 
Across the nearby ridges and dunes… 
And in the mournful cry 
Of the seabirds overhead.

From the lighthouse,
Look to the west, 
Where massive sand dunes
Stand wrapped in mist and fog.

There! Can you see?
Vague shadows floating in the misty air?
An army of the dead,
Moving northward through the dunes.

Quietly chanting the death lament;

“Haere ra, e Hine!
I te pouriuri,
Te mate o te tangata,
Ko te tohu o te mate…
Haere ra!”

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