In Loving Memory

Funeral Flowers

DIY- the right choice?

This page will help you to consider whether you truly have the capacity to deal with a loved one's death yourself, and the reasons why you might want to. Some tasks are not pleasant and many people are happy to pay a funeral director to deal with them. However there are sound emotional, spiritual and financial reasons for dealing with a person's death yourself. There can be no greater mark of care and respect than arranging a person's final departure from this world in keeping with who they were and who you are. It can be incredibly rewarding and often very healing to take control of the process yourself and to know at the end that you have discharged these very important duties well.

Taking control of a person's funeral arrangements yourself means facing some challenging situations and doing some unpleasant tasks. There is a steep learning curve, but any reasonably capable family or group of friends can do it, and in most cases the financial, emotional and spiritual rewards will be well worth the effort. Being willing to roll your sleeves up will not only save the significant cost incurred by using professionals, but will enable you to have an experience of death which allows people who knew the person to be more involved and intimate conversations and experiences to take place. The rich store of memories gained this way can lead to a healthy sense of completion that you may not feel otherwise, and you can look back on the experience with satisfaction for the rest of your life.

To watch an excellent presentation on the "why" of spending time with and taking care of our own dead, I recommend this excellent talk on the Youtube channel End Well by the one and only Caitlin Doughty.

Another very good TED Talk about taking control of your own funeral arrangements in NZ can be viewed here.

Why not just use a funeral home?

Funeral homes are profit-based businesses, and according to a recent newspaper article, in NZ a huge proportion of them are now owned by two large corporations, Propel and Invocare. The cost of a cremation and funeral service provided by a funeral home in New Zealand has been estimated to be $10,000 on average, a figure which puts a strain on many households and often requires people to go into debt. Burial costs are often much higher. Often a large portion of the cost will be "professional services" which are not itemised. You can save yourself thousands by resisting upselling, insisting on an itemised quote, or better still using resources like this website to learn how to do it all yourself.

TVNZ recently aired a segment on the high cost of funerals on their current affairs programme "Sunday". The TV programme is embedded in this article.

Many people do not realise that in New Zealand:
  • There is NO legal requirement for you to use a funeral director. Any ordinary person can arrange a funeral.
  • There is NO legal requirement for a body to be embalmed.
  • There ARE certain legal paperwork and practical requirements but anyone can satisfy them if they know what to do.

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Things to consider - the practicalities

For a straightforward death, for instance of an aged parent who dies at home, in hospital or in a rest home, where their medical history is known and the coroner is not involved, dealing with their dead body means at least the following:

  • Organising everything to do with legal compliance. That means liaising with many people and agencies to obtain certificates and fill out forms correctly. The agencies may include doctors, hospitals, rest homes, mortuaries, local council and government bodies including the crematorium or cemetery and the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages;

  • Obtaining or constructing a casket and having access to a vehicle which can transport it, as well as enough people to carry it with the weight of a dead body inside;

  • Physically handling, cleaning, dressing the body and placing it in the casket;

  • Arranging a funeral or other gathering, which may require hiring a venue, instructing a celebrant, arranging catering and notifying people of the person's death directly and through placement of notices;

  • Keeping the body cool for the duration of all these events;

  • Arranging the person's cremation or burial, usually with a local council which will require payment in advance, transporting the casket to its place of final cremation or interment and collecting any ashes afterwards.

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Your personal situation

A DIY funeral will work best when someone's death is expected and you have had time to plan. Preparation is key. For everything to go smoothly you will need to be resilient, act reasonably quickly, have funds available to pay for the outgoings, and be a practical person who is willing to face the realities of death. If you do not have the practical and emotional support of others, have never seen a dead body and never want to see one, or have no means of transport, it will be very difficult for you to carry out the necessary tasks.

An ideal situation is if family members and friends are close by, cooperative with each other and willing to get involved so that different tasks can be delegated to different people. You will need people to carry the casket, unless you have access to a gurney. It will help not only if you have the dead person's documents but if you are the type of person who can maintain a sense of humour in a crisis. If you joked with the dead person about burying them in the garden or tossing them on a bonfire then you're going to be absolutely fine at this.

A less ideal situation is where you or your family are not well resourced, or where the dead person's documents are not readily available and their wishes were not known. If a death was accidental or particularly shocking and the family is in conflict it might be better to let professionals handle it. In some situations embalming or long-term storage of the body may be necessary, perhaps because relatives are not close by, or there is a family dispute. In that case the services of a funeral director may genuinely be needed.

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Dealing with bureaucracy

One component of arranging a cremation or burial is understanding your local governance situation. Usually local council websites are informative about their procedures for cremation and burial, and cemetery and crematorium staff are very helpful. However there is wide variation around the country not only as to the cost of burials and cremations, but also in the level of support for DIY funerals. Local councils do have a lot of control in this area and you will need to contact yours to make sure what you want to do is acceptable. This includes such things as what materials caskets can be made out of, and whether a shrouding board can be used.

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 cremations and burials. 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. In the case of a cremation, where you are simply dropping a body off, I have no idea what the reason might be.

Whatever the basis is for this trend in local councils, it is alarming, and flies in the face of national legislation which allows anybody to act as a funeral director. If it continues it is going to create a significant obstacle for those who want to have a home/DIY funeral. Until public pressure changes this, the options appear to be either finding a creative workaround, or a sympathetic funeral director. Either way, it will require some effort on your part. If you feel strongly about this it might be worth making your feelings well and truly known, in writing, to the Chief Executive of the council concerned.

You might also consider supporting the work of Death Without Debt, which is seeking to achieve significant legislative change at a national level in order to make it easier for people to arrange their own funerals. As the law concerning burials and cremations is being reviewed at the moment we have a once in 60-year opportunity to secure change in the right direction - towards accessbility for ordinary people rather than control of the industry by professional funeral directors. It costs nothing to subscribe and keep up to date on what is happening.

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Private ownership

Another potential obstacle to a DIY funeral is that the crematoria in your local area may be privately owned. This is certainly the case for Northland and many other towns in NZ. In that case you may find that to use the facilities you will either have to buy a package from the company which owns the facility, or at least pay a substantially higher amount than you would at a public crematorium. Another option will be to find the nearest public crematorium (which may be some distance from your dead person) and drive them there.

I do plan in future to provide a list of public crematoria around the country who will assist people who are doing a home funeral, but have not had time as yet. In the meantime, if you are having trouble with your local council, or you are willing to do some research, please do contact me as I would like to stay in touch with what is happening around the country.

Financial matters - funeral insurance

Funeral insurance can be expensive, but if your person has it, you may as well use it. Depending on the type of insurance you may be able to use it to cover the cost of a DIY funeral. Some policies are provided by organisations such as FDANZ and only cover services provided by members of that organisation. Other policies will cover the actual costs involved in carrying out a DIY funeral.

The WINZ funeral grant

There is a WINZ grant which will cover funeral costs up to the amount of $2445.37. This grant is available whether or not the person who died was a beneficiary, but it is means tested. It is nowhere near enough to cover the cost of a funeral home's services but it may be just enough to cover the costs of a home funeral. My understanding is that the grant will only be paid in reimbursement of invoices, so payment will need to be made up front. Information on how the grant works and how to apply can be found here.

The final decision

Ultimately you have to decide if you, your friends and family are willing and able to shoulder the significant responsibilities involved in dealing properly and well with someone's death and to discharge those duties capably. If you have talked about it and you are willing to make the necessary preparations, this page will help you to plan ahead.

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