Major overhaul of death and funeral laws recommended by Law Commission

Lychgate Funerals assistant manager Michael Wolffram believes proposed law changes will improve funeral services for ...
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Lychgate Funerals assistant manager Michael Wolffram believes proposed law changes will improve funeral services for grieving families.

Death is being hauled into the 21st century with sweeping reforms to burial and cremation laws recommended by the Law Commission.

It released its 252-page report Death, Burial and Cremation - a new law for contemporary New Zealand this week, which found the Burial and Cremation Act 1964 should be ditched for new statutes.

It made 127 recommendations for change.

The review, requested by the Government in 2010, focused on four areas – death certification, cemeteries and crematoria, the funeral sector and burial decisions

– and found the act had "not aged well".

"Our law relating to certification of death and disposal of bodies is old, out of date and fractured," commission president Sir Grant Hammond said in the report.

"It has been in need of fundamental revision and law reform for many years now. Most, but not all, of the law is in a 50-year-old act – the Burial and Cremation Act 1964 – which itself rests on old antecedents."

Some issues included grappling with changing concepts of when someone was legally dead, outmoded systems for recording deaths, changed ways of dealing with bodies, increased demand for alternatives to traditional funerals, problems with burial grounds, and rightful claims by Maori and other ethnicities to have cultural and spiritual concerns considered, he said.

The report had been tabled in Parliament for ministers to consider developing new legislation, which would impact on the deaths of about 30,000 people in New Zealand a year.

Key recommendations included:

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  • Replace 1964 Burial and Cremation Act with new statutes for burial, cremation and funerals.
  • Register funeral directors.
  • Funeral directors must publish price lists of goods and services.
  • Appoint "deceased's representatives" to make decisions about funerals and dealing with bodies.
  • Private individuals or entities can apply to establish new cemeteries.
  • Appoint "cause of death reviewers" to review some deaths, detect errors in determining cause of death and educate doctors certifying death.
  • Less red tape for approving new crematoria and outdoor cremations.
  • Allow some nurses to certify death in some situations.
  • Recognise Tikanga Maori for practices and decisions about death.
  • Resolve burial disputes in Family Court or Maori Land Court, not just the High Court.
  • A new online process for death certification.
  • Policies developed for cemeteries, including minimum standards for maintenance.
The funeral industry welcomed the recommendations, particularly registering funeral directors, boosting clarity about funeral costs and easing requirements for developing new crematoria.
 
"It's essential that not only are behaviours and standards in our industry second-to-none, but they are seen to be second-to-none. That is what the public expects and deserves," Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand chief executive Katrina Shanks said.
 
"This is all about taking care of families when they are at their most vulnerable, which is exactly what the FDANZ stands for." 
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Proposed law changes will improve funeral services for dying people and their grieving relatives, according to a Wellington funeral director.
 
Lychgate Funerals assistant manager Michael Wolffram said the industry had pushed for registration for the profession for about 65 years, but had always been declined.
 
 
New Zealand had three professional bodies for funeral directors, which enforced strict rules of conduct and ethics for members, but were powerless to police non-members.
 
"Since the 1970s, there has been a rise of people who don't join these groups. Some of them cause concern around New Zealand and have no accountability. That has been a thorn in the side of established and professional funeral directors for some time," said Wolffram, a funeral director for more than 40 years who worked on submissions for the commission's review. 
 
Its recommendation to certify death within 24 hours would mean deceased loved ones could be released to grieving families more quickly, he said.
 
Currently, delays could occur if people died over the weekend or on public holidays, when certifying doctors were unavailable. Funeral directors were unable to prepare bodies and release them to their families until death certification had been received. "Many people are looking to have loved ones home much sooner."
 
He said another major change was the recommendation for "deceased's representatives", who would ensure a dying person's wishes were adhered to for their funeral and burial.
 
"Today, quite frequently, people will spend some time with funeral directors working out their wishes, but there is no legal standing for that. This might bring some strength to that."
 

 - Stuff

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