New trade bylaw removes mortuary waste from wastewater system

By Te Kuru o te Marama Dewes

Plans for dealing with mortuary waste using an approach based in tikanga Māori are gaining traction.  A first in New Zealand, the solution follows years of local iwi saying that putting mortuary waste into the wastewater system, and eventually into the rivers and sea, is unacceptable from a Māori world view.

Tūranga Nui a Kiwa will be the first city to stop mortuary waste entering the wastewater system.

“So we're drinking our own mortuary waste. Basically the story we're putting across, you read about or heard about it today, there's lead poisoning down south, nitrate poisoning to the west and this is just another one of those indictments of or symptoms of the poor state of water that we have to endure,” Ian Ruru says.

He leads advisory group KIWA, which is working with the Gisborne District Council.

“We're entering the next exciting stage of the design and build, we're currently here at the crematorium at Taruheru cemetery, and we're looking at the land required for the treatment chambers and the dispersal field,” Ruru says.

Ngā Ariki Kaipūtahi representative Owen Lloyd says, “No matter where people are from, the waste will be brought here and buried among the dead, it's the right place. There are protocols around love for the whole person.”

Wisconsin mound

The approach draws inspiration from First Nations and Native Americans who use burial mounds and have practices similar to Māori.

“It's called a Wisconsin mound,” Lloyd says. “We thought carefully. That's good because it's about what comes from the land and returns to the land. Over there, on their land, they bury their dead in the mounds, where they decompose, being eaten by bugs and the like, and then the people retrieve the bones, just like Māori. The question arose about the water and how sacred it is, so what do we do about the water?

One thousand litres on average is needed per body for the embalming process, he says. The byproducts are arterial blood and toxic chemicals.

“An important aspect that we're doing to protect the environment and ourselves, we're taking out the toxic chemicals like formaldehyde used in the embalming process, so we have a special treatment process or chambers that neutralises those chemicals, and from there the more neutralised or filtered aspects of the liquid phase are then put through a dispersal field through the soil,” Ruru says.

It's estimated the mortuary waste from two to three bodies per week will be transported by truck to the cemetery, where it will be pumped into the mound chambers.

"The world has changed but the essence remains the same. No matter who it is, it's blood so there needs to be caution, that's sacred. How do we mitigate that? Wel,l we conduct prayer and the protocols of our ancestors to remove the tapu, and then it will be well."

Lloyd says this is an example of a positive intersection between western science and Māori philosophy.