Chapter 2
How we approach death


2.1The terms of reference for this review require us to assess how well our burial and cremation laws are meeting the cultural and spiritual needs of the diverse religious and cultural communities, including Māori, that make up New Zealand today.

2.2As we discussed in the introductory chapter, the current legal framework has not fundamentally changed since New Zealand’s burial law was reformed in 1882.46 At that time the most pressing policy drivers were the need to ensure all communities had access to cemeteries and that burial took place in a manner that did not endanger public health.

2.3Within those parameters New Zealand’s burial law reflects an admirably liberal approach to how the citizens of this country might express their beliefs when the time comes to bury the remains of a loved one. Section 6 of the Burial and Cremation Act 1964 (the Act) simply states that:

Subject to the provisions of this Act, every cemetery shall be open for the interment of all deceased persons, to be buried with such religious or other ceremony, or without any ceremony, as the friends of the deceased think proper.

2.4 When that provision first entered our statute book in 1882,47 the boundaries of religious and ethnic diversity were much more narrowly defined than they are today, or even in 1964 when our burial law was last reviewed. In the middle of last century New Zealand’s population of around 2.1 million was still predominantly of European and Māori descent: 92 and six per cent respectively.48 Only one per cent originated from other places, namely the Pacific, India and China. Five decades on, at the time of the 2006 census, the country’s demographic make-up had radically altered; nearly one in four people living in New Zealand had been born overseas and nearly half of these had been in New Zealand less than a decade.49 Of the total population 67.6 per cent identified as European, 14.6 per cent as Māori, 6.9 per cent as Pasifika and 9.2 per cent as Asian.50 Within these broad groupings were over 200 different ethnic groups. Population projections indicate that by 2026 Māori will make up 17 per cent of the population, Asian 16 per cent and Pasifika 10 per cent.
2.5Not only are we now far more ethnically diverse as a nation than 50 years ago, but we are increasingly pluralistic in how we perceive ourselves and our children. For example, one in four children born in 2009 was recorded as having more than one ethnicity.51  However, some parts of the country are far more heterogeneous than others Increasingly New Zealand’s urban and rural populations are distinguished by their markedly different demographic makeup. Auckland is home to more than 50 per cent of all New Zealand residents of Asian, Middle Eastern, African and South American origin. Taken together, these demographic shifts have significant implications for this review due to the introduction of new belief systems and cultural practices, some of the most important of which concern the rites and rituals associated with death and memorialisation.
2.6 A critical policy question arising throughout this Issues Paper is how the law should accommodate these diverse beliefs and practices with respect to the care and final committal of a person’s body after they have died. The objective of this chapter is to introduce some of the important cultural and spiritual concepts and practices that are associated with death among the major religious and ethnic groups in this country. As a former New Zealand Race Relations Commissioner has noted, the relationship between religion, culture and ethnic identity is often complex, so policy makers need to avoid simplistic assumptions:52

In thinking about the afterlife, for example, a Muslim Malay may have more in common with another Muslim from Iraq than with a Chinese Malay. Likewise, Catholics from Italy and the Philippines will have much common ground, despite their diverging cultures. A New Zealand-born Indian’s expectations of a funeral may be quite different from those of a recent migrant from Gujarat or Fiji. Someone who describes themselves as ‘non-religious’ may have just as many spiritual needs as a devout Christian or Buddhist.

2.7It must also be emphasised that although for many religious and ethnic groups, doctrine may underpin the practices that occur at the time of death, their continued observation today may be less an expression of individual belief and more an expression of shared values and the reinforcement of a common cultural heritage that has provided solace to the bereaved over many generations.

2.8With these caveats in mind, our objective in this chapter is to provide a brief introduction to some of the practices that have been traditionally associated with some of the larger cultural and religious groups who make up our population today. In doing so we have drawn on Margot Schwass’s compilation of different cultural approaches to death in New Zealand published in conjunction with the Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand (FDANZ).53 We also draw on the insights we have gained from a number of different ethnic groups and organisations in the course of our preliminary research and consultation.
46Cemeteries Act 1882.
47Cemeteries Act 1882, s 16.
48Todd Nachowitz “Quantifying Ethnic and Religious Diversity: Recent Trends and Future Projections” (paper presented to New Zealand Diversity Forum, Hamilton, August 2011).
49The Office of Ethnic Affairs “Ethnicity Data Online Resource: Demographic Overview” (13 September 2012) <> at 5.
50Nachowitz, above n 48.
51Statistics New Zealand “Demographic Trends: 2010” (31 January 2011) <>.
52Joris de Bres “Introduction” in Margot Schwass (ed) Last Words: Approaches to Death in New Zealand’s Cultures and Faiths (Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2005) at 8.
53Schwass, above n 52.