In the 19th century undertakers made coffins, transported dead bodies and organised burials. In the 1930s funeral directors organised themselves into an occupational group with responsibility for bodies, funerals, burials and cremations. Funeral directors have become ‘grief specialists’ and technical experts in embalming bodies. However, family members are the main decision makers about what happens to bodies after death, often on the instructions of the deceased.
After death bodies are carefully laid out – cleaned, dressed, put in a coffin or wrapped in a shroud. In the 19th century female relatives did these tasks. During the 20th century more people died in hospitals and were then taken to funeral parlours to be laid out. While funeral directors in the 1930s and 1940s sometimes discouraged the viewing of bodies by family and friends, from the 1970s this practice was more likely to be encouraged as part of the grieving process.
Influence of tangihanga
Māori approaches to death have been seen by many as more honest and psychologically healthy than Pākehā practices in the first part of the 20th century. Viewing the body, bringing the body home, talking to the person who has died and addressing the dead person directly at funerals are practices which have been influenced by tangihanga.
Being with the body
For Māori, Pacific Island peoples and some Pākehā and new migrant families it is important to bring the body of the dead back home, or to a marae or community hall. Other family members and friends bring food, send flowers and messages. Mourners may talk to the dead person, pray, sing or just sit with them.
Embalming, where chemicals are used to preserve bodies, was rare until the 1950s when funeral directors argued that it was necessary for hygienic reasons and because it enabled bodies to be presented in a ‘wholesome’ and ‘beautiful manner’.1
By the late 1970s about 70% of bodies were embalmed, and this rose to almost 90% in the early 21st century. Embalming means that funerals, burials and cremations can occur some weeks after a death. Some people reject embalming and prefer early burial or cremation.