Takamore v Clarke and death focused cultures

Stephen Franks on Takamore v Clarke.

What a tragedy that New Zealand pretends respect for people fighting over where bodies should decompose.

Takamore v Clarke, the last highly publicised fight went as far as the Supreme Court. Hundreds of hours of legal and law enforcement intelligence spent without laying down a clear principle to tell the Police and other authorities promptly and exactly who decides a dispute over where a body will be buried. Hundreds of official hours spent delicately imploring people to be reasonable, who were apparently culturally bound to display conspicuously that they were driven beyond reason.

Martyrdom, sacrifice of valuables, suttee and law breaking are common extravagant signalling activities. They conspicuously display extreme emotion. Activists need prosecutions for law-breaking if they are to acheive their purpose of showing the depth of their convictions by willingness to suffer penalties.

If the courts were not so apologetic, they might have objectively seen the advantage for all concerned of a legal bright line determining process, triggered at a very early stage of dispute. Then those who need to make a signal display of willingness to transgress, can do so early and relatively cheaply, and save the community the costs of pointless attempts to compromise when the fight is the real objective, not the outcome.

Presumably, for the families involved in our recent fights, it is working.

With official New Zealand doing back flips to avoid enforcing court orders the Takamores showed the world (the story went beyond New Zealand) that they were so grief-ridden (or guilt or pride-ridden?) that they would deny normal courtesies to a widow and children, and thumb their noses at the law, to assuage their grief and loss (of a family member who had been out of close touch for years).

This rot of exaggerated respect for the dead is not confined to lawyers. The Prime Minister fell into a trap when he left the Pike River families with the impression that no resource would be spared in recovery of their loved ones’ bodies. Instead of instinctively drawing the line a secular government should always draw, to preserve fairness vis a vis the daily losses of other families to arguably preventable deaths, he descended into a competition to show maudlin compassion.  Since then Bernie Monk has become too boring to listen to. Yet he and the Pike River families have been almost bound to keep accusing the government of heartlessness in not spending more millions on dangerous recovery missions. Understandably they could feel that they were some-how disloyal to their dead if they did not at least try to keep the government to its word, however pointless.

It has never been the role of an intelligent secular state to promise the return of citizens’ bodies for family funerals, however dramatic the circumstances.  Fishermen, soldiers, hunters, aircraft crew and passengers frequently disappear. For Christians, Jesus’ suggestion that we let the dead bury the dead (Luke 9:60 thanks Brendan), should be excuse enough to avoid the lure of death focused cultures.

Official New Zealand is now wallowing in hind-focused ‘celebrations’ of historical courage and sacrifice. My father and grandfather who spent more than 4 years each away fighting wars, were deeply suspicious of the types who liked public commemorations. Dad’s term was ‘base wallahs’ – people good on parade but who steered clear of the front. Dad and Grandfather would have valued being thanked and celebrated if they thought the speechifiers milking these exercises actually respected their values.

But a government that leaves today’s service-people with no air defences, and could fine a farming couple $40k for not obediently kneeling to commands to wear safety helmets on their own bikes,  would have struck them as the kind of rulers they were fighting. They would not have listened long to speeches from politicians trying to wrap themselves in lost historical glory, paid for by people whose values they now despise.

Our service-people did not demand or expect to have their bodies returned.

New Zealand rulers have lacked the intellectual courage to defend secularism for a very long time. Our national museum has been wasting treasure funding the repatriation of shrunken heads of slaves killed by Maori expressly for the purpose of selling those heads. Ostentatious wailing parties accompany the heads at taxpayer expense. A state organisation that should be absolutely dedicated to preserving and communicating objective knowledge of culture and history is essentially propagating a lie. The affected piety and mourning that attends the return of those artifacts (for destruction in the ground) falsely implies that they left New Zealand in some gross contravention of indigenous culture, for which modern westerners should feel guilty, and for which modern compensation is due, and useful.

Only pitifully useless cultures reward and steer their people into conspicuous displays of their ‘love’ (or pride or guilt?) by fighting over and spending treasure on anonymous long dead parts of bodies. Successful cultures spend their treasure, their emotions and their time on the future, not wailing pointlessly over the dead.

Some of New Zealand’s rulers are leading our culture into the past as fast as they can drag us.

Stephen Franks is principal of Wellington commercial and public law firm Franks and Ogilvie.

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