Kiwi death rites

Charles 6 Comments


From an article in

New Zealanders may be shy and reserved, but we hold long, personalised funerals for our loved ones, and show far more emotion than Norwegians, Swedes, English and Scots.

Our funerals lean towards the American style, where everything – down to the cup of tea and biscuits afterwards – is organised by a funeral home.

Auckland researcher Sally Raudon, with the assistance of a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust grant, researched death, dying and funerals in New Zealand, and the four other countries.

The results were surprising, given the perceived similarities between the countries, particularly when it came to the time between death and a funeral.

In New Zealand funerals generally happen about three to five days after someone has died.

In England one to three weeks is the norm, and in Stockholm, Sweden, the average interval between death and the funeral is five to six weeks.

And the Swedish do not embalm, she said.

“We embalm almost automatically. That’s because a lot of our funeral directors went to the US in the middle of last century and came back with these techniques to be more professional.”

In New Zealand many people speak, and most ceremonies last about an hour. “When we have a funeral it is not uncommon for someone from the family to talk, maybe a work colleague, someone from a sports club. Sometimes it is like an open mic session. And if it is a young person who has died, it’s common for up to 12 people to talk,” Raudon said.

“Our funerals are very unusual because we focus intimately on the person. New Zealand funerals often bring together all the parts of someone’s life to present a biography.

“We think things like using a celebrant, showing photos of the person and having several people speaking, are normal. But that isn’t what happens in other countries.”

“In Norway and Sweden using photos is frowned on as too personal, and in England they say they don’t have time for that kind of personalisation.

Raudon said there was now a trend in New Zealand at the other end of the emotional scale – direct disposal – where a person could request they be put in a plain casket and taken directly to be cremated, without a funeral service or viewing.

Tamara Linnhoff of the Good Funeral Guide NZ here tells me in an email that  “NZ is still way behind the UK in terms of talking openly about funeral wishes and so the vast majority of families make decisions guided by traditional funeral directors.” 

Find the article here.


  1. Charles

    Lovely to hear that the Kiwi’s are up for this, but I disagree, (as I would) that funerals like this are anathema to us here in the UK. I feel the author is slightly blinded by her patriotism.

  2. Charles

    I wonder about academics sometimes. The conclusion: “Our funerals are very unusual because we focus intimately on the person.” comes at the cost of a Winston C Memorial Trust grant which enabled Ms Raudon to fund some very enviable thanatourism. What she seems to have missed is that most funerals in the UK have that focus, too.

    She says that NZ funerals are more emotional than UK funerals. What she means is that NZ funerals are more expressive of emotion. We all feel the same about our dead.

    The one really laudable difference she notes is the time difference. An hour is a good length for the majority of funerals. Our UK production line funerals are a disgrace.

    Having said which, I guess that, by way of compensation, UK funeralgoers do a lot of making up for this at the funeral tea. I wonder if NZ funeralgoers don’t feel a bit talked out by the time the ham sandwiches come round.

  3. Charles

    All set to wade into Mr Raudon, but you two experts have done the job.
    Thinking about the funeral tea – do you think there is any possible bit of a role for a ceremonies expert (i.e. celebrant, one hopes) to lend a hand, or at least make suggestions, about the party/wake/tea afterwards, to help Brits make a fulfilling experience. My riff on the current situation is that it is often, amongst the middling sort of people, quiet genteel chat, with the blokes talking about traffic routes, congestion (of various sorts) and cars. I reckon they’d get more out of something a bit looser!

  4. Charles

    Tricky, perhaps, GM. It’d mean undoing the bad habits of a lifetime. Genteel people have by their nature a tendency towards nibbling and mealymouthedness. For them, I’m tempted to recommend hash cookies and a dollop of mescaline in the teapot. That’d be fun.

    That much nicer class of people who make their way to the funeral from t’club and repair to it afterwards look after themselves better, the more so if fighting breaks out after a respectful lapse of time.

    Perhaps the nub of it is this. To introduce the idea you’d have to make them aware that the funeral is likely to leave them with a strong sense of unfinished business. That’s a difficult message to sell.

  5. Charles
    Mountain View Funeral Home

    Each culture has its own way of holding a funeral, and it differs from country to country. It also depends on the choice of the family. It is, therefore, necessary not to frown upon the funeral rites of other cultures just because it is different from ours.
    Mountain View Funeral Home

  6. Charles

    Well, I’m not so sure about that, MVFH. To take an extreme case, it is difficult to suspend disapproval of sati just because it is (was rather) a cultural norm.

    However, I agree with you that it is important to be respectful of other cultures and also curious about them. We have much to learn from them.

    At the same time, if we are to appreciate the best in them it is important to be analytical. Cultures can acquire baggage. They can evolve in regrettable ways. For example, in the UK we have inherited funeral customs which owe much to the experience of two world wars, a time when the dead were buried where they fell, families were denied funerals, and the catastrophe so great that the expression of grief was simply not an affordable emotional luxury. Grief was borne stoically and alone. We still carry some of that baggage and it is arguably extremely unhelpful. I am sure you can think of ways in which customs in your part of the US have not evolved as you think they ought.

    It is important for rituals and practices around death and bereavement to be emotionally useful. It is extremely important not to lose the opportunity to grieve well at the best time for grieving. It is important, therefore, to debate funeral rites continually, because we must always strive to do better.

    Funeral customs are evolving in almost all countries, in yours as in ours. For you, I am sure, keeping abreast of change is both a commercial and vocational imperative, as is articulating the value of holding a funeral. When we see people adopting practices which we reckon emotionally unhelpful, we say so, just as we do when we see people conducting matters in a way we consider to be emotionally useful.

    But we do so in a spirit of open-mindedness.

    Thank you very much for dropping by and giving us something to think about. I regret not having been on my best behaviour today.

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