National | Air New Zealand

Air NZ admits breach of tikanga after initially refusing to release body to grieving whānau

The late Maureen Delamere.  Photo / Supplied

By Steve Kilgallon, Stuff

Air New Zealand has apologised and promised to change its procedures after it took the 11th-hour intervention of its chief executive before it allowed a grieving woman to take home her mother’s remains to their marae.

Air NZ’s cargo operations crew had insisted that only a funeral director could uplift the late Maureen Delamere, despite the concerns of her daughter, Anahera Delamere-Mill, that would be a significant breach of tikanga.

Delamere-Mill was on the same flight home from Sydney as her mother, and wanted to personally escort her back to Maraenui marae in the eastern Bay of Plenty. The family affiliates to the East Coast iwi Te Whānau-ā-Apanui.

Air NZ only climbed down after chief executive Greg Foran intervened and apologised - as the plane was about to depart - and then ordered the airline to review its policy on repatriating bodies.

Delamere-Mill – niece of former Immigration Minister Tuariki Delamere – has since met with Air NZ cargo manager James Reddy and its recently-appointed Māori development lead, Tupara Morrison, to discuss how they can avoid the situation happening to another family.

She was on a Qantas Sydney to Auckland flight on March 6 (for which Air NZ had cargo responsibility) when she says she was told by multiple people, including Qantas staff and, in particular, Air NZ ground crew that only a funeral director could be nominated as the consignee for human remains.

She said Customs told them it had no issue with her picking up the body (Customs has confirmed this to Stuff), but that one Air NZ staffer told her they understood her culture and that this was the only way it could work. However, they would not provide her with that policy document. “Out of fear of not getting our mother home we reluctantly agreed knowing we would have a better argument once mum was in New Zealand”.

“From a tikanga point of view, that goes against the ethos of who we are as Māori, someone dictating to us, when our main job is to protect the tūpāpaku - in essence that was taken away from us and (we were) told it would be done by a stranger,” she says. Delamere-Mill said she wanted to have karakia with her mother on arrival, and she felt that having outsiders involved could dilute her spiritual protection.

She then began corresponding with Foran, writing that she wanted to “improve the experience for families and importantly ensuring that our tikanga is upheld unequivocally”.

Foran initially told her the rules were in place to prevent unauthorised family members removing bodies without the permission of the wider family, but quickly agreed they needed to change.

Anahera Delamere-Mill went straight to Air NZ CEO Greg Foran to change their policy on repatriating human remains.  Photo / Stuff

“Greg, to his credit, jumped on it all and personally apologised for it, went away to gather more information and came back to me, and their cargo manager worked really well with me. They were just flabbergasted, and didn’t know it was happening.”

Delamere-Mill said it had taken her a day of correspondence to resolve the issue, and she was sure that other grieving families would have given up and borne the cost and inconvenience of a funeral director. “I wanted to fight for it because it was wrong, and I knew that.”

Foran, in his emails, thanked her for “getting us all to a place of shared understanding and with an outcome that has restored Maureen’s mana”. He said Air NZ was “committed to improving our knowledge of te ao Māori” and they would learn from the experience. He said that Morrison was driving better protection of taonga. “Please pass on our sincere apologies to your whānau.”

Delamere-Mill accepted the apology and said Foran had shown kindness and empathy and she had accepted the opportunity to talk to Reddy, who had sent a note to his staff to change the policy. She told Foran: “While our experience was difficult, I believe that our mother played a role in ensuring that the process going forward is befitting of the kind of person she was.”

Air New Zealand’s Tupara Morrison.  Photo / Supplied

Morrison, who said he had been hired by Air NZ to come up with a Māori strategy, said Air NZ would commit to a whānau-led approach in future. He had spoken to Delamere-Hill. “Where we got to was from a tikanga perspective, the whānau should be able to choose the consignee.

“The process at the moment is that it needs to be a funeral director… but this case with Anahera and her mum has particularly highlighted that this is something we need to think about. We really are on a journey now and as an airline we can identify these things and make them better.”

He’d made a commitment to Anahera to review the policy and get back to her, and get her input “into where we finally land, excuse the pun.”

Maureen Delamere was 74 when she died, a mother of four, with eight grandchildren who was a registered nurse, a volunteer for Women’s Rescue, the homeless and displaced Māori children. She had been living in Australia for the last decade but wanted to be brought home when she died. Anahera was able to take her mother directly to Whakatāne for the tangihanga and she was buried the next day.