Transporting Coffins, Caskets and Bodies
Making your own casket
Any person with basic carpentry skills and tools should be able to make a perfectly good rectangular casket from plywood or MDF. There are plenty of videos on YouTube about how to do it. The disadvantage with MDF is that it is relatively heavy and not as strong as plywood. If you are making your own casket you don't want it to be so heavy that it is nearly impossible to carry.
What standards apply to caskets in New Zealand?
Because the funeral industry is relatively unregulated in New Zealand there is no legislation which sets standards for the construction of coffins and caskets. However local councils, cemeteries and crematoria will have their own rules about what is and isn't alllowed. For example some councils will not allow cardboard coffins to be used; others will.
Certification of caskets
The professional bodies representing funeral directors may have private certification requirements for the coffins they use, but generally they will not refuse to accept a casket or coffin which has not been certified. What they will do instead is to use a gurney or trolley of some kind to move it, and may not allow it to be carried by pallbearers. This is a liability issue and only arises if you are using a funeral director.
"Eco funerals" are becoming more popular and some cemeteries have special areas set aside for this, but again there are no hard guidelines for what materials may be used and no government body is responsible for certification. The basic principle is that the use of toxic chemicals should be minimised in both construction and decomposition. That means MDF is not recommended and plywood is borderline but usually acceptable. Paints and varshishes should be kept to a minimum and water-based.
Transporting a casket
In New Zealand you do not need a hearse in order to move a body and no special licences are required. Anyone with a valid driver's licence for the class of motor vehicle that the deceased is being transported in can do it. However a body should not be "on display" while being transported - placement of the body in a casket or coffin covers that. Part 7 of the Health (Burial) Regulations 1946 relates to the "handling and transportation of dead bodies" but it is old, patchy and outdated and appears to be directed primarily at funeral directors. To read this legislation click here.
Other legislation which may be relevant in some situations is:
- Collecting from a Mortuary - or Funeral Director
- No requirement to line a coffin or casket
- Keeping the Deceased Body cold
- New Zealand legal regulations
- Other things to note
- Freight Forwarders
- International Post
- Air transport of ashes
- Air Transport of Deceased Persons (not ashes)
Collecting from a Mortuary - or Funeral Director
The Health (Burial) Regulations state: "No person shall remove a dead body from a mortuary except in a coffin or other suitable receptacle of a kind usually used by funeral directors." Thus even if you are picking up a body from a mortuary and travelling straight to the cemetery or crematorium you will need a casket or coffin. Regulation 38.
- When picking up the body you will be asked to sign a Transfer of charge of body (BDM39) form (the morgue will normally supply it). Have some ID (such as a driver's licence) available, and you will be required to view the body to identify that you are picking up the correct body.
No Requirement to Line a Casket or Coffin
There is no legal requirement to line a casket or coffin.
- Biohazard: ☣ However there is a requirement to disinfect any soiling in a vehicle that has been fouled by discharge from a casket or coffin. Regulation 35 Thus precautions to take are to ensure that any casket or coffin you use is sealed around its construction seams. The caskets shown elsewhere on this website all use waterproof glues in the seams so that any body discharge or moisture from ice packs etc. does not affect the glue. Caskets and Coffins
- Suggestion for Eco-burials: Caskets and coffins certified for an eco-burial will have no plastic or metal in their manufacture (but nails and screws are allowed in New Zealand!). Eco-coffins are restricted as to what glues can be used (eg. waterproof glues to waterproof seal construction seams do not properly break down in an eco cemetery). This also means that they will not have any plastic liner or plastic (eg. silicon) joint sealant. If the casket or coffin does not have a plastic or metal liner, it is a good idea to place a large plastic sheet under the casket or coffin and fold it up the sides so as to catch any possible leakage.
Keeping the Deceased Body Cold
For handling a deceased person and keeping the body at home it is generally desirable to keep the body cold to slow down decomposition and thus reduce any odours.
Some suggestions for cooling are:
- Keep the room cool, turn off the central heating and turn down the airconditioning,
- Bags of party ice around the abdomen. Reasonably cheap and can be changed each day.
- Freezer ice packs
- Dry Ice (frozen CO2) - but keep the room well ventilated as the CO2 gas could kill visitors to the room. Handling Dry Ice requires special precautions (eg insulated gloves) to avoid ice burns.
Health (Burial) Regulations 1946
There are some legal requirements under the Regulations for anyone organising a DIY funeral which are summarised here:
- Anyone moving a body from a hospital mortuary must use a coffin or other similar receptacle, Regulation 38 here.
We have suitable low-cost caskets available information here. This for a DIY funeral is when you are picking up the body from the hospital.
- Anyone moving a body should ensure that there is no leakage out of the casket or coffin, Regulation 35.
- If there is any leakage there is a requirement that the vehicle is cleaned with an approved disinfectant. Regulation 39.
- Anyone having died of a communicable disease must be transported in a sealed, closed coffin or casket, and buried or creamated within 48 hours, Regulation 36.
- This is a situation where open coffin viewing is NOT permitted.
Some specific handling procedures are required for handling a deceased person who has died of a communicable disease (all are reasonably simple and commonsense and do not need a funeral director):
The complete wording of the relevant legislation is here: Health (Burial) Regulations 1946 sections 32 to 40.
- The body is to be placed in a casket / coffin and entirely wrapped inside the casket / coffin in a sheet saturated with an approved disinfectant. List of approved disinfectants here, Regulation 39
- Use sufficient absorbent material in the casket / coffin so as to prevent any liquids from escaping from the coffin,
- The casket / coffin is to be closed and not be opened again, therefore no open casket / coffin viewing.
- The casket / coffin is to be hermetically sealed. If the casket / coffin is not hermetically sealed, the body should be transported to place of burial / cremation within five hours
In fact it is a good idea to also ensure that there is adequate fresh air in the vehicle to dispell any any gasses given off while being transported (yes, the body can break wind and expell gas).
If the body has been packed with Dry Ice (frozen CO2) to keep it cool then ensure there is plenty of ventelation so that others in the vehicle do not become starved of Oxygen. Dry Ice as it cools evaporates turns into an odourless clear gas.
Packing a body with bags of Party Ice (frozen water) is not hazardous as the ice melts.
- Anyone having died of a communicable disease must be transported in a sealed, closed coffin or casket, and buried within 48 hours, Regulation 36.
- Because the deceased is not retrained with belts within the casket, the body can move and make noises while you are driving. As with any load being transported make sure that the casket is secured to stop it moving.
- It is good etiquette that the body is not "on display" while being transported.
Other Things to Note
- Because the deceased is not restrained with belts within the casket, the body can move and make noises while you are driving. As with any load being transported make sure that the casket is secured to stop it also moving. These noises coming from the casket or coffin can be disconcerting if you are not expecting them!
- It is also a good idea to also ensure that there is adequate fresh air in the vehicle to dispell any any gasses given off while being transported (yes, the body can break wind and expel gas).
- For example, the body will have been be chilled (not frozen) at the hospital mortuary, or at a funeral director's premises, and as it is warming up in the transport vehicle gasses can expand and cause the body to break wind.
- For a DIY Funeral a large stationwagon or a van is probably the most practical vehicle.
- The regulations are NOT specific about the type of vehicle being used to transport a body, so the Regulations cover ALL types of vehicles, including boats and trailers.
- Check the measurements of the vehicle before you turn up somewhere to collect the coffin!
- For a longer journey (to keep the body chilled over a number of hours) you may consider packing the casket with bags of party ice or using dry ice.
- If using dry ice - ensure that the vehicle is VERY WELL VENTILATED. As the dry ice turns to CO2 gas it could starve the driver of air and cause them to lose consciousness while driving.
- If using party ice - ensure that there are no leaks in the bags as the ice turns to water!
Commercial Freight Forwarders
Land transport freight forwarders (eg trucking companies or couriers) normally will not transport caskets or coffins containing deceased persons. If you don't want to do long distance travel, Funeral Directors will do it, usually at a substantial price.
Air Transport of Ashes
There are various methods for returning the ashes, which include air freight, courier service or even as hand luggage on the aircraft with an accompanying person as long as all the documentation is in order.
- However, check with Customs and make any necessary arrangements before having any ashes consigned or heading off overseas to pick up the container of ashes.
- Also make arrangements with the airline BEFORE you turn up at the airport with a container of ashes to bring back to New Zealand. Different airlines have their own protocols and if you do not follow them you may not be permitted to board the aircraft.
Air Transport of Deceased Persons
Airlines refer to the transport of a deceased person in a casket or coffin as H.R. (human remains).
There are considerably more requirements to be met for International air transport than for Domestic air travel.
The following notes are intended only as a guide to head you in the right direction, they are not intended to be fully comprehensive.
Air New Zealand will only accept H.R. for transport from funeral directors, New Zealand District Health Boards (DHBs) or the New Zealand Police.
Air New Zealand will not accept consignment of H.R. from the general public, although anyone organising a DIY funeral can pick up the H.R. from the destination cargo depot.
Domestic Air Transport of Human Remains (not ashes)
Air New Zealand does NOT require that the body is embalmed for domestic flights. Click here for more information.
International Air Transport of Human Remains (not ashes)
This is when you hope that the deceased had Travel Insurance that covered repatriation.
Also pre-paid funeral plans are mainly domestic, not international.
Repatriation can be a complicated process - each country has its own regulations and procedures that must be followed, as well as international rules that must be complied with when transporting human remains.
For international flights the body must be embalmed (preserved - not just cosmetics), sealed in a casket that meets international shipping regulations, and also accompanied by the correct documentation. The casket travels in the cargo hold of the aircraft.
Normally there needs to be a high level of co-ordination between a New Zealand funeral director and also an overseas funeral director. For example, embalming requirements vary from country to country, but must also meet New Zealand standards. The overseas funeral director has to certify that the correct embalming has happened and that a casket appropriate for international shipping regulations is being consigned. There is also a raft of legal and Customs paperwork, which can vary from country to country.