Dealing with death in a Kiwi way

00:51, Apr 13 2014

The ways we say goodbye to the people we love have changed hugely in the past 50 years - but the rules haven't. With the Law Commission about to update them, Katie Chapman and Andrea O'Neil look at what makes a modern Kiwi funeral.

When the Gracewood family wanted to farewell Wal, they didn't want a typical funeral. That wouldn't have suited their husband and father, a lover of parties, travel and Frank Sinatra.

Under disco lights at an Auckland community hall, friends and family gathered to remember the 64-year-old accountant with songs and laughter. Guests sang Fly Me to the Moon and daughter Gemma performed with her ukulele orchestra. Everybody wore name tags identifying how they fitted into Wal's life.

Wal and wife Liz were wine lovers, so many guests brought a good bottle and other friends provided a roast dinner.

Wal had been a passionate proponent of to-do lists, including an epic bucket list when he was diagnosed with cancer. Each funeral guest was asked to write tributes under the categories "must do", "should do", "could do", and "doo be doo be doo".

Wal's body was not at the party. He was buried at a private family ceremony the next day, under the Auckland Airport flight path, with a bottle of wine and his passport tucked into the coffin.


Funerals are often seen as steeped in tradition, with familiar rites and customs forming the cornerstones. Yet in New Zealand, celebrations of life such as the Gracewoods had for Wal are increasingly the norm. Compared to the rest of the world, we have some of the most personal and secular services in the world - and the most commercial.

Our funerals are punctuated with personal anecdotes and slideshows with an emphasis on celebrating the life of the person, and ending their story in style. But with all the extras considered necessary, people are often surprised by the bill at the end as the individual elements add up.

Yet while our funerals have developed in a distinctly Kiwi way, the rules around funerals, burial and cremation were written about 50 years ago - signed off in 1968.

That's about to change. After a review started back in 2010, the Law Commission is on the verge of recommending a suite of changes to the laws about where people can be buried, regulation of funeral directors, transparency around pricing, and how disputes such as the John Takamore case are dealt with.

Law commissioner Wayne Mapp, a former National MP, is leading the review and says it's about updating the law to meet the modern Kiwi experience of death without over-regulating, which would stop funerals being able to adapt as culture and diversity change within this country. "The art is to strike that balance."

SO WHAT is the typical Kiwi funeral these days?

Sally Raudon explored that topic for the Winston Churchill Fellowship in 2010 and found that Kiwi funerals were distinct from others around the world.

We farewell people earlier - in Sweden it's not uncommon for there to be a six-week gap between death and funeral - and our services are more secular, personal, and longer than in many other countries.

In Britain, she says, a service will often last barely 20 minutes, with a formal ceremony held at the crematorium before the next family comes in. "It really is an appointment you keep, and there's certainly been cases of councils fining people who stay too long."

By comparison, we're far more personal in our farewells. Slideshows and photoboards are common features, multiple people representing different facets of a person's life - family, friends, work and hobbies - will get up to speak, and most services go for at least an hour. "We have taken a view that actually we want this ceremony to be about the person who has died . . . very, very totally focused on wanting the ceremony to be about all the things that made them them."

That, in part, is reflected in our funeral industry, which is among the most commercial in the world.

Where in other countries aspects such as the venue, registration or celebrant can be supplied and paid for by either the local authority or church, in New Zealand we pay for virtually everything.

Raudon says this commercialisation is a hangover from the 1950s when many funeral directors were influenced by practices from the United States.

But with commercialisation has also come increasing concern about cost, particularly as the average price of a funeral - about $8000 - is viewed as out of step with the maximum Work and Income grant of $1971.37. That compares to the $5879.81 available from ACC after an accidental death.

As Raudon noted in her fellowship report: "At any other time in an ordinary person's life, a discretionary purchase of $8000 would be cause to seek quotes, perhaps gather recommendations from friends and family and otherwise deliberate.

"However, funeral purchases are made quickly and without many of the social behaviours that accompany status-seeking purchases."

Mapp says this is a key focus of the law review, along with more need for licensing in the industry, and was a common concern raised in public meetings and the more than 200 submissions received.

Part of the solution is making pricing more transparent, he says.

People are unlikely to call multiple funeral directors and get quotes, but if there is a requirement to display a breakdown of costs on websites, then at least people can shop around in a way that won't perpetuate grief before choosing who to go with.

"People are not fully aware of the choices that are available to them . . . price disclosure of the elements of it, of itself, gives people a better awareness of the options that they have."

But New Zealand Funeral Directors Association chief executive Katrina Shanks says the problem isn't so much the pricing, but New Zealanders' preparedness for death.

Her organisation represents 80 per cent of the country's funeral directors, and she says it is a self- regulating industry that does not need more government oversight, because that exists already in an industry that is completely people- focused. "It's not a job - it's a calling . . . they care about people and they want to make a difference in their lives."

There are affordable funeral options available, but lack of advanced planning means people don't save for funerals as they would for other big life expenses, and they don't talk about it, so families are left to make the decisions, she says.

In New Zealand, only 5 per cent of people pre-plan their funerals, compared with 15 per cent in Australia.

People need to start thinking about saving for funerals in the same way they do for houses, cars, weddings and retirement, says Shanks, also a former National MP.

Raudon agrees people need to talk more about death and plan more. Funerals are a "fundamentally human thing", but trends change slowly, and people often default to what they know - which is likely to be a grandparent's funeral.

But in fact, the existing rules offer a lot of flexibility for people to create more personal experiences - the only legal requirements are for deaths to be notified and bodies disposed of. Any funeral or ceremony is completely optional, and up to individuals to decide.

The Gracewoods are an example of where funerals may go - non-traditional, but still very Kiwi in that it was a celebration of life.

Saving money was not the family's motivation, wife Liz said, and in fact Wal's send-off was expensive: He had wanted a nice wooden coffin, for one thing. "He absolutely wouldn't have particle board."

Wal had not planned his funeral before he died in 2009, but his creative family knew a standard send-off would not do.

"We were definitely not into doing a funeral. We didn't want any stranger to be telling us what to do. It was perfectly right for us. He would have loved it."

Nobody was offended by the lack of tradition. "Everybody enjoyed themselves. There was a lot of laughter, there weren't tears until the very end, when reality set in."

Certainly, Raudon says, as the Kiwi culture continues to diversify, so do our funerals. While the rules should not be changed to restrict evolution of funerals, they do need to reflect that changing society, she says.

Mapp says that is a key part of the review. The way we farewell people now is not the same as 50 years ago, so the laws need to be refreshed so that they can last another half-century.

One aspect is looking at where bodies can be buried - with the ability to set up private cemeteries and even bury people on private land a likely recommendation.

The key is making it open enough, but not too open, he says. The intention isn't to allow bodies to be buried in suburban backyards, but there is an argument for burials on family sheep stations.

Also, some communities may want to set up private cemeteries rather than it being entirely in the hands of councils - an option Mapp says is particularly favoured by natural burial advocates.

The issue of where and how bodies are disposed of is not just confined to burials. There are also cultural considerations, such as Muslim burial requirements, or Hindu funeral pyres to consider. The latter are currently possible, but difficult. But there may be ways for communities to build their own facilities, such as special crematoriums, that adhere to their own cultural traditions.

There are also matters around where ashes can be scattered to regulate - with concern that people are being scattered in tapu areas such as waterways.

The likely solution is local authorities producing guidelines, so people know where it is and isn't appropriate, Mapp says.

But while most of the changes are straightforward modernisation, Mapp says the toughest issue will be dispute resolution, particularly after the case of James Takamore, whose body was snatched from Christchurch by members of his extended family.

The debate came down to whether it was the traditional executor of the will, or the person who best knew the wishes of the deceased, who should have the say over where someone is buried.

"We've got to determine as a Law Commission whether that actually meets contemporary community expectations."

It is the balancing act of all these various aspects of death that is now being worked through, and Mapp hopes there will be recommendations by the second half of this year.

Everyone agrees the same flexibility in the current regime needs to remain, so that funerals, such as Wal Gracewood's, can continue to be Kiwi affairs.

Laughter and fun are the lasting memory from Wal's funeral, where the only thing missing from the party was the man himself, wife Liz says.

"You've got to laugh. You can't do anything else. You can't fight it, you can't change it. You've just got to relax."


The Law Commission is poised to recommend changes to how we mourn and dispose of the dead.

Since July 2010 it has been studying how New Zealanders enact death rites, and has identified three platforms for reform.

Burial and cremation: When our burial laws were written in the 1960s, fears of health risks from corpses led to strict laws about where bodies could be buried, and multiculturalism had not yet flourished. The Law Commission recommends allowing more privately run special-interest cemeteries, encouraging the creation of special sections in council cemeteries, and granting more burials in areas such as private rural land.

Regulation of the funeral industry: Funerals are arranged at a vulnerable time for the bereaved. The commission recommends stricter licensing of funeral directors, and greater transparency of costs and standards at funeral homes, crematoriums and cemeteries.

Family disputes: Families have fractured and diversified beyond the imaginings of 1960s lawmakers. The dispute over James Takamore's final resting place is the most well-known of an increasingly common phenomenon. Little-understood laws about estate executors need overhauling, the commission recommends. To resolve disputes quickly and cheaply, they should be settled in the Family Court or Maori Land Court, rather than the High Court.


Farewelling a loved one can be as simple as cremation in a pine casket, or as expensive as a fully catered service and a wake for hundreds of mourners. The average New Zealand funeral costs about $8000. Here is how the bill breaks down.

The casket: A simple wooden coffin for cremation costs about $850, while a top-of-the-line casket exceeds $4000. The most common caskets are finished wood, costing about $1300.

The funeral home: This is potentially the largest expense, on average $4000. The funeral director will transport, embalm, dress and house the body, and may arrange and direct the funeral. Staff will deal with medical papers and register the death.

The ceremony: Flowers, catering, payments to musicians, printing service sheets, videoing the funeral, and bereavement notices in newspapers can range from $800 to $2500. A celebrant costs about $450, an organist $200.

The final resting place: Cremation fees are about $500, while a council plot and burial ranges from $1120 to $2900.


The Dominion Post