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.
10.7The 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.
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.
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.
10.12 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.
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.
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.
10.19 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.