Putting DIY funerals on NZ's radar

01:09, Jun 09 2014
Philip Tomlinson
DIY ADVOCATE: Philip Tomlinson says the cost of a traditional funeral is a big burden for many families.

Two men have made it their mission to spread the acceptance of DIY funerals, and to aid those who choose to go that way.

They are Philip Tomlinson of Timaru and Paul Briggs of Nelson.

The pair are in open rebellion against the funeral industry because both feel the New Zealand funeral industry has become too commercialised and demands too much money from families.

Tomlinson, a retired mathematician, has even published a book on the subject, Arranging a Funeral, to give people some pointers on doing it themselves.

Tomlinson warns it would be a big ask for someone to just pick up his book after a death and begin organising the funeral, though it has been done.

Instead, both Tomlinson and Briggs insist the key to DIY send-offs is pre-preparation, especially as there will be risk-averse family members who will insist a funeral is not cobbled together.


"Unless preparations have been put together, a funeral director is almost certainly rung," Tomlinson says.

Broadly speaking, there are seven key areas that need to be done to organise a funeral.

These are:

1. The interim care of the deceased.

2. Completing the legal paperwork.

3. Transporting the deceased.

4. Informing the community of the death.

5. Acquiring a coffin.

6. Organising the burial, or cremation.

7. Organising the funeral service.

Only the first, and possibly the third, areas present any real difficulties.

Cremations and burials can be arranged directly once the paperwork is done, and do not require a funeral director. Death notices can be placed in newspapers without aid. A hall, church or other reception place can be arranged, catering planned, flowers ordered.

To achieve these things just requires organisation and a little knowledge, and that, says Briggs, is not something you want to be learning when there's a body in the bedroom.

"Very few people do want to think about it or do any planning, so when a death happens they are totally unprepared," says Briggs, who was prompted into his stance after his father's funeral, which felt totally out of keeping with the man. With the stress and grief, it is a terrible time to be thinking about DIY.

He says it is entirely possible for professional funeral directors to do as little as 20 per cent of the work in the funeral process - picking up the deceased and storing them in preparation for the burial or cremation. The family can do the rest.

Some funeral directors may be resistant to being hired to do so little, Briggs says, and they may even try to insist that people pay a "minimum" package price for the service that's the same as their no frills cremation package, sometimes in the region of $2500.

Negotiating may be hard, and both Tomlinson and Briggs say they have had "wrestles" with funeral directors to get what they consider to be fair and transparent pricing.

Some families even prefer to store and transport their loved ones' bodies themselves, though Tomlinson cautions care both in regards to the dignity of the deceased, as well as the risk to the backs of those lifting bodies which are quite literally dead weights.

Dealing with dead bodies is something our society has made unfamiliar to most of us, says Tomlinson, but it is entirely possible. However, how hot the weather is and the length of time until the deceased is buried or cremated are both factors that need to be considered. Some keen DIYers even buy dry ice to help keep bodies cool, Tomlinson says, removing the need for contracting a funeral director to store the body.

A possible hitch to managing a body is it can be hard to organise a coffin in a short space of time as not all funeral directors may be happy to sell you a casket on its own, Tomlinson says.

If a casket can can be bought in advance - and the internet makes sourcing one easier - a great deal of pressure is taken off the DIY funeral arranger. Once a body is in a coffin, it is easier to manage.

Tomlinson says the cost of a traditional funeral is a big burden for many families, and prices of $8000 to $10,000 seem relatively common.

And he bridles at some of the things that have come to be seen as normal, such as the standard practice to burn or immediately bury an immaculately finished expensive coffin.

People may think that is a fitting way to show respect for the dead, and if that is people's choice, so be it, says Tomlinson. But for others a home-made MDF coffin, on which loved ones have written and drawn messages and tributes to the dead may be an equally valid choice.

Similarly, Tomlinson believes much of the embalming that is done before burials is unnecessary, and just adds to costs.

Both however warn that people who wish to do things themselves may find hurdles in the way.

Tomlinson says he's fought with funeral directors to get quotes for the provision of limited services such as body collection and storage.

Crematoria may even try to insist only funeral directors can arrange cremations. But Tomlinson says you can insist that you are a funeral director and legally so. If need be, quote from the Internal Affairs brochure, "A funeral director means a person whose business is or includes the burial and/or cremation of bodies."


Why people do funerals themselves, according to Philip Tomlinson in his book Arranging a Funeral:

You may be disenchanted by the social pressure to purchase a "standard funeral".

You may feel the obligation to "present" an entertainment-oriented funeral while carrying grief is an awful ordeal.

You may feel professional services are inordinately expensive or even unaffordable.

You may find that purchasing a full funeral package, in which everything is done for you, leaves you "wringing your hands", wanting to do something.

Source: Philip Tomlinson in his book Arranging a Funeral.

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