Auckland mum shocked after son’s body exhumed without her knowledge

The mother of a deceased Auckland man, whose body or tūpāpaku was taken from his whānau cemetery earlier this year by his girlfriend, still has no idea where he has been re-buried.

Rewa Sullivan, who gave birth to and raised the late Matiu Sullivan, is now demanding answers from the Ministry of Health, which granted a license for her son's body to be exhumed without her knowledge.

"They had gone in with a digger," said Sullivan.

"They'd left track marks all over the place and they'd left mud all over the concrete in the paths. We had stuff laid on him to signify where he was, and they had taken it all off."

Rewa was distraught to find her son's once lovingly decorated plot at Pukapuka Cemetery turned to clumps of mud.

It's the second incident of a tūpāpaku being forcibly taken and relocated that 1News has reported on in the last two months.

"Sticking out of the ground was the rest of his coffin lid, like they'd just stuck it there with no respect," she said.

"They'd taken him out of his coffin. And of course he'd been lying there for three months, so he was actually decomposing, and that's what we could smell."

READ MORE: Lower Hutt widow distraught as husband's body forcibly taken from home

Matiu's cousin Tania Ratana said the situation was heartbreaking.

"It blew our family apart, literally, blew our family apart. There was just this huge disbelief and hurt and anger, because our doors have never been shut. So come to our table, come to our doors, talk to us, we're not that unapproachable," she said.

Matiu, whose death was sudden, is described as loving, cheeky, loud, and someone who adored children. His cousin Tania said he was a 'true Sullivan'.

He was buried in his whānau cemetery in Mahurangi, just north of Auckland, where four generations of his whānau are buried.

Re-buried in Rotorua

His girlfriend did not want to be interviewed on camera but told 1News she initially agreed to the arrangement, but changed her mind at the funeral service when Matiu's casket didn't seem to fit in the hole.

Several attempts had to be made to get him in the ground, which she took as a tohu, or sign, he did not want to be there.

So, three months later, she took his body and re-buried him somewhere in Rotorua.

"I couldn't understand how it could even happen," said Rewa Sullivan.

READ MORE: Whānau explain why they took body from widow's home for burial

Matiu's body could be legally exhumed because his partner obtained a disinterment license.

The Ministry of Health is responsible for granting them, but is required to get a written statement from all next of kin first.

This never occurred.

"How can the Ministry of Health say that's ok? How can this process go forward without the immediate whānau knowing?" said Ratana.

Guidelines waived

The Ministry told 1News it doesn't comment on individual cases for privacy reasons but said its own guidelines are sometimes waived.

"For example, when a family member unlawfully buried a deceased person against the wishes of the remainder of the family," a Ministry spokesperson said.

"This guidance has also been previously waived where the Ministry was concerned the resolution process would be unnecessarily costly for both parties, place the family in an adversarial relationship, and create further mental health and wellbeing burdens on a grieving whānau."

But Rewa Sullivan said it was unacceptable for this to happen to any mother without her knowledge.

"It's like we've never been taken into account, and the sad thing is, this could happen to any family, anywhere in New Zealand. It cost her $90 for that license. It's so wrong."

Matiu's partner said she took his body a day earlier than specified in the license to avoid conflict.

Matiu's whānau contacted the Ministry of Health on multiple occasions to stop the exhumation, but were told to contact Matiu's partner directly to find a resolution.

They also sought help from at least seven different lawyers. One lawyer told Rewa Sullivan that succeeding in any legal action would be very unlikely, given the precedent set by the 2007 body-snatch case of James Takamore.

In that case, Takamore's widow won the legal right to decide what should happen with his body.

Matiu's whānau could not afford the legal costs it would take to challenge the disinterment anyway.

"This was gonna cost us buckets," said Tania Ratana.

"And when I say buckets, I'm talking $10,000 just to talk to a lawyer. We don't have $10,000."

Matiu's whānau still don't know where he is buried.

"The longer time goes on, the more I want him back where he belongs, because he shouldn't be with strangers," said Rewa Sullivan.

Matiu's partner said she is open to discussing where he is buried, but only if his whānau make contact first.