Story: Death and dying

Page 5. Cremation

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Rates of cremation

The Cemeteries Act 1882 made cremation legal, but it was 1909 before the first cremation was carried out in Wellington at the Karori crematorium – one of the the earliest crematoria in the southern hemisphere. Only a minority of people were cremated until the 1960s and 1970s, when more local authorities invested in cremation facilities. In the 2010s about 70% of all bodies are cremated. The rate is higher in towns and cities.


In 1875 the first cremation society was established in Lawrence, Otago and funeral reform associations and cremation societies were also formed in Dunedin, Christchurch, Napier and Auckland. Wellington advocates of cremation did not form an organised group, but communicated with ‘cremationists’ in other parts of New Zealand. Cremation was seen as more ‘sanitary’ than burials which led to ‘the enormous accretions of decaying animal matter which are unceasingly accumulating in our cemeteries’.1

Attitudes to cremation

Maōri and Pasifika often object to cremation because of their beliefs about the sanctity of the body. Beliefs about resurrection also mean that some religious groups do not practice cremation. Orthodox Jews also avoid cremation.


City councils started to build crematoria with funeral chapels in the 1960s, and in the 1980s a number of private funeral businesses expanded their facilities to include crematoria and chapels.

Regulation of cremation

A cremation is usually organised by a funeral director. Before it is carried out permission must be given by a medical referee. Pacemakers must be removed and the crematorium notified of any radiotherapy treatment prior to death.

Crematoria are required to keep records of all the cremations they perform. Cremations can also occur outside if the dead person identified with a religious tradition that requires this.

Personalised practices

US television series Six feet under attracted a large audience when it was shown in New Zealand in 2002. It also generated discussion about differences between funeral businesses in the US and New Zealand. Local funeral directors argued that their services were more ‘personalised’ and that in New Zealand ‘it’s not about sales but service’.2

Cremation processes

During cremation the body is reduced to ashes (cremains) through a high-temperature combustion process within a cremator (furnace). One body at a time is cremated over a period of two to four hours. The casket is also cremated and the ashes are crushed to a uniform size and given to family members.

Storing, burying or scattering ashes

After cremation the ashes are stored, scattered or interred (buried). Rituals are often held when ashes are buried or scattered. It is not necessary to record what happens to ashes after cremation.

Faithful companions

Pet animals have been buried in domestic settings for millennia, for example in flowerbeds or under a tree. However, pet cremation, pet cemeteries and pet memorials are growing in popularity. Sometimes the ashes of a beloved pet are placed inside the casket before a person is cremated.

  1. New Zealand Mail, 6 June 1890, p. 16. Back
  2. Dominion Post, 22 June 2002, p. 25. Back
How to cite this page:

Ruth McManus and Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Death and dying - Cremation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 July 2024)

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