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Death and dying

by Ruth McManus and Rosemary Du Plessis

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.

Dying and bereavement

The number of deaths in New Zealand climbs each year as the population increases in both size and age. In the year to June 2010, 28,840 people died in New Zealand. Only 5% of those who died were under 40 years old, compared to 9% in 1990. Most of those who die are over 60 years old – the median age at death in 2009 was 77 years for men and 83 years for women. Age at death still differs significantly for Māori and non-Māori – on average Māori die at a younger age.

All cultures and religious beliefs attach social and spiritual importance to death and mourn the dead.

Home and hospital care

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries death usually occurred at home, with family members caring for the dying during the final weeks, days or hours of life. During the 20th century death was more likely to occur in hospital as doctors and nurses became involved in caring for dying people. In the early 21st century 70–80% of deaths occur in hospitals and rest homes.

No place like home

In the 2000s hospitals increasingly support death at home by liaising with general practitioners and district nurses who take over responsibility for the prescription and administration of medication. Peter Hicks, head of Wellington Hospital Intensive Care Unit, said in 2005 that facilitating death at home ‘humanises what we do … you can forget about blood pressure and testing … I think it has helped how we care for patients in the unit’.1

Hospice care

Catholic religious orders were the first to provide care outside the family for the dying, chronically ill and disabled. In the mid-20th century international support developed for modern hospices – places that provided physical, social, spiritual and emotional support for those dying, and their family and friends. By 2010 there were 34 secular and religious hospices in New Zealand, which focus on enhancing the lives of the terminally ill and providing appropriate pain relief.

Hospitals and community health teams have adopted many of the strategies of hospices as they relieve pain and work to improve the comfort of those who are dying.

A ‘good death’

In many religious and cultural traditions, a ‘good death’ involves being conscious, recognising those around and engaging in acts of forgiveness, farewell and reconciliation. However, death may be accidental, untimely, violent and unexpected.

Last rites

In most religious and cultural traditions certain things are said and done before and after death. Family, friends and neighbours gather to say goodbye and the dying person may offer a final speech. Prayers, chants and special rituals may be performed.

Many Catholics want to receive holy communion or viaticum (food for the journey) and the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) from a priest. Other Christians may also receive holy communion when they are close to death. These rituals recall the death of Christ and focus on the life of the spirit or soul beyond death. Across different religious traditions prayers and chants are offered to farewell the spirit of the dead person immediately after death.

Secular rituals include lighting candles, playing music, singing songs, assembling special objects and having final conversations that connect the person who is dying with those who love them. Non-religious rituals are increasingly important in the 21st century because nearly a third of New Zealanders do not identify with any particular religion but feel that it is still important to do something of significance for the dead and the living.

Showing grief

In the past people wore black, cut their hair or shaved their head when someone close to them died. In Victorian times mourning jewellery was worn which sometimes incorporated hair from the person who had died. Mourners are now less likely to dress differently, although some people still wear black to funerals.


For Māori it is vital for bereaved whānau to participate in a set of rituals over several days. Non-Māori from a range of different cultural and religious backgrounds also spend time with dying relatives and friends, and engage in rituals of farewell. The Holidays Act 2003 provides for up to three days bereavement leave on the death of a close relative (the minimum time for tangihanga or Māori mourning rituals), and there are no limits on the amount of bereavement leave in any year.

Support for those grieving usually comes from family members, friends and religious institutions. Professional grief counselling developed in the later 20th century. People also use the services of community organisations such as Skylight, an organisation set up to support children and young people experiencing grief and trauma. Hospices and funeral directors increasingly offer grief support.

    • 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. 18. Back

Bodies of the dead

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.

Laying out

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.

    • Cyril Schafer, 'Dead serious? Funeral directing in New Zealand.' Sites 4, no.1 (2007), p. 105. Back

Funeral and memorial services

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.

    • 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
    • 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

Burials and cemeteries

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 and 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, founded by George Hempleman as a whaling station 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 that time – many young men experienced accidental deaths at work, women died in childbirth and infant epidemics killed many babies and young children.

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 would also make coffins and manage 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. New, large, utilitarian council cemeteries were established by local councils on the fringes of cities and towns in the late 1930s and 1940s.

Landscaped garden and lawn cemeteries were used for both burials and the interment of ashes when more cremations occurred 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 scattering of ashes and memorial rose gardens established with plaques for those cremated.

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 often falls to local councils, as family members may 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 the 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. In the 2000s 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.


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 towns and cities invested in cremation facilities. In the early 2000s about 60% of all bodies were cremated. The rates are 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 Pacific Island peoples 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 privately operated 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 prior to death.

Crematoriums are required to keep records of all the cremations they perform. Cremations can also occur elsewhere if the dead person identified with a religious tradition that requires the burning of the body as a religious rite.

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) at a crematorium. A single body is cremated at a time over 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.

    • New Zealand Mail, 6 June 1890, p. 16. Back
    • Dominion Post, 22 June 2002, p. 25. Back


What is euthanasia?

The origin of this word is the Greek eu thanaos meaning ‘good death’ or to die well without pain. Euthanasia is the act of deliberately ending the life of another person by non-violent means. Involuntary euthanasia is when the person dying has not requested to be euthanased. Voluntary euthanasia is when a person assists someone who has requested help to die.

Euthanasia, including voluntary euthanasia, is illegal in New Zealand. However, there have been attempts to change the law; the most recent was the Death with Dignity Bill initiated by Peter Brown, deputy leader of New Zealand First, in 2003. It was defeated by two votes.

Arguments for euthanasia

Those in favour of voluntary euthanasia argue for the right of individuals to die with dignity and argue that the person concerned is best able to assess their quality of life and make decisions about whether they want to go on living.

Arguments against euthanasia

Objections to euthanasia are that it devalues life and undermines human dignity. Some believe that it also breaks religious laws. The New Zealand Medical Association considers that voluntary euthanasia is illegal and unethical, but supports patients' right to pain relief. It argues that the proper provision of such relief, even when it may hasten the death of the patient, is not unethical.

Pro-euthanasia organisations

The Voluntary Euthanasia Society of New Zealand (VES) advocates for voluntary euthanasia and pro-euthanasia campaigners such as Australian Philip Nitschke have made frequent visits to New Zealand to talk to VES members.

Controversial cases

There have been highly publicised New Zealand prosecutions related to euthanasia, including the trial of Lesley Martin, who was convicted in 2004 of the attempted murder of her terminally ill mother, Joy Martin, in 1999. She spent seven months in prison. Charges of murder and attempted murder were laid after she published a book about giving her mother an overdose of morphine and smothering her.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

More links and websites

How to cite this page: Ruth McManus and Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Death and dying', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 March 2018)

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