Chapter 2
How we approach death

Approaches to death

2.9Respect for the deceased and a desire to ensure that death is marked in a meaningful and respectful manner are considered to be universal human values. Precisely how these values translate into practice and what constitutes a “good death” or a “decent burial” can vary significantly. Religious affiliation can be one of the most influential determinants in these matters.

Religious affiliation in New Zealand

2.10Of those who answered the “religious affiliation” question in the 2006 census (94 per cent of respondents) around 35 per cent reported that they did not adhere to any religion.54 A decade earlier the comparable figure was around 26 per cent. Of those answering the question who did identify with a religion, 55.6 per cent were affiliated with a Christian denomination (compared with 60 per cent in 2001). Affiliation with a Christian faith was significantly higher among Pasifika, with 80.2 per cent of those who answered the question identifying with a Christian religion.
2.11While the number of New Zealanders formally identifying with a Christian denomination has been in gradual decline for a number of decades, the reverse can be seen in the proportion of the population identifying with other religions, reflecting changing migration patterns. For example, between 2001 and 2006 the number of people affiliated with Hinduism and Islam increased by more than 50 per cent.55 More than 70 per cent of those affiliated with these two faiths were born overseas. Buddhist and Sikh congregations have also significantly increased.56 Although many different ethnicities are represented among the one-third of the population recorded as having “no religion”, Pākehā New Zealanders are more likely to have no formal religious affiliation57 while people identifying with the Middle Eastern, Latin American and African ethnic groupings are significantly less likely to profess no religious ties.
2.12However, researchers in this area urge caution in how data about religious affiliation and church-going is interpreted. Dr Kevin Ward, a lecturer in theology and religion, argues that declining levels of institutional religious affiliation among New Zealanders is not necessarily synonymous with a lack of spirituality or belief:58

… many of the generation who the figures indicate left the churches in the sixties and seventies, rather than becoming "secular atheists" have been conducting a renewed search for the spiritual. In all of these western countries the pattern seems to be consistent. People have continued to express an interest in things spiritual and religious beliefs have continued to be held by the great majority. Indeed over the past two decades interest in these dimensions appears, if anything, to have increased.

2.13Ward refers to the paradox of a strongly spiritual culture alongside the continued decline in church-belonging in countries like New Zealand. Clearly, views about the spiritual status of human remains and appropriate burial rites are not limited to those formally aligned with an institutional religion

How beliefs and customs influence our responses to deathTop

2.14Religious belief can provide a common language that sometimes transcends ethnic ties, and vice versa. Rituals and practices within a common belief system may find different expression within different ethnic and geographic communities. In the following discussion we describe some of the important rituals and customs that have traditionally accompanied death within different religious and ethnic communities and the concepts underpinning them. We begin with the moment of death and preparation of the body and end with the various approaches to memorialisation.

Care and preparation of the body

2.15In many cultures the moment of clinical death is not thought to immediately sever the spirit from the body. Māori regard the tūpāpaku (body) as tapu (sacred) and tikanga Māori (customary law and practice) applies distinctive rules and principles to the care and custody of the body during the period before burial. Great importance is attached to death and to the deceased, who have special ancestral status and towards whom the living have continued obligations. After death everything around the deceased becomes tapu and the kawa (customs) of the tangihanga are engaged. From the moment of death the deceased is treated as part of the proceedings, and is “cared for, cherished, mourned, spoken to [and] honoured”.59 Māori believe it is very important that someone remain with the tūpāpaku at all times from the time of death until burial. It is believed that remaining with or near the body and addressing speeches to the person encourages the wairua (spirit or soul) of the deceased to depart the earth.

2.16The need to retain an intimate connection with the body of the deceased from the time of death until after burial or cremation is common to many cultures and religions. Buddhists see death as a process that is not complete until the mind is separated from the body. For advanced Buddhist practitioners the process can take many days or even weeks. During this period, the body is treated with great reverence and care. Many Chinese also believe the soul remains in the body for some period before it is freed on its journey to the afterlife. It is traditional to comfort the deceased with gifts of food and money. Indigenous Fijians also see clinical death as a stage in the separation of the spirit from the body. They, too, will remain with the body until burial occurs. Respect and care for the body is again of utmost importance to those of the Jewish faith and, like Māori, it is seen as important for someone to remain with the deceased until the moment of burial.

2.17There are also many commonalities in how different cultures and religious groups traditionally prepare the body, incorporating rituals and symbols to honour and purify the deceased, and assist them to make the transition from the physical to the spiritual realm. In the Islamic and Jewish faiths it is important that the ritual cleansing and preparation of the body is carried out by members of their own faith community, either in a private home or a facility made available for this to take place. Irrespective of religious or ethnic affiliation, in the not-too-distant past when many people were cared for and died in their own homes, it was not uncommon for close family members to be involved in the washing and laying out of their dead. However, this practice has become less common since the shift towards hospitalisation and institutional care for those in the last stages of their lives.

2.18In New Zealand embalming has become common practice. The embalming process can make it easier for the grieving to spend time with the deceased including, for example, having an open coffin for an extended period at home, on a marae, or in another public place. It may also remove pressure on those making funeral arrangements. However, embalming is by no means a universally accepted practice, particularly among those groups who place importance on a prompt burial and who may consider embalming to be disrespectful to the sacred status of the body. Others may have concerns about the cumulative impact of embalming on the soil and groundwater.

2.19The clothing in which the deceased is to be buried or cremated is also often highly symbolic. In many instances the deceased is dressed in their “best” attire and items of either religious or personal significance placed in the coffin with them. Cook Islanders may cover the body in a special tivaevase, or bedspread. It is traditional within some Indian communities for married women to be dressed as brides and adorned with jewellery. In contrast, adherents of the Jewish and Islamic faiths place the deceased in simple shrouds, symbolising the equality of all people in death.

2.20In the interlude between death and burial or cremation, religious or cultural ceremonies will often be performed, sometimes involving a religious leader. For example, Catholics will often hold a vigil service on the eve of a funeral where a priest will lead the congregation in prayer for the deceased, and mourners may recite a devotional prayer called the rosary. Cook Islanders may also have a less formal and more intimate service on the evening before burial is to take place. In the Hindu tradition, a Brahman may come to the home of the deceased and conduct readings and prayers while the spirit of the dead remains present.

2.21 In most cultures it is customary for relatives and members of the community to support the immediate family and to assist in making funeral arrangements. For Māori, for example, it falls to the wider whānau group to prepare for the tangihanga, thus allowing the whānau pani (immediate kinship group) to be immersed in their grief and to care for the tūpāpaku. Traditionally the body is taken to the marae immediately after death to allow the tangihanga to proceed, as the wairua of the deceased is not finally freed from the body until the tangihanga and its rituals have been concluded and the body interred.

2.22Providing food for the mourners and their guests is a practice universal to all cultures, and can place significant burdens on communities where the period of mourning is lengthy and the funeral ceremonies are attended by large numbers. In many Pacific cultures the community will typically express their support for the grieving family through gift-giving ceremonies, which frequently include financial donations. These gifts are often reciprocated at some future date.

Farewelling the dead

2.23The ceremonies that take place immediately before burial or cremation serve a number of different religious and/or cultural functions. For those who believe in some sort of spiritual continuance, the ceremonies are the moment when the final religious rites are performed, ensuring the deceased can pass on to the next life. They are also a way in which different faith and cultural groups reinforce their own beliefs and ties with one another. For many they provide an opportunity to honour and commemorate the life and achievements of the deceased and to acknowledge and comfort the deceased’s family and friends.

2.24For Māori the tangihanga is one of the most important and well-attended gatherings and serves both to farewell the deceased and maintain social cohesion. The rituals and practices at tangihanga demonstrate the Māori belief in the continued presence of the dead in the lives of the living. Tangihanga can last several days and mobilise large numbers of people, many of whom travel from far away to participate in the public mourning and farewelling of the deceased. There are rituals of encounter, lamentations, oratory, overt displays of mourning, recitation of genealogy, prayer and speeches of farewell. The body may also be taken to neighbouring marae for further speeches and honouring of the dead.

2.25Fundamental to Māori culture is the belief in the link between land, people and ancestry, which is inter-generational. It is common for tangihanga to include lengthy discussion or debate as to the most appropriate burial location for the deceased. Indeed this is said to be one of the rationale for the tangihanga itself.

2.26Claims for burial in a particular location are usually made on the basis of shared whakapapa between the claiming party and the deceased or other close connections. The claim serves several purposes; the claiming party has a collective interest in burying the deceased in the place that will maintain the continuity of their whakapapa lines and that will reinforce whanaungatanga. Having the deceased in home territory also strengthens the mana of the claiming group by drawing their descendants back to them. The claim also challenges the local hapū to demonstrate that they will properly care for the deceased in their final resting place and will fulfil their ongoing responsibilities. Finally, claiming the body of the deceased is also necessary to recognise the mana of the deceased or their family. It is considered a compliment and a mark of respect. As noted by Nin Tomas:60

Without passionate displays and claims of whanaungatanga and whakapapa to raise the mana of the deceased and proclaim ancestral worth, how can his or her value as part of the community be acknowledged?

2.27In some cultures and religions other customs and rites are considered imperative. For example, both the Islamic and Jewish faiths require burial to take place as soon as possible after death, so the soul can find rest. Jewish funerals usually take place in a chapel at the cemetery rather than a synagogue and involve a simple ceremony after which the congregation accompanies the family to the graveside for burial. A memorial service at a synagogue will often follow. For the Muslim community it is also very important that all arrangements are carried out by others within the same religious community, including carrying the coffin to the graveside.

2.28Chinese funerals will differ depending on the deceased’s cultural and religious affiliations, but they will often involve large gatherings with floral tributes and donations to charity. They may be followed by a procession that passes by places of significance to the deceased. Funeral processions between a church and cemetery are also common practice within the Catholic faith.

Final disposition

2.29For some the decision whether to inter or cremate a body may turn on purely pragmatic issues such as cost and accessibility. However, for others in New Zealand the decision is based on deeply held convictions. In the past, belief in bodily resurrection prevented Catholics and some other Christian denominations from being cremated. This is still the position for some orthodox Jews and Muslims. Even when the initial religious rationale for preferring burial over cremation is no longer adhered to, millennia of practice and strong cultural norms often continue to hold sway. As Schwass notes, some ethnic groups, including those who have migrated from the Horn of Africa, may regard cremation as “not merely unacceptable, but shocking”.61 For these cultures, as for many Māori and Pacific Islanders, “returning the body of a loved one to the earth is culturally very important”.62

2.30Although motivated by ethical rather than religious imperatives, alternative burial options are gaining fresh interest among New Zealanders with strong commitment to sustainability and environmental values. As we discuss in chapter 4, this is resulting in a growing number of requests to local authorities for the establishment of eco or natural burial sites in which bodies are buried without prior embalming and in coffins or shrouds designed to facilitate rapid decomposition.

2.31However, just as cremation may be unacceptable for some, for others this process may constitute an important religious and cultural rite in itself. This is the case for the Hindu community as well as many practitioners of Buddhism. The Hindu rites around death are based on the detachment of the Atma (soul) from the body and the transmigration of the soul from one body to another. Fire allows the soul of the deceased to reunite with the Paramatma or the universal spirit. Traditionally the eldest son would be responsible for lighting the funeral pyre.

2.32Buddhists also believe the death of the body marks a transition to another life stage rather than an end. Many of the customs and rituals performed in the period leading up to and immediately after death are intended to assist the dying person achieve a good re-birth. Many Buddhists favour cremation, which would traditionally be carried out on an open pyre after the body has been anointed.

Human Ashes

2.33Most people regard human ashes as material to be treated with respect. In some religions and cultures human ashes and bone fragments are regarded as sacred and strict protocols govern how they are handled. In some instances these protocols relate to the manner of dispersal; in others, to how and where they are stored. For Indians of the Hindu faith it was traditional to release the ashes of the deceased into the waters of the Ganges. Here in New Zealand many Hindus wish to be able to release the ashes into flowing water, as this is connected with freeing the spirit of the deceased. Storing ashes in an urn in the home is repellent to many Hindu. In other cultures it is important that bone fragments can be obtained from the cremains (the bone fragments and material that are left after cremation) as these constitute sacred relics which may be placed in a shrine to the deceased.

2.34There is a similarly broad range of practices among Christians and those of no specific religious beliefs. In some instances ashes are never retrieved from the cremation authority; in others they may be formally interred in a public cemetery or on private property. It is also common for family members to scatter ashes at sea or in other waterways. Typically the disposal of ashes in public places is unregulated. In some instances it may breach local bylaws as well as give rise to cultural offence.63


2.35The period of mourning and the rites and customs associated with it are just as varied as the processes leading up to the final committal. For Māori the unveiling of the gravestone may take place a year or longer after burial. In many cultures the gravesite continues to be an important focus for mourners and offerings of food and other symbolic gifts may be left there to aid the deceased on their journey. Rituals associated with the deceased may continue on specified days for many months. In the Jewish faith the first stage of the formal mourning period, or shiva, lasts seven days during which time the soul is believed to be still separating from the body. A year later the soul is elevated to heaven; special prayers and the unveiling of a tombstone may mark this occasion. The Chinese may also mark the end of the formal mourning period with a family banquet. In contrast, adherents of the Islamic faith try to limit the period of mourning to a few days, as resuming normal life after a death is seen to be an expression of confidence that the deceased has gone to a better place.

2.36In many faiths the dead will often be remembered on specific days where family members usually attend to the graves of their loved ones.

54Statistics New Zealand “Culture and Identity: Religious Affiliation Census 2006” (2006) <>.
55Islam increasing from 23,637 to 36,072 and Hindu from 39,867 to 64,389.
56At the time of the 2006 census 52,365 people affiliated with Buddhism and 9,507 with Sikhism.
57At the time of the 2006 census around 38 per cent of those who responded to the question and who identified as European or New Zealander had no religious belief.
58Dr Kevin Ward “Religion in a Postaquarian Age: the Tide is Running Out” (Research paper, Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa, 2007).
59H Dansey “A View of Death” in Michael King (ed) Te Ao Hurihuri, Aspects of Maoritanga (Reed, Auckland, 1992) at 108.
60Nin Tomas “Ownership of Tūpāpaku” [2008] NZLJ 233 at 233.
61Schwass, above n 52, at 98.
62At 98.
63For example, many Māori believe human remains, including ashes, are tapu and should not be intermingled with rivers and waterways, particularly near food sources or other human activities.