Story: Death and dying

Page 3. Funeral and memorial services

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Every day about 80 funerals and memorial services are held on marae and in churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, funeral home chapels, community halls and suburban gardens. Death notices and obituaries (accounts of the life of the person who has died) are published in newspapers. In the 21st century they may also be posted on internet sites or communicated through email.

Funerals and memorial services

Contemporary funerals and memorial services are ways to farewell someone and also to shed tears and express grief. The body is present at funerals, but not at memorial services. Ceremonies are also often performed at the graveside, before cremation or before burial at sea.

No-fuss funeral

When nine-year-old Barbara Macgregor died in the Matarawa valley near Whanganui in 1863, a short funeral address was offered in the family’s makeshift home. Later, the Reverend Richard Taylor (who recorded the event in his diary) read the 39th Psalm to about 60 people assembled outside the house and invited them to pray. Barbara’s coffin was placed in a spring cart and taken up hill where it was ‘simply let down into the grave and the earth thrown in without any further ceremony’.1

Funerals in the past were religious events and affirmed the spiritual beliefs of the participants. This changed in the late 20th century as fewer people identified with particular religious traditions. In the early 2000s some funerals were entirely secular, but often secular music, poetry and speeches were combined with religious ritual, texts and music.

While Pākehā women and children were often excluded from funerals in the late 19th and early 20th century, attitudes to their involvement in funerals shifted during the 20th century. Men, women and children have always participated in tangi.

Public funerals

Some funerals and memorial services are small gatherings of close family members, but other funerals involve whole communities, cities and nations or attract international attention.

Public funerals for politicians, famous people or the victims of natural disasters draw crowds who may view the body, watch the funeral cortège or procession, and sometimes attend the funeral ceremony. State funerals such as those for Prime Minister Peter Fraser, mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and Māori Queen Te Arikinui Dame Te Ātairangikaahu, are photographed, filmed or televised, and attended by large numbers of people.

Cost of funerals

The cost of funerals, memorial services and cremation is met by family members. In the past people on low incomes contributed to burial societies that covered their funeral expenses. In 2010 funerals cost approximately $6,500.

Conducting the ceremony

In the past, only religious figures like priests, ministers or rabbis officiated at funerals. In the early 21st century a range of people conducted funerals and memorial services. Funeral directors often work with religious leaders, professional celebrants, family members, friends and colleagues to organise death and funeral notices, funeral programmes, photo displays, transport, music, flowers, and food and drink after the ceremony.

Doing something different

Funeral celebrant Mary Hancock argues that people often want something different from standard religious services. She says, ‘the freedom we have to create new rituals and ceremonies … is part of what keeps on making New Zealand and its culture attractive to migrants’.2

Diverse ceremonies

Funeral and memorial services can be very different depending on religious beliefs, cultural practices, the age of the person and how they died.

The person conducting the ceremony welcomes the participants and tells them what will happen. Words, songs, chants, music and images are used to remember the person who has died and express what their life and death means for those participating.

At some point in the ceremony there will be a ritual of farewell. This could take the form of a prayer, chant or special blessing, religious text or the removal of the body by pall bearers to a hearse (a special funeral vehicle) or to the graveside.

Post-funeral rituals

After a funeral it is often important to share food with other mourners. Māori refer to this as te hākari or the post-tangi feast. Sometimes mourners offer food at a shrine, burn incense, plant trees or shrubs. Prayers, chants and songs are seen as ways of assisting the transition of the spirit from one form of being to another. In some traditions, after the burial the home is cleansed by sprinkling water or is blessed.

In the 21st century memorial websites are often set up on which mourners can record tributes to the person who has died.

  1. Quoted in Debra Powell, ‘“It was hard to die frae hame”: death, grief and mourning among Scottish migrants to New Zealand, 1840–1890.’ MA thesis, University of Waikato, 2007, p. 61. Back
  2. Quoted in Margot Schwass, ed, Last words: approaches to death in New Zealand's cultures and faiths. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books with the Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand, 2005, p. 51. Back
How to cite this page:

Ruth McManus and Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Death and dying - Funeral and memorial services', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 March 2018)

Story by Ruth McManus and Rosemary Du Plessis, published 5 May 2011