Chapter 3
A brief history of our burial and cremation law


3.1In order to understand the legal and cultural frameworks within which burial takes place today it is helpful to briefly review the history of burial and cremation in this country and the various cultural, economic and social forces that shaped it.

3.2Cemeteries and burial grounds are a prominent feature of our landscape. In the country’s major cities large public cemeteries, such as Auckland’s historic Symonds Street Cemetery, Wellington’s Bolton Street Cemetery and Christchurch’s Barbados Street Cemetery, speak of a time in history when the living made a place for the dead close to their growing urban centres. The countryside is also the repository of thousands of urupā, country cemeteries and church burial grounds. Some remain open for burials and the interment of ashes; many others are closed and in varying states of neglect.

3.3Under the Burial and Cremation Act 1964 (the Act), a cemetery is defined as “any land held, taken, purchased, acquired, set apart, dedicated, or reserved, under the provisions of any Act or before the commencement of this Act, exclusively for the burial of the dead generally”. In contrast, a denominational burial ground is defined as “any land, outside the boundaries of a cemetery, held, purchased, acquired, set apart, or dedicated, under the provisions of any Act or before the commencement of this Act, for the burial of the dead belonging to 1 or more religious denominations.”65 This is an important distinction in our burial law, and has existed since our foundational burials law, the Cemeteries Act 1882. It is a distinction that is relevant to much of the discussion in this Part of the Issues Paper.

3.4This mixture of public and private, secular and religious, historic and contemporary places for human burial is a reflection of both our indigenous and our colonial history. It is also a product our early legislators’ attempts to provide some sort of orderly legal framework for the provision and management of burial and cremation services.

3.5 In this chapter we begin with brief accounts of how Māori and Europeans approached these issues, and the context in which New Zealand’s earliest burial law evolved. We then revisit the drivers and objectives behind the statutory reforms, which were enacted by Parliament in the Act and set out the Act’s key provisions. Throughout this chapter we draw extensively on the research of Otago University historian Stephen Deed whose 2004 thesis on the development of the cemetery in 19th century New Zealand has been an invaluable resource.66
65Burial and Cremation Act 1964, s 2.
66Stephen Deed “Unearthly Landscapes: The Development of the Cemetery in Nineteenth Century New Zealand” (Masters of Arts thesis, University of Otago, 2004).