Chapter 4
Burial in New Zealand today: an overview of the current practice

A preliminary assessment of the issues

4.93Our preliminary consultation and the wealth of information provided to us by local authorities and cemetery trustees suggest that while there are no urgent issues associated with the basic provision of public cemeteries, there are a number of significant problems with the current legal framework. As we will discuss in the following chapters, many of these problems are simply a reflection of the age of the legislation itself and that many of its provisions remain narrowly focused on managing perceived public health risks, rather than providing a modern and robust framework for the development and management of land used for human burials.

4.94Thanks to our small population and relatively large landmass, New Zealand does not confront the same cemetery capacity problems as many other jurisdictions. However, land in reasonable proximity to our larger population centres is increasingly scarce and expensive. Most local authorities are also operating under tight fiscal constraints. For some, decisions about cemetery developments will involve trade-offs between offering ratepayers more choice at an increased cost, or offering fewer choices to keep costs low. Our preliminary research suggests that the widening gap between the cost of bodily interment in an urban cemetery and the cost of cremation is a significant factor in declining burial rates.

4.95At the same time, our surveys revealed a range of new challenges associated with the far-reaching social and demographic changes which have taken place in New Zealand since the 1960s. For example, many local authorities reported a growing public interest in the provision of natural or eco-burial sites.192 Some also noted a demand for a more personalised and direct involvement the burial process. Many are also being asked to respond to the different burial and cremation requirements of New Zealand’s growing Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities. At times these requirements may be difficult to reconcile with the beliefs and customs of others (including local iwi) and within the constraints of existing cemetery management plans.

4.96Over and above these broad framework issues it is also evident that a number of the problems that concerned legislators in 1964 persist today. These include the maintenance of closed cemeteries. Despite attempts to provide local authorities with the power to proactively address the problems associated with disused and dilapidated cemeteries and burial grounds in their districts, including by allowing them to assume management when necessary, preliminary consultation indicates that the maintenance and preservation (let alone restoration) of closed cemeteries and cemeteries containing historic graves, remains a significant challenge for many local authorities in New Zealand. This is likely to worsen in future.

4.97While trustee-managed cemeteries continue to provide a vital service to some New Zealand communities, there is no doubt that the legal framework for the management of these cemeteries is inadequate and outdated. There is a pressing need to improve the processes for transfer of control to local authorities, where it is seen to be appropriate.

4.98This overview of some of the key issues that have emerged during the course of preliminary consultation illustrates the broad spectrum of policy problems raised by cemetery providers. In some instances these problems can be categorised as administrative or operational matters that could be tackled by a modernised statute and better contractual arrangements. However, others raise fundamental questions about the appropriateness of the current model.

4.99As discussed in our introductory chapter, any regulatory framework dealing with death and the disposal of human remains must accommodate a range of public interests. These include the need to protect public health by regulating the place and manner in which bodies are disposed, the need to accommodate the cultural and spiritual needs of individuals and groups with respect to burial practices, and the wider public interest in protecting and preserving land used for human burial.

4.100In the next two chapters we discuss these interests and the associated policy problems under two broad headings:

192Local Authority Survey, above n 139.