Is death taboo or <i>tapu</i>? Why do these two versions of the same word evoke such different cultural responses to issues of death and the dead? In this paper, we explore Western anthropological interpretations of the death taboo, its relationship to Māori understanding of <i>tapu</i>, and how the transformation of <i>tapu</i> into taboo influences engagement with human remains. We maintain that such an anthropological approachincorporating historical, archaeological and biological anthropological perspectives can further contribute to a number of cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary debates. We further argue that this will expand and elucidate cross-cultural understandings of responses to death by siting them within specific historical-cultural contexts and locations.