Story: Death and dying

Page 4. Burials and cemeteries

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Māori burial practices

Māori buried people of high status close to settlements, then disinterred the bones and placed them in secret locations. Burial sites were tapu (sacred). These practices changed in the late 19th century, when European-style urupā or cemeteries developed near marae.

Early European burials

Sealers and whalers buried their dead at sea or around early whaling stations. One of the earliest European cemeteries is at Peraki, a Banks Peninsula whaling station founded by George Hempleman in 1837.

The first settler burial grounds were located in or near emerging settlements – some were on public land, others around churches. The tombstones recorded the hardships of the time – young men were killed in accidents at work, women died in childbirth, and epidemics killed babies and young children. They also recorded where people came from, and sometimes named the ship that had brought them to New Zealand and the port at which they had arrived.

The first town cemeteries

Within a decade of their founding, Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin had established cemeteries on public land. While initially people of all faiths were buried together, by 1851 separate sections were established for Anglicans, Catholics, ‘dissenters’ or ‘non-conformists’, and Jews.

What’s in a name?

In the late 19th century undertakers were often carpenters, builders or cabinetmakers who also made coffins and managed burials. When the New Zealand Federation of Funeral Directors was established in 1937, they avoided the term ‘undertaker’ because it was associated with earlier ‘unsanitary’ practices and was seen as objectionable. The term ‘funeral director’ is now in common use.

20th-century cemeteries

As towns and cities grew, many of the old cemeteries were seen as squalid and unhealthy. They had also often reached their capacity by late 19th century. New, large, utilitarian council cemeteries were established by local councils on the fringes of cities and towns by the  early 20th century.

Landscaped garden and lawn cemeteries became more common in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s large headstones were less common and there were fewer markers for the dead. Lawns were provided for the scattering of ashes and memorial rose gardens were established with plaques for those cremated.

In the early 21st century headstones were once again used to mark where bodies or ashes were interred. Etched images and photographs were increasingly used on the headstones.

Showing you remember

Maintaining graves and headstones, bringing flowers or planting around a grave or memorial plaque has always been important. Friends and relatives are most likely to visit graves on special occasions such as the birthday of the deceased or times of religious significance such as Christmas or Easter. While family members are expected to maintain graves, responsibility for their upkeep falls to local councils if family members die or move away.

Stillbirths and miscarriages

In the 1980s and 1990s many city councils started to set aside areas for the burial of stillborn babies and miscarried foetuses. Rituals of farewell became more frequent and they were mourned as children by their parents.

Different cultures

In the late 20th century, city and district councils came to recognise that different cultures had their own rules about burial and visits to graves. Māori consider that urupā (burial grounds) or cemeteries are tapu (sacred) and that tapu is removed by washing hands on departure. Water is now available in most cemeteries. Graves can now be prepared in ways that are consistent with Muslim beliefs and practices. For Māori and those of the Russian Orthodox faith, the unveiling of a memorial headstone a year after a death is a very important ritual.

Natural and eco-burials

Natural burials or eco-burials involve using shallow graves, around one metre deep. The body is not embalmed and is placed in a shroud or cardboard, wicker or untreated timber casket. The plot is filled with organically active soil to aid decomposition. These graves are increasingly identified with a GIS (graphic information system) location or a tag on a tree.

Special gifts

Some people donate their organs at death for transplant surgery and medical research. This wish is registered when they apply for a driver’s licence. If members of the family object, organs are not taken. After organ donation, the body is returned to the family for burial or cremation. Some people bequeath their bodies to medical schools for the purposes of study. After the bodies have been used, they are cremated and the ashes are either scattered in the local cemetery or returned to family members.

Regulating death

Before burial or cremation a medical certificate must be signed by a doctor recording the cause of death, or a coroner must formally release the body. Those who move the body from its place of death must sign a ‘Transfer of charge of the body’ form. All deaths must be registered within three days of a funeral or cremation. The death certificate is usually obtained by a funeral director appointed by the family, who also registers the death and moves the body to the place where it will be buried or cremated, but anyone can take on this responsibility.

Rules about burial and cremation

Under the Burial and Cremation Act 1964, bodies can be buried on land or at sea. City or district councils are responsible for land burials at council-owned cemeteries, but there are also privately owned cemeteries. The act does not cover urupā (Māori burial grounds), except where specifically stated.

How to cite this page:

Ruth McManus and Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Death and dying - Burials and cemeteries', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Ruth McManus and Rosemary Du Plessis, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 16 May 2018, updated 1 Nov 2023