The number of deaths in New Zealand climbs each year as the population increases and ages. In 2017, 33,339 people died in New Zealand. Only 4% of those who died were under 40 years old, compared to 9% in 1990. The median age at death in 2017 was 78 years for men and 83 years for women. Age at death still differs significantly for Māori and non-Māori – on average Māori die younger.
All cultures and religions attach social and spiritual importance to death and mourn the dead.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries death usually occurred at home, with family members caring for the dying. 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 or rest homes.
In the 21st century 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’s 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
Catholic religious orders were the first to provide care outside the family for the dying, chronically ill and disabled. Mary Potter, an English Catholic nun, sent four sisters from her Little Company of Mary to New Zealand to offer compassionate care for the dying in 1913. They established Calvary Hospital in Newtown, Wellington in 1929 to care for the sick and the dying.
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 the 1980s, a number of secular and faith-based hospices were established around New Zealand. In 2018 there were 37 secular and religious hospices in New Zealand which focused on the emotional, spiritual and social needs of the terminally ill and provided 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.
In most religious and cultural traditions certain things are said and done before, during and after death. Family, friends and neighbours may gather to say goodbye. Prayers, chants and special rituals may be performed as the person transitions from life to death.
For example, many Catholics and Anglicans may be offered holy communion or viaticum (food for the journey) and the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) from a priest. These rituals recall the death of Christ and focus on the life of the spirit or soul beyond death.
Across different religious and cultural traditions, chants are often used to support the bereaved and farewell the spirit of the dead person.
Symbolic acts of farewell 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. These practices are shared across religious and non-religious families and communities. 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.
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. This 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 tangihanga 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 of 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.
Beyond this legislation, support for those grieving usually comes from family members, friends and religious institutions. From the late 20th century, support has expanded to include professional grief counselling and 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 also offer grief support.
In preparing the deceased, Māori would smear the tūpāpaku (dead body) with kōkōwai (red ochre) and oil, then sit it up. The knees were tucked under the chin and the arms wrapped tightly around the legs. The body was then wrapped in whāriki (mats) and cloaks. In this seated position, the tūpāpaku would be placed on the veranda of the main wharenui (meeting house) to receive the farewells of their community over a number of days.
Tūpāpaku were then buried in shallow graves or placed in caves or sometimes hollows in trees. After some time bodies were exhumed and bones washed and scraped. Further mourning ceremonies were held on the marae and the bones were buried in secret places. Māori death practices began to change, and by the early 20th century, most Māori communities were using the services of undertakers and burying their dead, like European settlers, in caskets or coffins. However, traditional rituals to farewell the tūpāpaku over several days continue and tangihanga are still the most significant of all Māori gatherings.
In the 19th century most undertakers were also carpenters: they made coffins and transported the dead to the burial site. Families and churches organised most burials. In the 1930s, funeral directors organised themselves into an occupational group with responsibility for bodies, funerals, burials and cremations. Funeral directors have now become ‘grief specialists’ and technical experts in embalming bodies. However, family members are still the main decision makers about what happens to bodies after death.
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 homes to be laid out. While funeral directors in the 1930s and 1940s sometimes discouraged the viewing of bodies by family and friends, from the 1980s this practice was encouraged as part of the grieving process.
For many 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. Some families choose an open casket or coffin. so that they can see and speak directly to the deceased.
Embalming, where chemicals are used to preserve bodies, was rare until the 1950s, when funeral directors argued that it improved hygiene and slowed deterioration, enabling bodies to be presented in a ‘wholesome’ and ‘beautiful manner’.1
By the late 1970s about 70% of bodies were embalmed, and the proportion rose to almost 90% in the early 21st century. Embalming allows funerals, burials and cremations to occur weeks after a death. Some people reject embalming and prefer early burial or cremation, or the use of new cooling techniques that enable a body to be kept at home or on a marae for a week or so without embalming.
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 around New Zealand. Death notices and obituaries (accounts of the life of the person who has died) are published in newspapers and on internet sites, or communicated by email.
Contemporary Māori practices for farewelling the dead continue traditions of tangihanga and usually take at least three days. Often the tūpāpaku (dead body) is brought back to the marae of their ancestors in an open casket or coffin. According to rules of different marae, the tūpāpaku is either placed in a separate house next to the wharenui, under the window on the veranda or against the back wall under the back post, or on the visitors’ side of the house. When a death occurs in the city and links with an ancestral marae are not strong, the body may come back to a suburban home, church or community hall.
The closest relatives of the person who has died – the bereaved family or whānau pani – have a particular role to play during the three-day tangi or set of rituals of farewell. They sit close to the tūpāpaku, who must not be left alone until they are buried. It is expected that whānau will show their emotions on the death of their family member. Family, friends and colleagues speak directly to the tūpāpaku (dead body). Songs and chants and traditional speeches are part of the rituals of tangihanga.
Mourners will accompany the body to the cemetery or urupā and Christian ritual is usually followed before the body is placed in the grave. Hands are washed when leaving the urupā to remove tapu (the sacredness of the place). The sharing of food after a burial brings everyone back into the world of the living and celebrates their connections.
Time spent with the dead body and close family and friends often precedes the formal funeral service. Contemporary funerals and memorial services are ways to farewell someone and also to shed tears and express grief together. The body is present at funerals, but not at memorial services. Committal ceremonies are also often performed at the graveside, before cremation or before burial at sea. Mourners usually share food and talk about the deceased at the end of funerals and memorial services.
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.
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.
In the early 21st century some funerals were entirely secular, while others combined secular music, poetry and speeches with religious ritual, texts and music.
Some funerals and memorial services were small gatherings of close family members, but other funerals involved whole communities, cities and nations or attracted 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 former Prime Minister Peter Fraser (1950), Māori Queen Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu (2006), and mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary (2008) were photographed, filmed or televised, and attended by large numbers of people.
The cost of funerals, memorial services and cremation is usually met by family members. In the past, people could contribute to burial societies that covered their funeral expenses. In the 21st century some people pre-plan and pre-pay their funerals. Others may take out funeral insurance. Most people leave planning and paying to their executors. In 2018 funerals cost $8,000 to $10,000 on average.
In the past, religious figures such as priests, ministers and rabbis usually officiated at funerals. In the early 21st century a range of people conducted funerals and memorial services. Funeral directors often worked 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.
Funeral directors also offer memorial websites on which mourners can record tributes to the person who has died.
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
Funeral and memorial services vary 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, the reading of a religious text, or the removal of the body by pall-bearers to a hearse (a special funeral vehicle) or to the graveside.
In many cultures it is important for mourners to share food after a funeral. Māori refer to this as te hākari or the post-tangi feast. Sometimes mourners offer food at a shrine, burn incense, or plant trees or shrubs. Prayers, chants and songs are seen as ways to assist the transition of the spirit from one form of being to another. In some traditions, after the burial the home is blessed or cleansed by sprinkling water.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
The origin of the 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 occurs when the person dying has not asked to be euthanased. Sometimes referred to as 'assisted dying', voluntary euthanasia occurs when a person assists someone who has requested help to die.
Euthanasia, including voluntary euthanasia, was illegal in New Zealand until 2021, when the latest of several attempts to change the law succeeded.
A Death with Dignity Bill initiated by Peter Brown, deputy leader of New Zealand First, in 2003 was defeated by two votes. In 2017 David Seymour, ACT Party MP, introduced an End of Life Choice Bill designed to give people with a terminal illness or a grievous and irremediable medical condition the option of requesting assisted dying.
Parliament passed an amended version of this bill in 2019. It came into force in November 2021 after receiving majority support in a referendum held at the same time as the 2020 general election. By 30 June 2023, there had been 482 assisted deaths under the provisions of the End of Life Choice Act.
Those in favour of voluntary euthanasia argue for the right of individuals to die with dignity, and assert that the person concerned is best able to assess their quality of life and make decisions about whether to go on living.
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 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.
The Voluntary Euthanasia Society of New Zealand (VES) advocates voluntary euthanasia and pro-euthanasia campaigners such as Australian Philip Nitschke have made frequent visits to New Zealand to talk to VES members.
EXIT International is an Australian based non-governmental organisations that also advocates the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia. It has chapters in Auckland, Wellington and Nelson. Members argue that control over one’s life and death is a fundamental civil right.
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 an account of giving her mother an overdose of morphine and smothering her.
Sean Davison was initially charged with attempted murder in 2011 for assisting the death of his mother. Later he pleaded guilty to a charge of inciting and procuring suicide and was sentenced to home detention.
Lecretia Seales, a terminally ill Wellington lawyer, brought a case in 2015 arguing for her right to assisted death. She wanted the High Court to issue a declaration that administered aid in dying is not unlawful under the Crimes Act when a competent adult consents to it. She also argued that under the Bill of Rights Act she had the right to access assistance in ending her life. Seales died naturally on the day the High Court released its judgement. The judge refused to issue the declarations she sought, but made several statements suggesting that Parliament consider the arguments she had made. Her partner wrote a book (Lecretia’s choice) about her struggle for legal assisted death.
Schafer, Cyril. 'Dead serious? Funeral directing in New Zealand.' Sites 4, no.1 (2007): 95–121.
Schwass, Margot, 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.
Tonkin, Lois. Everybody hurts sometimes: a book about grief for children and teenagers. Christchurch: Port Hills Press, 1997.
Tonkin, Lois. Understanding grief: a guide for people dealing with the death of someone close. Wellington: Cancer Society of New Zealand, 2001.