Don't wear black - the new funeral traditions

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 05:00 01/02/2014

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Sombre and black are on the way out, as Kiwis increasingly demand a unique final sendoff, often from beyond the grave.

Funeral directors say that in the past decade there has been a shedding of dour traditions and a shift toward a celebration-of-life style of funerals and services. And the growing tendency toward personalising everything from the hearse to the coffin has led to some unconventional ceremonies.

Funeral directors have accommodated Holden or Ford-themed funerals, drag queens riding scooters down the aisle, and, once, ashes of the departed shot into the air with fireworks.

The body of one gentleman, who had been fond of spas, was propped above the bubbles on a stiff plank, while friends and family filed past to pay their respects.

Singing and dancing can also be popular, with flamenco and Scottish highland dance featuring at Wellington funerals.

And while black attire is still common, mourners are just as often asked to wear bright colours to give the ceremony a more positive feel.

Otago University's Cyril Schafer, who studies funeral rites, says as New Zealand becomes more secular it is also shedding the stricter Christian funeral traditions. "A lot of people don't go to church so they look for meaning in other places," he says. "And that's developing into funerals around someone's life and their relationships."

The more diverse approach comes as the Law Commission recommends tightening regulations controlling funeral directors and how we treat the dead.

Consultation on the proposed changes has also revealed public divisions, with the disposal of ashes in public places particularly contentious. The commission heard from Maori who were unhappy with Sikh and Hindu communities seeking to scatter ashes in the Hutt River, a practice they found offensive.

Auckland researcher Sally Raudon, who conducted a comparative study of New Zealand funeral traditions, says while funerals are generally more secular, growing migrant populations are also bringing their own traditions.

Eventually they would morph with other Kiwi traditions, adding to our "mix-and-match" approach to funerals.

Funeral director Susan Eustace, at Sibuns in Auckland, says the industry is having to learn about a much wider range of funeral practices.

When preparing a funeral for a man from the Chinese community, she says, the family asked about her zodiac sign. "It turned out my sign was no good for closing the casket and I wasn't allowed to watch it being lowered."

Although funerals were increasingly varied, more people were opting out of them completely. Ms Raudon says simple ceremonies without the body, or throwing a party, are increasingly common, particularly among those without strong religious affiliations.

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By international standards, Kiwis are still relatively tame when it comes to remembering the dead. Funerals and traditions overseas include freezing and shattering the body, feeding it to vultures, or burying it in a giant bible-shaped coffin.

In the Texas you can even have your ashes fired into deep space if you have a spare $15,200.

- The Dominion Post

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