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Abstract:
Special report about reconciling Baha'i burial laws with local maori customs where they conflict; includes guidance from the Universal House of Justice.

Special Report on Baha'i Burial vs. Maori Custom

by National Spiritual Assembly of New Zealand

1989-10-06
National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of New Zealand
Special Report

To the Bahá'ís of New Zealand

Dearly loved friends,

The National Spiritual Assembly has become aware that there is confusion among some of the believers concerning the recent tangi of our dear friend Pakaka Tawhai.

There have been many expressions of loving support and condolences to the Assembly. There have also been some communications to the National Assembly expressing concern about the handling of the events surrounding the funeral.

The purpose of this letter is to clarify any misunderstandings, present the correct facts, and convey the spiritual principles involved.

As many of the friends will be aware, Pakaka's tribal family, the Ngati Porou, confronted the Bahá'ís during the tangi, demanding to take his body back to Ruatoria. Pakaka's wife and the Bahá'ís who had gathered to say farewell to Pakaka were subjected to hostility and virulent verbal abuse. Despite these attacks, Pam, supported by the Bahá'ís, remained steadfast in the face of opposition, refusing to agree to the removal of his body. Finally the Ngati Porou left empty handed and did not attend the Bahá'í service.

The Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly received verification about the sudden death of Pakaka at Auckland airport just an hour after he had passed away. From that time, right up to burial three days later, the members of the National Assembly were in frequent contact and consultation.

The decision to return Pakaka's body to Palmerston North was made by his wife, Pam, in consultation with National Assembly members, having established that it was possible to do this within the Bahá'í law of burial - that is, with one hour's journey.

The Bahá'í law in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas stipulates that the body must not be transported more than one hour's journey from the place of death to the place of interment. The Universal House of Justice has stated the following about the application of the law:
"The spirit of Bahá'u'lláh's law is to be buried near where one dies. The House of Justice has decided that the place of death may be taken to be the city of town in which the believer passes away, and therefore the hour's journey may be calculated from the city limits to the place of burial."


Further, in a letter dated 2 December 1984 to the National Spiritual Assembly of New Zealand, the Universal House of Justice has quoted the following statement of Bahá'u'lláh from "Questions and Answers":
"The law applieth to transportation by land as well as by sea, whether it be an hour's distance by boat or train. The purpose is that the time-limit of one hour, no matter what means of conveyance is employed. However, the sooner the burial taketh place, the more fitting and preferable."


The National Spiritual Assembly had established that the flight to Palmerston North was under one hour by jet plane. It has also established that the journey to Ruatoria would take well over an hour by plane of helicopter, there being no jet air service to the closest town. Therefore, burial in Ruatoria was discounted as an option.

The debate generated by the Ngati Porou people about the return of Pakaka's body to Ruatoria started in the early evening of the first day of the tangi and continued without resolution until 2.30 am. During the debate Pam Tawhai gave a courageous speech about Pakaka's standing as a Bahá'í and his desire to have a Bahá'í burial. Some Bahá'ís explained the law of burial, but all these efforts had no effect.

By the early hours of the morning, when the discussions were halted for sleep, some of the Bahá'ís were, among themselves, expressing their view that we should submit to the Ngati Porou and allow the body to be transported back to Ruatoria in view of the disunity that existed. It was being stated by these Bahá'ís that unity with the Ngati Porou people, and Maoridom in general, was of greater importance than adhering to the Bahá'í burial law.

At 3 am, in view of the uncertainty, confusion, and even fear, that existed, the National Spiritual Assembly members held a meeting and decided to telephone the Universal House of Justice for guidance.

A comprehensive account of the situation, which included the full implications of not allowing the body to be returned to Ruatoria, was written out by three National Assembly members. This complete account was read out over the telephone to the Universal House of Justice. The answer received from the Universal House of Justice was repeated by the Secretary, as it was being conveyed, so it was heard by another National Assembly member.

The National Assembly feels it is necessary to explain these details because there have been expressions of concern that the situation may not have been fully related to the Universal House of Justice, or that the full implications of the effects on Maori teaching has been explained.

The Universal House of Justice gave the guidance that there could be no compromise on the Bahá'í law. It explained that we must assert the independent nature of the Bahá'í Faith, and that what at first appeared to cause disunity, would ultimately bring about a greater unity. It also pointed out that the cultural conflict being experienced was not unique, as there had been many similar instances in other parts of the world, such as Africa, where the Bahá'ís had to uphold the Bahá'í burial law in the face of opposition. Further, it explained that if the family, in this case the widow, insisted on having the body taken to the tribal home, there was nothing that the National Assembly could do to prevent this.

The above guidance was conveyed to Pam Tawhai, Pakaka's wife. She made the decision to remain firm and would not agree to having the body removed.

The National Assembly held a further meeting at 4.30 am and made the decision that if the Ngati Porou people tried to remove the body forcefully, that the Police would not be called and no preventative action taken by the Bahá'ís. Retaining dignity was paramount. Pam was happy to abide by this decision. Further, the National Assembly members decided to sit with Pam until dawn as a measure of institutional support.

As it happened, the Ngati Porou did not make any attempt to take the body at dawn as had been feared but resumed the debate in the early morning.

There had been no opportunity for the National Assembly to address the Bahá'ís as a group about the decision of the Universal House of Justice, but individual Bahá'ís were told and asked to convey the information to the rest of the Bahá'ís gathered there. The National Assembly had made the decision to have its Maori members address the entire gathering when the proceedings recommenced in the morning, to explain that it had sought guidance from the highest authority of the Faith at the Bahá'í World Centre regarding the burial law.  

Unfortunately, however, when the Ngati Porou reopened the discussion, they put up one speaker after the other in rapid succession, not allowing the Bahá'ís a speaker in accordance with usual Maori custom. It was for this reason that the Ngati Porou walked out of the meeting house without having heard the views of the Bahá'ís.

Despite the very real pain being experienced by the Bahá'ís, particularly the Maori Bahá'ís, the National Assembly perceived a unity among the friends in standing as one body to defend the right of the Bahá'í Faith to adhere to its laws.

After the departure of the Ngati Porou, there was relief that the Rangitane, the people of the marae complex, had remained in the meeting house. The Chairman of the National Assembly was then able to address the gathering and explain the whole sequence of events, giving the reasons for the obedience to the Bahá'í law. This, coupled with the moving and beautiful service which followed, left an indelible impression on the Maori people who had stayed. There has been confirmation of this with verbal and written expressions of warmth and admiration for the Bahá'ís being extended by the Rangitane, including the kaumatua (elder) who had the paepae with such dignity and who had showed such support and sensitivity towards the Bahá'ís.

On one further matter, the National Assembly wishes to assure the believers who felt disquiet about the silence of the National Assembly members during the debate. Firstly, it is important to understand that the confrontation we experienced was not a unique occurrence in Maoridom. Secondly, we were guided by the paepae, which consists of the people of the marae who are in control of the proceedings. The responsibility of any function on the marae is controlled by the paepae, which is acting as an impartial adjudicator. While it is true that at normal marae gatherings anyone may speak, this was not a normal marae gathering in that it was a confrontative cultural issue. To be able to read the subtleties of what is taking place on the paepae requires an insight and knowledge of Maori culture. On these cultural matters, the National Assembly was guided by its Maori members. The most effective course of action in this event was to maintain silence, not only from the point of view of what was taking place in Maori terms, but also from the Bahá'í point of view. It should also be noted that at no time did the paepae ask for the Bahá'í response. Our silence was not a default, but a definite and positive statement - so much so that the senior kaumatua on the paepae expressed his admiration of the way the Bahá'ís conducted themselves. This admiration was also echoed by other members of the Rangitane.

Such evidences of goodwill and support illustrate that despite the opposition from the Ngati Porou which appeared to cause great disunity, the situation had in fact become one of harmony and warmth through the obedience of the Bahá'ís.

We hope that the foregoing facts will clarify for the friends what actually occurred at the tangi and serve to correct misunderstandings.

The National Assembly is deeply conscious of the pain and uncertainty experienced by some of the Bahá'ís who attended the tangi. It understands this. Nevertheless, the National Assembly feels it is now very important for the spiritual principles which apply to be understood by the believers.

The National Assembly asks the friends to study these principles which follow.

How will the transformation of mankind be brought about?

The Bahá'ís are the instruments for the establishment of the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh. This Divine Civilisation will bring about the transformation of mankind through the laws and ordinances which have been revealed by Bahá'u'lláh.

As Shoghi Effendi has written in "The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh":

"Few will fail to recognize that the Spirit breathed by Bahá'u'lláh upon the world, and which is manifesting itself with varying degrees of intensity through the efforts consciously displayed by His avowed supporters and indirectly through certain humanitarian organizations, can never permeate and exercise an abiding influence upon mankind unless and until it incarnates itself in a visible Order, which would bear His name, wholly identify itself with His principles, and function in conformity with His laws."

All the essential elements for the world Bahá'í Commonwealth have been laid down by Bahá'u'lláh in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Book of Laws), and subsequently in `Abdu'l-Bahá's Will and Testament.

Why is obedience to the Laws of God essential?

It is clear in the Writings that, not only are the Laws of God the foundation for the New World Order, but obedience to them is essential to bringing about world unity.

"O, ye that dwell on earth! The distinguishing feature that marketh the preeminent character of this Supreme Revelation consisteth in that We have ... laid down the essential prerequisites of concord, of understanding, of complete and enduring unity. Well is it with them that keep My statutes." (Bahá'u'lláh)

What should we do about obeying the Laws in the face of opposition?

"Whoso hath inhaled the sweet fragrance of the All-Merciful, and recognized the Source of this utterance, will welcome with his own eyes the shafts of the enemy, that he may establish the truth of the laws of God amongst men. Well is it with him that hath turned thereunto, and apprehended the meaning of His decisive decree." (Bahá'u'lláh)

"O ye beloved of the Lord! The greatest of all things is the protection of the True Faith of God, the preservation of His Law, the safeguarding of His Cause and service unto His Word ..." (`Abdu'l-Bahá)

Should we be afraid of opposition?

No. We are assured in the Writings that opposition will promote the Cause and that crisis will lead to victory.

"... With every fresh tribulation He manifested a fuller measure of Thy Cause, and exalted more highly Thy word." (Bahá'u'lláh)

"... In his communications to the ... friends during the last few weeks he has always stressed the fact, and he wishes you to do the same in all your conversations and correspondence with them, that the Cause is bound sooner or later to suffer from all kinds of attacks and persecutions, that these in fact constitute the life-blood of its institutions, and as such constitute an inseparable and intrinsic part of its development and growth. Trials and tribulations, as Bahá'u'lláh says, are the oil that feed the lamp of the Cause, and are indeed blessings in disguise.

The friends should therefore be confident that all these attacks to which the Cause is now subjected in ... are a necessary part of the development of the Cause, and that their outcome would be beneficial to its best interests." (Written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi)

All the above references are quoted in the compilation "Crisis and Victory".

Should we compromise the laws of God in order to give recognition to the culture of the indigenous people?

No. The Universal House of Justice has explained that, whilst we should manifest our understanding of the culture of indigenous people, and allow the diversity of culture to characterize the Bahá'í community, we may not adopt any cultural practices which are not in conformity with the spiritual principles and laws of the Bahá'í Faith.

The aim of the Bahá'í Faith is to maintain cultural diversity while promoting the unity of all peoples. This diversity will enrich human life in a peaceful world society. Within the Bahá'í community the cultural traditions of the people who comprise it should be observed, as long as those traditions are not contrary to the Bahá'í teachings.

The National Spiritual Assembly asks all the believers to study the spiritual principles outlined in this letter. You may wish to study this letter in a group, or seek the help of your Local Spiritual Assembly or Assistant for the Auxiliary Board member in your area.

We must remain confident that every crisis is invariably a means of ensuring future victory. We can look forward eagerly to unprecedented victories in this country over the next years. Entry by troops is just around the corner.

In joyful anticipation, we must go forward together in unity, assisting and supporting each other in our efforts to transform our lives and thus further the process of entry by troops.

"Transformation is the essential purpose of the Cause of Bahá'u'lláh, but it lies in the will and effort of the individual to achieve it in obedience to the Covenant".

We convey our abiding love to all the believers and assure you of our loving encouragement and earnest prayers for your endeavors.

Warmest Bahá'í greetings
NATIONAL SPIRITUAL ASSEMBLY
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