Dilemma of last farewells

By Geoff Cumming

Catering for cultural mores is a vexing issue in funeral and post-funeral practices, writes Geoff Cumming

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Only death and taxes are certain in life but anyone who has buried a loved one knows the tax lingers longer than the living. The tickets to be clipped on the journey to the other side can be financially and emotionally overwhelming.

In setting out to standardise and formalise the business of death in our most populated region, the Auckland Council has waded into taboo territory with fees and red tape.

So a highly-charged public reaction to the council's planned bylaw and code of practice for cemeteries and crematoria was inevitable once the Funeral Directors Association raised the alarm.

The fuss has taken the council by surprise - it says it is merely tidying up the regulations and fees that accompany funerals and what comes after; that most of the rules raising concern already exist in the "legacy" documents of pre-amalgamation councils and Parliamentary Acts.

But the Funeral Directors Association says the proposals would mean less flexibility around timing and access to burials and cremations at council cemeteries, usher-in extra charges for things like short-notice burials and add restrictions to further stress grieving relatives.

Causing most angst is the threat to the widespread practice of scattering ashes in public places - and the misconception that people will have to pay for the privilege.

The Waitemata Harbour has long run grey with the ashes of boaties whose last wish was to be at one with the sea or swim with the fishes. It is a Hindu purifying ritual to release ashes into flowing water. But the custom offends Maori, for whom water is both a life-giving force and valued food source that must be sustained.

According to the council, demands from gardeners wanting to fertilise the Parnell Rose Gardens long ago reached the point where roses started to turn up their toes, requiring signs to be put up.

Katrina Shanks, the Funeral Directors' chief executive, says the need to gain council permission before scattering ashes in parks and other public places raises the spectre of families doing so by stealth, fearful of council inspectors pouncing from behind bushes at the sight of an urn.

"People have to be allowed to grieve and say goodbye the way their rituals allow them to. What sort of society do we live in if we can't allow that?"

But as she points out: "Who's going to be there to enforce it if you're scattering the ashes in the Waitakeres [or out at sea]?"

Filling-in of graves may be undertaken only by "a person authorised by the council".

"It seems more about making things easier for the council at the expense of families," Shanks says. "Proposing extra fees on families for late-notification ... looks like a money-making exercise.

"I don't think they've thought about the impact this will have on different cultures in Auckland."

The city's cultural melting pot is well-reflected in the diversity of its funeral rites, funeral directors say, and cemetery managers both public and private cater for most needs. But community leaders say the proposed new rules have come as a shock.

"This is a one-size-fits-all approach," says Auckland Indian Association secretary Shanti Patel. "Different migrant groups have different customs and most of the issues can be managed at crematorium manager level. In traditional cultures a lot of things happen spontaneously - allowing for variation is what makes us inclusive."

Patel says the restriction on numbers around the casket as it enters the furnace violates a 5000-year-old Hindu custom where it is the family's responsibility to assist the deceased on their journey. "What about a father who has four sons - how do you tell a son he cannot perform this important rite for his father?"

Samoan funeral director Ese Tatupu says Pacific Islanders like to help fill in the grave to conclude burials, each family member grabbing a shovel. "It is just not fair to have a policy change - they are making it like in America where cemetery staff do everything."

"After years of the council supporting the community with its cemeteries and crematoria, they are turning it into a business."

Tatupu says the booking hurdles and restrictions on hours will cause concern in Muslim communities where tradition dictates that those who die in the morning should be buried before the sun goes down. Hindu and Hebrew customs similarly call for cremation within 24 hours to hasten the departure of the soul. Buddhists will be concerned about what can go into caskets to accompany the dead.

Catherine Moore, the council cemeteries manager, is mortified by the public backlash - both on talkback radio and on a Campbell Live vox-pop, which wrongly assumed people will have to pay to scatter ashes in public places. (They will, as now, pay to scatter ashes in the grounds of council cemeteries - a fee which ensures records are kept and contributes to maintenance - but not in other public places.)

The exercise is not about extending bureaucracy where it's not needed nor about boosting council income, she says. In fact, the aim was to reduce regulation and introduce flexibility where possible. Cemeteries such as Waikumete already have areas for specific cultures where plaques and decoration may be more lavish than the minimalist approach favoured in the returned servicemen's site.

The council oversees about 30 operational cemeteries spread between Rodney and Franklin: its big three are Waikumete, North Shore Memorial Park and Manukau Memorial Gardens. Amalgamation brought the need to standardise cemetery bylaws and practices and end considerable fee variations. For instance, the charge for digging an oversize plot varies from nil to $518.

Some rules are necessary for operational and health and safety reasons, Moore says. The two-person limit on the number of family members witnessing the cremation is as much due to space limitations as safety but she stresses there is room for flexibility. Additional family members can be accommodated in most circumstances.

Nor does the council want to stop family and friends filling-in the grave - it simply wants notice so enough shovels and staff are on hand and for scheduling of subsequent interments. Floral tributes need not be removed after 14 days (they can be moved to the headstone area) but dead flowers cast about by high winds can offend others.

The extra charge for late bookings is already in place at some cemeteries and linked to the need to bring in staff at short notice. Interment hours are restricted mainly because of short daylight hours in winter - cemeteries are unlit and it's unsafe for staff to be backfilling graves in the dark.

Restrictions on what goes in coffins for cremation are related to air discharge rules and what burns.

"We have had situations where people have decided to put beer bottles in with Dad or Grandad, or families who make their own casket use treated wood, or line the casket with paper which doesn't burn and you get lumps of paper when you rake out the ashes." Golf clubs and ceremonial swords and fishing rods are other no-nos.

"These things weren't all explicitly in the bylaws but they were part of operational practices and things we would talk to families about.

"If we don't have rules around some of these things it becomes a bit 'anything goes'."

Moore says the need to gain permission to scatter ashes in public places is to ensure the custom takes place in appropriate areas. Popular parks and beaches may not be right - and the practice has long been banned in regional parks, if not enforced.

"For everybody who thinks it's a wonderful tribute to loved ones, there are others who don't want to picnic where people are scattering ashes."

The Auckland Botanic Gardens is off-limits for the same reason as the rose gardens - too much phosphorus from the ashes is harmful to the plants. There are also spiritual concerns for council gardeners asked to work the soil knowing it contains human ashes. "For some cultures it's still human remains and they feel very uncomfortable.

And family members are sometimes aghast when they return to where they placed the ashes to find the garden has been dug up or the area re-landscaped. Moore says discussions need to take place with iwi and others to identify acceptable places and practices.

Warahi Paki, chairman of Waikumete's urupa committee, says new migrants and others need some education about what's appropriate, but there is room to accommodate most customs. "I don't see too much problem with dispersal of ashes out at sea - the ocean is quite big." Contained waterways could be provided to allow for Hindu custom.

But Paki says scattering of ashes on sacred maunga such as Mt Eden, in coastal areas where koiwi (bones) are buried and in areas where food is gathered can cause offence.

If there is a problem, it is that the council drafted new rules for this hugely-sensitive arena before entering a dialogue with the region's many ethnicities, including iwi. "That's an exercise to come," Moore says. "We're just starting to think about how we might do that."

The council did consult - to an extent. It ran newspaper ads, put information in libraries and service centres and notified local boards of its preferred approach but only 12 of the 21 boards responded. But its reliance on cemetery managers "who know their communities" to identify any cultural concerns means those communities have been taken by surprise.

The formal consultation attracted just 12 submissions and the Funeral Directors Association will be one of the few to represent the living at the hearing on Monday week. "We should have been consulted and now we've missed the submissions deadline," Shanti Patel says. "That's the biggest issue."

Buried in the fine print

• The new Auckland Council bylaw and code of practice for cemeteries and crematoria requires the bereaved to obtain permission and pay fees for things like headstones. Burials must be booked by midday on the day before the funeral; late bookings attract extra fees; interments are restricted to between 10am and 3.30pm.

• Ashes must be collected within 28 days of cremation. Wreaths, flowers and other "adornments" must be removed from the burial plot after 14 days. Breakable vases or receptacles cannot be used to hold flowers. Limits on the size and height of memorials, headstones, plaques, railings and fences are prescribed.

• In cremations, the code limits to two the number of family members able to stand by as the casket enters the furnace, a practice important to several cultures.

- NZ Herald

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