Lana Hart writes on the power of cemeteries and how Kiwis now remember the dead.
I have a weird interest in walking through cemeteries. There are stories there — of sick babies, long marriages, lives well lived and lives wasted by war or influenza.
I read old headstones and wonder what that person was really like and how the words In Hope, Rest in Peace, and Much Loved do little to reflect the individual, six feet under.
They were complicated, weren't they? They were funny, or clever, or could fix tractors better than anyone in the district or wrap wounds without the soldier even noticing. They birthed 11 children and could always manage to find room for one more visitor. They designed bridges which we drive over every day.
Some old graves are well kempt and visited, still. Some are clearly forgotten.
In Christchurch, many headstones remain cracked and horizontal from the violent quake seven years ago. I love the sudden jump back in time and the quiet from the hustle of the streets when you drop into Symonds Street Cemetery, Auckland's oldest.
Cemeteries are interesting places; I'm sure I'm not the only one who can overcome the creepiness factor and explore a peaceful cemetery on a sunny afternoon.
Holding a religious ceremony, burying a corpse and marking the grave with a stone may be what early settlers needed to do, but many Kiwi families no longer practice these traditions after a death.
Our customs are changing. Like all societal practices, they are being shaped by the many cultures living here, a growing awareness of the impact our traditions have on the environment, the international shift away from conventional religions, and even new technologies.
Are these evolving practices serving the emotional needs of the ones who are left behind? Do the changes in the way we remember the lives of those who have left this world support the process of grieving?
New Zealand's cremation rates are high and growing every year. More than 70 per cent of corpses are now cremated and the ashes, called cremains, are either interred to the ground, scattered or stored.
Our views about the environmental impact of decaying corpses and the amount of ground space an entire body takes up are a major factor.
David Capill of Christchurch's Lamb & Hayward Funeral Directors believes that a person's decision about whether or not to cremate tends to be quite strong.
"Either they don't want to think of their loved ones being burnt or 'rotting in the ground being eaten by worms'. Many families come to us with clear views about this."
The lower cost of cremation is also a drawcard — between $500 and $1100 versus $700 and $6500 for a burial.
Some families are cutting costs by shunning the traditional wooden coffin.
Tauranga company Hope Funerals offers cardboard coffins which can be painted or decorated with artwork, photos or messages.
They can't be carried by pallbearers but can be used as a liner inside a hired wooden coffin.
The liner is then removed for cremation.
Other families have artwork added to caskets from professionals.
Pomare F Uelese Amosa, a sign-writer in Auckland, creates cultural-inspired designs on funeral caskets.
The high cost of his mother's plain casket got him thinking about ways he could change the look in a way that reflected Pasifika culture.
Rotorua's Coffin Club has been a pioneer in DIY coffins.
A group of seniors started the club in 2010 to construct and customise their own low-cost coffins.
A wave of similar clubs have since started around New Zealand.
A short documentary was made about the community group, with all the characters singing and dancing musical-style.
When it comes to viewing what's inside the coffin, Kiwis appear to have a have "a much stronger viewing [of the body] culture than in other countries, and even Australia", according to Stephen Parkyn, chief executive of Lamb & Hayward.
Some funerals have multiple viewings — mostly closed casket — including taking the body home for people to visit and even talk to with them, as if they are still alive.
Several people I spoke to about how they manage their emotional loss after the death of a person close to them mentioned seeing the body and talking to the deceased were important ways of managing grief.
It's hard to imagine that New Zealanders' increasing comfort with viewing the body and addressing their dead is not influenced by the Māori tradition of tangihanga, which includes several days of celebrations on the marae.
People at tangi speak frankly to and about the deceased, the tūpāpaku — singing, storytelling and joking — are also expected.
Sally Pitama, Ngāi Tahu, explains that the tradition of speaking to the tūpāpaku normalises death and will assist those who are left behind.
"Death is a part of living," says Pitama, "and it does help us to speak directly to the dead. If we can show others, especially children, that we are okay with it, we are much better off."
Today's practices after death include a better understanding of the sorrow experienced after the passing of someone in our lives.
"Grief does not get done at the funeral," says Capill.
"It begins at the funeral. A lot of people don't know what to do at this time. It's their first experience of death of a close loved one, and they don't know where to start. Our role is to guide them through this, and to seek to understand what they want to have happen to honour that life."
Capill says funerals now can take on a variety of formats and there has been a move away from the formally structured ceremonies of the past, where a member of the clergy leads the funeral through various hymns, prayers and scripture readings.
Many Kiwis now organise less prescriptive events, led by a celebrant rather than a member of the clergy, and involve, for example, live-streaming to include loved ones in other parts of the world, alternative locations such as beaches, backyards or parks, and testimonials from mourners which are frank and open, rather than only prescribed readings.
By tailoring the funeral service to the specific needs of the loved ones, "we are influencing how their grief begins", Capill says. "If you begin it well, you have a better chance of grieving better later on."
Capill believes that loved ones should acknowledge their authentic emotions about the deceased, no matter what those feelings are.
"People often keep their emotions in check leading up to the funeral. During the funeral, emotions really start pouring out. There's a moment when the casket is carried out when people can see that it will be the last physical connection with that person, and this is usually the most emotional point in the day."
Emotions about the deceased aren't always positive. What if Granddad was a perpetual jerk or if Mum basically deserted you? What if there were things done or undone in the deceased's life that make you angry, or confused, or just really sad?
"All emotions, no matter what they are," says Capill, "are important to get out. Family tensions should be expressed, and often are. We feel good when they are really emotional at the end, because we know that it has been the experience for them that it should be."
Psychotherapist Sheila Larsen, who has supported many people through the loss of someone close, agrees.
"Addressing the emotions after a death is highly personal and depends on the relationship itself, how close they were, whether or not it was a difficult relationship, and many other things. If they were sick for a long time, it may be a blessing that they've gone. If it was sudden and they were very dear to them, it's particularly difficult."
Experts agree that the way people emotionally manage the loss of a loved one is vastly individualised, and that there is no recipe for the way we grieve. Even the widely cited Five Stages of Grief model, developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the 1970s to help better understand death, is viewed as a broad model that is not necessarily experienced by everyone who feels grief.
Larsen herself lost a child many years ago. He was 17 days old and born with brain damage and a heart defect.
Her response was to talk about it.
"I was desperate to share my story with anyone on the street who would listen. It was my way of working through what had happened to me. My husband's reaction, though, was a completely different one. No one way is the right way."
The challenge of grieving, Larsen explains, is that "the person has died but the relationship is still there. How do you still hold that relationship dear when they are not present?"
Megan* lost her son in a car accident when he was just four years old. For a couple of years on the anniversary of his death, friends met by the side of the road where he died, bringing candles and "drive safely" signs for the oncoming traffic.
Megan later planted bulbs in that spot so that every spring new colours burst through the earth.
There are many ways Megan now keeps the memory of her son alive.
"My son had made of drawing of me not long before he died," she explains. "A friend took the drawing and made a necklace for me, which I always wear."
Once a week, she visits her son's grave and often takes things he would've loved or collected himself: Stones from the beach, heart-shaped rocks, little toys and trinkets, and souvenirs from her travels. For her, the grave "has a set purpose or focus that is separate to everything else that might be going on with the day. It's a quiet place for thinking."
Larsen suggests to some of her clients that they make a spot in their garden or their home "where they can go to be with that person. Here, they can talk to them as if they're still alive, or just be still and away from the stresses of life to remember their times with them."
Since 1992, in a unique partnership between the Department of Conservation and Lamb & Hayward, Ōtukaikino Reserve, north of Christchurch, has undergone a restoration programme.
For every funeral arranged by the funeral home, a native plant is planted in the reserve. The trees that are planted are not dedicated to any one person but instead contribute to form a natural forest community, which is visited by people whose loved ones have passed away.
Each year, Lamb & Hayward holds a memorial service for hundreds of people who come to celebrate these lives at the Reserve.
Parkyn says "It gives people a lot of comfort to come to the reserve and remember. The peace they get from spending time with others in the reserve, just reflecting and enjoying their memories, is of great value to us."
There's one cemetery in the world that isn't just a stroll in the park for me. It's tucked in a cornfield in southern Illinois where my dad, my brother, my unborn sister, my grandparents, and a great aunt lie. Across the lane are more distant relatives and familiar family names from the small rural community.
When I walk there, I can sometimes see my grandmother's dimpled hands, kneading dough for chicken and dumplings. I remember my brother pushing me on my bike without its training wheels for the first time, shouting for me to keep going. I hear my dad growling out a new joke amidst a halo of pipe smoke, then chortling to himself after the punchline.
We all need our places and ways to remember them.
* Not her real name