In Loving Memory

Funeral Flowers

Arranging a cremation or burial

In NZ the paperwork requirements differ significantly between burial and cremation. In the case of cremation, NZ operates a "medical referee" system which requires two separate doctors to provide certificates before a dead person can be cremated. This is a public interest provision which guards against the possibility of evidence being destroyed too easily in the case of wrongdoing. There is no requirement for a medical referee in the case of burial, as the body can be exhumed if necessary.

Unfortunately there is wide variation around the country not only as to the cost of burials and cremations, but also in how supportive local councils are of DIY funerals. In Wellington both public crematoria will accept bookings from families who are doing it all themselves. However I have heard that in Auckland some councils are requiring a licensed funeral director to be present at both burials and cremations. In the case of burials this seems to be so that they can avoid providing staff at the graveside and still be sure that someone is there who knows how to operate the lowering equipment properly.

Why an ordinary person would not be permitted to deliver a body to a crematorium I do not know, but if these things are happening it is an alarming trend. For a start it flies in the face of national legislation which allows anybody to act as a funeral director. See the Death Without Debt website for information on the many issues which make it difficult for NZ'ers to carry out home funerals, and what you can do about it.

Paperwork requirements before a cremation or burial can take place

For the simplest possible summary of what the legal paperwork requirements are for a DIY funeral in NZ, see the flowchart on this page. It may look confusing but I will go into each of the steps in more detail below.

These are the documents you will need to know about:

  • Medical Certificate of Cause of Death (MCCD) - provided by the certifying doctor. It is often referred to incorrectly as the "death certificate"
  • Form B/AB - certifies that the body does not contain a pacemaker, or that it has been removed - again, it is provided by the certifying doctor
  • Coroner's Authorisation for Release of Body - only required if the Coroner has been involved
  • Application to cremate - can be downloaded from the local council website & must be filled out by next of kin or whoever is arranging the cremation
  • Application to bury - can also be downloaded from the local council website & filled out by next of kin or whoever is arranging the burial
  • Permission to cremate - this must be provided by the medical referee after sighting the MCCD and the person's medical records - cremation cannot take place without it
  • Notification of death for registration - must be completed after a person's death and sent to Births Deaths and Marriages. It includes a provision to request a death certificate, which may be needed by the executor to finalise the person's affairs

Click here if you are interested in burial rather than cremation.

Cremation

Possibly the best piece of advice I can give you, if you are contemplating cremation, is to contact the local council and/or crematorium you are thinking of using and speak to them well in advance about their requirements. For a start you may find that all the crematoria in your area are privately owned - this is certainly the case for Northland. In that case you will either have to pay a substantially higher amount than you would at a public crematorium, or you will have to book a public crematorium some distance from your dead person and drive them there. However local councils also have a lot of control in this area, because they usually own the cemetery land and either operate, or lease and licence, the facilities. You will always need to contact your local council if you are planning to use a public crematorium.

I do plan in future to provide a list of public crematoria who will assist people who are doing a home funeral. Local council websites are often very informative about their procedures for both cremation and burial and the crematorium staff are usually as helpful as they can be. Crematorium staff will also guide you on what materials a casket can be made of, or whether a shroud bearer can be used instead of a coffin. Once all those things are established you can make a booking with them and you will have to pay before you can deliver the body. It may be possible to do these things electronically via the council's website. They will also give you instructions about how and where to deliver the body. Bear in mind that caskets for cremations must always be flat on the bottom as most crematoria use roller systems.

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The medical referee system & paperwork

The forms which must be obtained before a body can be cremated are a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death and Form B/AB regarding pacemakers (which will be provided by the attending doctor); an Application to Cremate (available from the council website) and a Permission to Cremate, which must be provided by a medical referee. These documents will need to be received by the crematorium, along with payment, before they will accept a body for cremation. The medical referee's role is to check the information on the MCCD, or the Coroner's Authorisation for Release of Body, and then sign the Permission to Cremate form. A crematorium will not accept an Application for Cremation without this Permission to Cremate form. One potential consequence is that for some people in some locations, difficulty in finding a medical referee may delay completion of the paperwork which is needed before a cremation can be carried out.

Remember it is important to speak to the local council and/or crematorium you are intending to use to clarify exactly what they will require from you before you can deliver a body to them for cremation. Each individual crematorium will have a medical referee it uses, and they should, if they are helpful, tell you the best way to communicate with that person. If they are unavailable for any reason, then technically any medical referee can examine any dead person's medical records and sign the Permission to Cremate form.

It is also worth establishing whether the medical referee's fee is included in the fee you will be charged by the crematorium. Often it is. Some referees will attempt to charge you separately for this service when they are already being paid to do it by the crematorium. Ask questions and find out exactly what procedure you need to follow (for instance who faxes or emails what to whom) to avoid being double charged. Sadly this kind of thing is rife within the funeral industy - it always pays to check thoroughly what you are being charged for and by whom.

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Pacemakers & defibrillators

If the dead person had a pacemaker or defibrillator implanted, this must be removed before cremation as the batteries in these devices have been known to explode and could potentially injure staff. If the person dies in a hospital a doctor will remove the device, but if the person dies at home or in a rest home, finding someone to remove it might be more difficult. The doctor certifying death may not be willing to remove it. In that case you will need to find another doctor who will do it for you, do it yourself if you are sufficiently skilled, or find an embalmer who will do it for you. Funeral directors always have embalmers they can contact to do this, but they may be unwilling to divulge their details if you are not using their services.

At present there is no simple way to solve this problem - you will probably need to ask awkward questions, raise your voice, jump up and down and froth at the mouth, and otherwise use all your creativity and influence. Try not to get arrested. Obviously opting for burial is one solution as in that case these devices can remain in the body. And of course in the vast majority of cases, the person will not have a pacemaker or defibrillator. But it is something to be aware of.

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Burial

Standard burial in a cemetery

The forms which must be obtained before a body can be buried in a cemetery are a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death (which will be provided by the attending doctor) and an Application to Bury (available from the Council website). The council will need to be paid upfront for the plot, and the cost of this will vary widely from council to council. The council charges will include components for maintenance and interment, and you will be required to provide the exact dimensions of the casket or coffin you will be using. All councils have casket size limits above which special arrangements will have to be made.

Natural burial

So-called eco funerals or natural burials are becoming more popular and some cemeteries have special areas set aside for this. Guidelines regarding this process have been provided by Natural Burials, a not-for-profit organisation which has been advocating for natural burials for over 20 years. Natural burial basically requires that coffins be "made of chemically untreated and unprocessed soft woods from sustainable / organic plantations", as well as minimising the use of metal fixings, toxic glues and varnishes etc. There is no official monitoring programme, but people may have to agree to use a casket or shroud board which meets the certification standards (outlined here) in order to buy a plot in a natural burial cemetery or designated area within a public cemetery.

Burial at sea

It is possible to be buried at sea in NZ's exclusive economic zone. Full details of how to go about it, and the application form, are provided here. The cost of assessing and issuing the permit is charged hourly according to the fees schedule relating to Exclusive Economic Zone Activities. You will need to make all the other transport arrangements yourself.

Burial on private land

This is theoretically possible, but I have been told that to get the authorisation for it is very tricky. Apparently it can take up to two years to arrange. This video seems to contain some good information (from 4:00 onwards) on the difficulties involved.

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After the burial or cremation

Registering a Death

After a cremation or burial the person's death must be registered with Births Deaths and Marriages (see contact details below). The Notification of Death for Registration form (which can be downloaded in pdf form here) is quite long and complicated so it is best to start gathering the information early - ideally before the person has died. For instance it will ask for information about their parents which may be quite difficult to obtain once they are dead, especially if their birth documents are not available.

This form is supposed to be sent to the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages within three days of the burial or cremation, but in reality they will wait if more time is needed to obtain some of the information required. They prefer the information to be delayed and correct rather than on time and inaccurate or incomplete. It costs nothing to register a death, but requesting a Death Certificate will incur a small fee.

Applying for a Death Certificate

A death certificate can be requested from the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages by ticking a box on the NDR form. A small fee will need to be paid for this. The death certificate will be provided AFTER the burial or cremation, when the death has been registered. This certificate is not essential but may be needed to close bank accounts and finalise other aspects of the dead person's business. However, when placing a death notice in a newspaper, if the paper wants to see a "Death Certificate" you can use the MCCD.

The website My Trove provides a centralised platform for notifying many other government and private organisations about someone's death.

BDM (Births, Deaths and Marriages) Contact Information:

Freephone: 0800 22 52 52
Phone: (+64 4) 463 9362

Email: bdm.nz@dia.govt.nz

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