OPINION: One of life's dead certs is that we all will die - about 30,000 of us a year, in New Zealand. Significant numbers will be buried, but most will be cremated according to decisions reached through a mix of religious, cultural and statutory considerations.
The Burial and Cremation Act 1964 governs when and where burials take place and who may provide funeral and cremation services. The Law Commission has been reviewing its provisions, with particular regard to cultural and spiritual needs, the protection of land used for human burial, whether stronger consumer protections are needed in the funeral and cremation sector, and guidance and assistance to the bereaved when serious disagreements erupt within families.
Highly publicised disagreement was triggered several years ago when the body of James Takamore was removed from Christchurch by members of his extended family and buried in the Bay of Plenty, contrary to his wishes and those of his long-term partner that he be buried in Christchurch. The Supreme Court ultimately found the "collective will" of Tuhoe could not be imposed upon Takamore's partner, although two judges said the relevant common law was "obscure".
The Law Commission's work has resulted in a just-published issues paper that proposes disputes like this be settled in the Family Court or the Maori Land Court, although it does not satisfactorily address the matter of how to stop a body being snatched and buried before a disagreement is resolved. But other issues can lead to cultural misunderstandings, such as the disposal of ashes: some cultures allow their release into running water but Maori tradition frowns on this. The commission's paper addresses many other issues - whether we should be allowed to be buried on private land, such as a family farm, for example, whether funeral costs should be clearly itemised, the importance of community opinion in deciding the locations of new crematoria. But the paper has steered clear of cryonics, the low-temperature preservation of humans (and their animals) who hope they will be healed and resuscitated in the future. That's a choice for the rare few optimists among us who don't regard death - not death as we know it, anyway - as a dead cert.
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