Story: Death and dying

Nothing is more certain than death, but the way people deal with death and dying has changed over time. Different cultures and religions have their own ways of preparing for death, and mourning and burying the dead.

Story by Ruth McManus and Rosemary Du Plessis
Main image: A funeral cortège moves through Hokitika, 1914

Story Summary

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Dying

In the late 1800s and early 1900s most people died at home, cared for by family. In the 21st century most people die in hospital or in a hospice (places where the dying are cared for).

Different cultures and religions have particular traditions of what is said and done while someone is dying and after they have died. For example, a dying Catholic may want to receive holy communion.

After death

After death, bodies are usually laid out – cleaned, dressed and put in a coffin. In the past this was usually done by a female relative, but it is now almost always done by a funeral director. In the 21st century bodies are usually embalmed – preserved with chemicals. Family and friends will often go to a funeral home to view the body.

Tangihanga

Tangihanga, Māori mourning rituals, last several days. Family and friends stay with the body through the whole process, which usually takes place on a marae. Mourners may talk to the dead person, pray, sing or just sit with them.

Funerals

Funerals are a way to farewell the person who has died. They are often held in churches, but may also be in the chapels of funeral homes, marae, community halls or gardens.

Most funerals are attended by only family and friends of the person who died. Others, often for public figures, are larger. State funerals, such as those for mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary or Māori Queen Te Arikinui Dame Te Ātairangikaahu, were televised and attended by large numbers of people.

Different cultures and religions have their own funeral traditions and ceremonies.

Burials and cemeteries

Traditionally Māori would carefully wrap the tūpāpaku (dead body) in mats and cloaks and farewell them on the marae. Tūpāpaku would be buried in a shallow grave or placed in caves or the hollows of trees. Bodies would later be exhumed and the bones washed and scraped. Mourning rituals were held on the marae and the remains buried in secret places.

European settlers began the first cemeteries in the late 1830s. From the 1850s local councils established cemeteries, which were often divided into separate sections for different faiths, such as Anglicans, Dissenters, Catholics and Jews.

Different cultures have their own traditions about burial. Some people prefer natural or eco-burials, where the body is not embalmed and is buried so it can decompose more quickly.

Cremation

Cremation is burning of the body, usually in a furnace at a crematorium. Ashes are given to family members, who bury them, scatter them or keep them in a casket.

The first cremation in New Zealand was not until 1909. It has become more frequently used from the 1960s, and in the early 2010s around 70% of bodies were cremated. Some religions do not allow cremation.

Sometimes people have their pets cremated after they have died.

Euthanasia

Voluntary euthanasia is when a person suffering from an incurable disease asks someone to help them die. Some people are in favour of euthanasia because they believe it gives people the right to die with dignity and without pain. Those against euthanasia believe it devalues human life. Euthanasia is illegal in New Zealand. In the 21st century a number of high profile court cases highlighted issues relating to assisted dying. There were also attempts to make assisted dying legal in certain circumstances. In June 2017 MP David Seymour introduced the End of Life Choice Bill designed to give people with a terminal illness or a grievous and irremediable medical condition the option of requesting assisted dying. In 2018 the Justice Select Committee was considering submissions on this legislation. Parliament is due to vote on the Bill in late 2018.

How to cite this page:

Ruth McManus and Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Death and dying', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/death-and-dying (accessed 18 August 2018)

Story by Ruth McManus and Rosemary Du Plessis, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 16 May 2018