Chapter 10
Funeral sector overview

Funeral directing in New Zealand

Emergence of the funeral director

10.3In the 19th century, funerals of European New Zealanders were conducted with the help of family members, members of the community, and churches. Many iwi continued to use traditional techniques to prepare a tūpāpaku for a tangihanga. Paid assistance may have been received from an undertaker, whose role was much more limited than that of the modern day funeral director. Many were carpenters who built coffins and practised undertaking as a secondary occupation outside of normal working hours. Their role was largely limited to providing the coffin and transporting the body from home to church, and from church to cemetery.

10.4In the 20th century, the part-time business of undertaking became the full-time occupation of funeral directing. In part, this may have been a response to the change in attitude towards death at the end of the 19th century, when surrounding issues of hygiene and contagion started to be seen as problems that required a scientifically informed response. Those working in this area came to see themselves as providing an essential and skilled service and emphasised the difficult and technical aspects of preparing the body and organising the funeral.

10.5 In the 1960s and 1970s, growing understanding of the psychology of bereavement led funeral directors to focus equally on the needs of the living and to include basic counselling skills in education courses offered to the profession. Some funeral directors also carried out embalming and, as techniques improved, began to promote it as a highly beneficial process and one requiring considerable training and skill to execute well. We are now seeing a similar expansion of funeral directors into offering on-site cremation services.422
10.6Today, the full range of services offered by a funeral director includes picking up the body from the place of death; embalming and preparing the body for viewing; arranging the funeral service including music, flowers, a memorial booklet and catering; and arranging a celebrant, or acting as a master of ceremonies in lieu of a celebrant or religious officiant. The funeral director may then transport the body to the cemetery or a crematorium, or if they have a crematorium can provide direct cremation on-site. We note that funeral directors who operate cremators on-site are subject to the additional regulatory requirements imposed on “crematorium authorities” as defined in the Cremation Regulations.423

10.7The vast majority of New Zealanders are embalmed after death. The process of embalming preserves the body after death and interrupts the progress of decay. The level of embalming can vary, from the injection of formaldehyde or an alternative antibacterial agent into the abdominal cavity to slow bacterial growth, to full arterial embalming where bodily fluids are replaced with an embalming solution. Most funeral directors provide access to embalming services, but these are separate skill sets and many funeral directors employ embalmers rather than undertaking this aspect of service provision themselves.

Recent TrendsTop

10.8The emergence of a professional funeral services industry in Western societies over the past century has been subject to much comment.424  Some suggest that this service industry has developed alongside the decline of organised religion and the rise of a service sector performing roles formerly assumed by volunteers within a community.425  At the same time, commentators have also noted a desire for the families of the deceased to have greater direct involvement in preparing the funeral.426  Funeral directors with whom we have consulted confirm these trends and note that the way in which they carry out their business is changing in response.

10.9The funeral sector is also subject to the normal economic and market forces that shape any business and in New Zealand as elsewhere these are resulting in a number of developments that have a potential impact on consumer choice, costs, and standards. We comment on some of these changes below.

Structural change

10.10 In the past New Zealand’s funeral sector was dominated by small to medium-sized owner-operated businesses, many of them with long-standing connections to their local communities. While family-owned and operated funeral homes remain a feature of the sector changes are occurring at both ends of the market. During our consultation with cemetery providers and funeral directors we were informed of a growth in the number of small (one or two-person) businesses, sometimes with little or no industry experience or formal training. In some cases these may be focusing on providing lower cost alternatives or servicing specific niche markets.

10.11In contrast, some evidence suggests that large corporations may play an increasingly significant role in the market, whereby one parent company may provide a range of funeral services through various subsidiaries, including operating several funeral homes, operating cremators and importing caskets. For example, the Australian-based company InvoCare has become a significant provider of funeral services in New Zealand since purchasing the Bledisloe group in June 2011.427  The InvoCare group operates funeral homes, crematoria, and cemeteries throughout Australia and now owns 16 funeral homes in New Zealand.428

10.12 Vertical integration is another feature of the more mature market. This is where funeral directors act as a “one-stop shop” for a range of funeral services including chapel facilities, function rooms, caskets and options for the storage and interment or scattering of ashes. This includes cremation, with an increasing number of funeral homes either purchasing existing stand-alone crematoria or installing a cremator in their own buildings.

10.13 The trend in vertical integration is not, however, limited to larger-scale operators who own several different funeral homes. For example Paterson’s Funeral Services in Ashburton is an independent owner-operated funeral home which provides chapel facilities, catering, manufactures its own coffins, and also operates the only crematorium in the district. Whether vertical integration arises as existing family funeral homes expand or as these funeral homes amalgamate or are bought and sold, this trend is an interesting feature of the contemporary funeral sector and demonstrates how comprehensively the industry has changed over the past century.

Natural alternatives

10.14Many funeral homes in New Zealand now offer a “natural alternative” to some aspects of funeral preparation. For instance, most funeral directors stock at least two different brands of New Zealand-made eco-coffins.429  In the major centres some providers of funeral services incorporate natural preparation philosophies into all aspects of their business. This trend is driven by a belief that preparing the deceased for burial or cremation can be simple and non-invasive, while still dignified and hygienic. An example is State of Grace Funerals in Auckland, which describes itself as “a natural funeral service, with eco-coffins, no unnecessary embalming, and with encouragement for family and friends to participate as much as they are comfortable doing”.430
10.15Although most dead persons in New Zealand are still embalmed, the growth of the natural funeral movement suggests that there is demand for an option that interferes less with natural decomposition processes. Funeral directors from the industry’s main self-regulatory body, the Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand (FDANZ), have noted that they will always try to meet the wishes of the family. However, they also perceive a need to be cautious, as some families may like the idea of a natural funeral, but may not fully appreciate the implications.431

10.16The different philosophies of natural preparation and traditional preparation both seek a funeral outcome that is consistent with the wishes of the family and the likely wishes of the deceased. It appears that the sector overall is responding to changing preferences, and we should anticipate greater diversity in funeral practices in future.

Direct family involvement and “DIY” funerals

10.17Alongside this interest in more natural approaches to death, many funeral directors report that even in the context of traditional funerals it is becoming much more common for families to request personal involvement, such as washing or dressing the body. Some ethnic and religious groups, including the members of Muslim, Jewish, and Sikh faiths, require ritualised cleansing and dressing of the body, and may arrange to do this at the premises of an established funeral director or at the home of the deceased’s family. Funeral directors have told us that they attempt to be as accommodating as possible; for example many now provide temperature-controlled rooms where the family can sit with the body so it is never left alone.

10.18At the same time our Local Authority Survey revealed a small but increasing number of enquiries about burial or cremation without the involvement of a funeral director. Many local authorities have expressed concern that they are not set up to deal directly with the public and discourage these “DIY” funerals. However, funeral directors are not legally required to be involved in a funeral and it is possible for families to purchase or make the casket themselves, transport the body and liaise directly with the cemetery manager or with a crematorium, provided all legal requirements for handling the body are complied with.432  Funeral directors also note that this trend is increasing, possibly from a mixture of cost drivers and the desire for greater personal involvement.

10.19 Increased demand for this option requires us to consider how families can be supported to comply with the legal requirements in relation to the burial when they opt not to engage professional services. For instance, cemetery managers and funeral directors have expressed some concerns about potential implications of DIY funerals such as the need to ensure paperwork is properly filed by the family.

422The Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand (FDANZ) estimates that around 20 per cent of its members now operate their own crematoria. Law Commission “Survey of Funeral Directors” (November 2012) [Funeral Directors Survey]. This survey was distributed to the Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand (FDANZ) and New Zealand Independent Funeral Homes (NZIFH), who passed it on to their respective members. Both FDANZ and NZIFH provided summaries of member responses.
423See ch 8.
424Schafer, above n 421.
425Ruth McManus Death in a Global Age (Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 2013) at 96.
426Sally Raudon “Contemporary funerals and mourning practices: An investigation of five secular countries” (paper reporting on research undertaken with the support of a 2010 Churchill Fellowship, New Zealand, December 2011).
427Alan Wood “Aussie funeral home company buying into New Zealand” (23 June 2011) Stuff <>.
428Through a subsidiary, InvoCare New Zealand Ltd.
429These are the “Tender Rest” and the “Return to Sender” range.
430See <>.
431For an example of this situation, see [11.22].
432The legal requirements include disposing of the body within a reasonable time and registering the death with the Births, Deaths and Marriages Office at the Department of Internal Affairs within three days of the body being buried or cremated. However, a body may not be disposed of until a medical certificate of death is obtained, and a cremation certificate is also required if the body is to be cremated. The Department of Internal Affairs has prepared a guide to these requirements: See Department of Internal Affairs Before Burial or Cremation <>.