Concerns about funeral practice: an interview with Mary Hancock

It was my elder sister who told me about Mary – creator of The Celebrant School, and for twenty years its teacher. Taruni knew I had conducted two funerals and had registered as a marriage celebrant.

Two days before Mary’s Wellington-based module on funerals and marriages began I heard about it from Taruni. Excited, I emailed Mary and asked if I could be part of it. By Sunday afternoon I’d heard nothing, but this was twenty years ago, before people carried ‘devices’ from one city to another.

I was so clear that I wanted to do the course that I went into the city on the Monday morning, arriving at the venue with thirty or forty minutes to spare. When Mary arrived, I told her my story. Her heart seemed to sink as she told me the course was already oversubscribed for the size of the room, but she suggested I stay where I was and went about preparing the room. I will never forget her coming out a few minutes later and waving me into the room.

I think it was on day two that I broke. We’d started the week with funerals, and in Mary’s exquisite holding we were facing the kind of emotional stuff that might surface when we encountered different circumstances around funerals. Several times I left the room, mopped up, contained myself and returned, only to find I was in floods again, regardless of how practical or unemotional the content she was offering.

That night – I hadn’t stopped crying – I began to write a letter to Mary and the group. I knew I didn’t need to apologise, but writing led me somewhere helpful. One inadequately-grieved situation after another found its way onto the page. Even things I hadn’t seen as griefs emerged, like barely seeing my teenage son for three or four years.

The next day I shared my letter and my gratitude and went on to complete the week, and three other extraordinarily rich weeks in the hands of this wise, compassionate woman.

It is from this background that I contacted Mary in 2015 as part of my research for a book whose working title was Re-Imagining Death – what Kiwi baby boomers are up to, and asked her for an interview. She generously shared with me her insights and concerns about funerals in Aotearoa New Zealand, and with her permission, I share them here.


Where to begin?


I’m not sure, except I know that we are on the cusp of quite a major change around funerals in Aotearoa New Zealand, some of it good and some of it not so good. I’m sure the people you’ve been talking with have been sharing that. Maybe I should talk a little bit about that and then you just question me from there.


That’s great, Mary. Super.


One of the things I’m very aware of is that there’s a real increase in families choosing not to have a funeral ceremony; and direct cremation; and sometimes just a little gathering at home, as it were. And I see this as a real challenge, because to my mind it denies the importance of the funeral.

There are quite a few key things in having a funeral, in addition to actually saying farewell to the physical body of the person who’s died. If we don’t have a funeral there is generally no opportunity for a gathering together of everybody who’s known and cared about that person, or who wants to pay respects. The process of honouring and celebrating the life of that person in a broad sense – that doesn’t happen; and the chance for people genuinely to be held as they grieve also is not there. So I’m very concerned at this trend.

There’s also an issue with the order of things – people getting together over food and drink without having completed the cremation process, without having properly moved to the next part of the grieving process where the body is no longer with them.

For thousands of years we’ve always had the ritual-makers and celebrants who’ve been the key – often the shamans in the past, in our pre-historic times – who took responsibility for guiding communities through this. All of a sudden here we are in 2015 throwing the baby out with the bath water, letting go the legacy of knowledge around the importance of rites around death, and casualising it, so I am very concerned about that aspect.

I’m not surprised. Yes. So, you mentioned different things there; you mentioned the choice not have a funeral at all, and you also made reference to the cremation itself being very separate from anything else.

Yes, and there’s a major problem in that. Certainly in our European Celtic past, prior to Christianity, everybody for thousands and thousands of years, except the chiefs or the kings or whatever, was always cremated. Then there was a huge chunk of time where, because of Christianity, we buried, largely. With cremation coming in again over the last 150 years the reason it has been done is very different to why we traditionally did it; it’s often seen as the no-fuss, easy way, cheap way.

We now have people who specialise in doing it, rather than the community all going together as many of the traditions in India do. It gets isolated, so nobody’s involved in it except the crematoria staff, with all their high-tech process. Not only are we largely using cremation – something like 80% of all our funerals are now resulting in cremation – we’re divorced from the cremation process itself. People have to actively advocate to be able to go behind the scenes to be part of that process. Even then, it’s such a highly mechanised process, so we’ve got real challenges in that area.

Another area of challenge is that funeral directors have found it far easier to suggest to people that they just farewell the body at the end of the funeral ceremony – just wave the hearse goodbye – or, if families request it, they have a little committal ceremony in the chapel perhaps. Very rarely will funeral directors say, ‘Do you understand that you may go behind and witness the cremation’. Generally they only act on that with the Indian community, who strongly advocate for it. 

So to my mind cremation has got all sorts of problems around it, and then we add into it the fact that some families aren’t even having a funeral ceremony with it, it’s like double, double jeopardy.


And what do you think is the effect of this on people as individuals, Mary?


Well I think once again it removes people from death, and it removes people from direct experience of dealing with grief, so that it takes them a step or two removed. Marion Barnes so wonderfully describes grief as happening inside us, and our need as humans is to unzip it and let it out to be felt and shared. If you let the body go away unescorted, and you don’t really have a ceremony where you’re held, enabling grief to start to really be expressed, people carry on holding it inside, and it’s not healthy for us. We’ve never done that in the past. This is a very new, unhealthy thing for humans to do. So we’ve got a series of unhealthy things that are occurring in Western society around death and funerals, certainly in the Pakeha community in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The cremation process, when you are observing and being fully with it, is every bit as good as when you bury – they’re just different. But can you imagine a burial where you just leave someone else to do it? Coming from a family that buries and fills in the grave, I can’t imagine what that would be like. It’s like we’re pushing death away; we’re not wanting it as part of ongoing life – but it is part of ongoing life, and being able to fully embrace it and express the grief – that’s not happening if we close all these avenues down, so it’s very concerning.


It certainly is.

I picked up on our word “casualising”, too. That hit me.


Because we’ve never done that before, Margie. It’s always been, in every community, in every culture, everywhere, death is one of the major rites, and if you take that away and casualise it, we become casualties, literally. We’ve de-sacralised life generally, and now we are giving away the importance of the rites around death. It’s providing potential for more mental illness, of which we have plenty.


And other forms of illness. I’m sure that grief, held inside, becomes physical illness as well.


There are quite a lot of studies that look at major trauma in people’s lives and the link between those powerful traumas, particularly unexpected death, and health. When people die in their 80s and 90s we are expecting that, so there’s a natural expression of grief and loss at that point, that even if it’s not unzipped doesn’t necessarily result in ill health. But when it’s unexpected death  – and one third of deaths are unexpected…


Wow!, it’s as high as that!


Two-thirds of all deaths in New Zealand/ Aotearoa are from known terminal illnesses, but a third are not (for example fatal heart attacks, stroke and accidents), and those are the areas that are really potentially problematic. You need to have people involved in these situations, who know what they’re doing to help people, because to grapple with the grief that comes from sudden death is no easy thing, and particularly for Pakeha. You know, “stiff upper lip” is still very strong. ‘How are you coping?’ ‘Oh, I’m coping well.’  But not coping is what you need to do! Not coping is successfully managing grief; crying, not being able to do anything, being beside yourself, is actually really healthy, but we’re often saying to people after three weeks, ‘Get on with it! Re-embrace life!’


That’s interesting too, because I think part of what’s happening is that we’ve got an imbalance – an emphasis on embracing life and being positive. I don’t know where it comes from, but there’s a pull in our society away from looking at the dark side of life, and we need both.


The healthy way to be optimistic and embrace life is ‘embracing life and death, in all their fullness’. Just concentrating on the light, like you say, is totally absurd, because human life is made up of that balance, like the yin and the yang; the light and the dark is all part of it. In fact, to classify it as light and dark is also a problem, because it implies that the dark is all wrong and the light is all right, rather it’s a grand mix of all of that.

Pakeha, and Westerners generally, are scared of that dark side of things, and so the need, the want, to push away, the desire to say ‘Oh, well, you can get over it quickly; you don’t need to wear black’. I mean the stopping of wearing black is a major problem, because what it used to do for the last 150 years, since Queen Victoria adopted black when Albert died, is that it sends a message to people, ‘I’m in grief; I’m in a different place’. Traditionally, when someone close to you died, you’d wear black for a year, a whole year, when you weren’t expected to be ordinarily engaging in on-going life. Yes, you would be still going through the motions, but you’d be deep in grief.

We don’t have these symbols any more. I mean the simple thing of wearing a black armband would be helpful. We have so few burials now, or going to the cemetery with the car lights on. We don’t see that very often.


No, seldom.


No, whereas in my childhood it was such a common scene, and it alerted everybody. Aha, here’s a funeral, and the dark clothes alert everybody, too. You hear people say, ‘Oh, you don’t need to wear black’. Well, it’s a powerful symbol of saying, someone important has died and we want to honour that. You know, wearing bright clothes to funerals is another casualisation – another pushing death away.


Do you know, I hadn’t seen that, Mary. That’s really helpful to me. When I became a funeral celebrant, officially, I was in the UK and although I hadn’t been to a funeral there, I’d past a church when there were funerals going on, and noticed everybody in black, absolutely and totally in black, and it was such a shock after New Zealand funerals. To me it was very laden, and sort of heavy with tradition that didn’t necessarily have any understanding behind it. And so my sense of wanting to celebrate somebody’s whole life had me introducing Pink Coat Funerals. But maybe what we need is some way to recognise, and to re-imagine – to re-imagine how the wearing of black, or somber colours or whatever, might make sense.


I wonder if the black armband is not one of the answers to that. Deborah Cairns, at State of Grace Funeral Directors, had black arm bands made by some of the local Somali women whom they’ve done a lot of funerals for. They’re selling for $5 each.


Yes. I saw that on her website and I thought it was a great idea.


Now you see that’s a very simple way to connect with death. When I go to a funeral I wear black, because I am wanting to say, ‘This is a step out of our ordinary life. Yes, it’s totally part of life, but this is the step of acknowledging death has come here, and I want to wear black as well’. But there are lots of people who won’t, so okay, let’s look at another way.       Hopefully people are still wearing their best clothes, as it were, as a sign of respect for the deceased and the grieving family. That’s another thing, you see; people are just wearing their ordinary day-to-day things and I think that’s tragic. You need best clothes, or Sunday clothes as we used to call it as children, and if you’re going to not wear black, to have a black armband to at least say to people, ‘I’m involved with a funeral, with a death, and I want that to be marked’. And, for those who are close to the person who has died, to keep wearing them as an on-going sign of death and grief, because there are no other signs really if you don’t wear black, so death becomes invisible.

So I’m all for making it visible, as it is in Maori society. It always was in our Celtic background. That’s what’s so deeply sad about all of this today. It’s only the last 150 years, even just 100 years, when as Pakeha we’ve moved away from death being visible. For example, with my grandmother, who came from County Durham in the north of England – when somebody died you pulled down the blinds. I still remember that as a child in Palmerston North – you pulled down the blinds and the person stayed at home. Their body was in a coffin in the front room. You all went to the church together; you all then went and buried the person together, and then you all went to a hall or a house together to share food and drink afterwards. And we’ve thrown away so many of those important, powerful, ancient traditions that have served us so well.


And I imagine it’s because the traditions have lost their meaning, so it’s somehow to find their meaning again, and express that, perhaps in new ways.


But there’s also another thing that’s happening here. Traditionally after the funeral ceremony, we would all go and cremate or bury and then all come back together to share food and drink, to bring us back into ordinary life. Unfortunately, many funeral directors have co-opted that aspect, by having food and drink at their premises, at quite a considerable price, at the end of the ceremony, before the body goes to be buried or cremated. (Or they let the body go off without even anyone else going.) They’re putting the sharing of food and drink at the wrong time, often for their convenience, saying to families, ‘Look, you don’t want to go off with the body for cremation, because when you get back everybody will be gone’. How much better to say to everybody, ‘Let’s all go together to the cremation, then we will gather afterwards’, as you do at a burial. 

And it’s got expensive. A couple of things have happened: many funeral directors have recommended the sharing time and refreshments to be straight after the ceremony, and secondly, it’s become frightfully expensive for many families, so that the catering costs become prohibitive. Let’s get back to how we used to do it, where everyone would get together and bring a plate, or the Ladies’ Federation would do it, or the church women, or whatever. Let’s get back to putting a notice in the paper, so and so has died; there’s going to be a funeral at such and such, and afterwards please all come, bring a plate …  We could get rid of that huge expense and bring this process back into the community.


Mary, you’ve touched on the form of ceremony, but I wonder if this is a good time to actually speak about that. I remember when I trained with you, you called it the ceremonial sandwich.


Okay. In looking at the ceremonial sandwich, the key thing is that in any funeral, whether it’s going to lead to cremation or to burial, the first part of the ceremonial sandwich is the arrival. Often funeral directors say ‘let’s make it easy for everyone’, rather than looking at what would work best in terms of grieving families. What works best is to actually pall-bear the coffin in. This makes for a powerful beginning for everybody, but often funeral directors say, ‘Look, we’ll get the deceased there beforehand; you won’t have to worry about that’. But you do actually want to worry about that, because it’s one of the powerful things you can do. So the beginning of the ceremony is around the arrival of the coffin, the arrival of the family, the friends, the guests, and actually naming what you are doing. In naming what you’re doing you make it clear that we’ve come together to honour the life of so and so who has died, and that we’ll celebrate their life, we’ll share stories, we’ll share music, we’ll share all sorts of things, and that we will be together in our grief, and hold each other, and that only then we will move to farewell, to actually say goodbye to the physical body of that person. That will lead then to a cremation or burial.

So that’s it; we begin by setting the scene. Then there needs to be some music, or a reading, or something that enables people to be grounded in the ceremony. So this arrival and beginning is a very simple part, but important.

The rest of the ceremony is the most important part – the filling in the sandwich. The farewell and goodbyes are all in this important middle part.

There is so much that can happen in there – more often than not some sort of eulogy or life narrative, often woven together, sometimes separate, with its stories and anecdotes that bring to life the character, the essence, the being of the person who has died. Often woven into that are enactments that again emphasis the uniqueness of the person. For instance they may have been a surfer, so you might have the surfboard there, or show a surfing DVD; or a gardener, and the coffin may have all the fruit and veggies that the person would have in their garden; or if they were a dancer, there might be a formal dancing piece in the middle of the ceremony. Often candles are lit at the beginning, and extinguished at the end, by family members. That’s immensely powerful, but the possibility of enactments in a funeral is endless. People may be invited, if the person was a gardener, to bring along cuttings to exchange so that everybody takes home a memory of that person and plants it in their garden. Or you might have sprigs of rosemary or lavender that can be taken home and planted. Or people might be invited to come up and write messages on the coffin, or on pieces of paper to go in the coffin, or they might be invited in the newspaper notice to bring little messages to be placed on it or to go inside. So there’s a huge possibility of what can happen in a ceremony.

Only then do you formally begin to say goodbye. As you know, Margie, the word we often use is committal or farewell. It provides comfort to those who remain, and it acknowledges that the person is going to whatever their final resting place is, and that this is a the last time we will be with their physical presence. It can be very powerful to invite the nearest and dearest of that person to form a close circle around the coffin and to link hands, and touch the coffin, as a last touching before the coffin is then carried out. It is very empowering for families to pall-bear their loved one out, even if the coffin is then going unescorted to cremation. A challenging example is when the coffin is left in the room where the service has been held.


Oh, that’s horrifying!


It’s like you’re totally abandoning that person to total strangers to take the body out to the hearse or to the cremation unit.

So, yes, the funeral service itself is immensely important. So much can be done within this, that expresses the character and individuality of the one who has died. It is important to remember, though, that generally, within the funeral ceremony, a few people are speaking on behalf of everyone. The time for everyone to tell their stories generally needs to happen before the funeral, or after the funeral in a wake or gathering. One of the things that I’ve seen Kiwi Pakeha do in the last 30 years is to try and cram too much into the funeral ceremony so that it becomes two hours, even three hours. The sharing that needed to occur the night before, or later, because it’s individual, ends up in the funeral itself. Funerals are collective experiences where generally a few people share, on behalf of everybody, the person’s essence, their story, their character, and some of the stories. We can get bogged down with lots and lots of speakers. Pakeha generally can maintain an hour to an hour-and-a half maximum of high, loaded, emotional loss and grief at funerals. After that it becomes too challenging, and people faint, people tune out, people start talking – we’re trying to do too many things at once. So there’s a need to be clear on what the funeral is about. Effective celebrants could encourage people to have that degree of individual sharing before or after the ceremony.

So that’s another area that’s in transition. We used to do it – gather and share the stories. Maori have maintained it all the way through; they didn’t lose the thread like we did as Pakeha Kiwis, and many of the English also have lost it. We need to re-invent and reclaim and create new ways to build on the legacy of the past. But we must ensure that it’s meaningful, because one of the reasons people threw the legacy out was because some of it had lost meaning, and they threw the whole lot out. The bit that particularly was losing its meaning for many was the grip of religion, particularly in our instance, of Christianity. Many people were letting go of those particular spiritual views but maintained their own that may build on Christianity but be slightly different. Certainly many people have not wanted funerals within the context of a religious institution. So you’ve got that happening as well.


So then the last part of the sandwich?


The last part is what you observe physically. The proper farewell should be done in that ceremony, unless we’re going off for a little cremation ceremony or a burial ceremony, which is like another mini sandwich. So the process of holding the funeral needs to be completed. Having the coffin carried out is the final part before you move off to burial or cremation. But if the body is going on unescorted, this is the time for a gathering together to share food and drink, because this takes us out of the specialness and sacredness of the ceremony, into on-going life, but on-going life with grief. Many Pakeha don’t go to the time afterwards because they look at their watches and think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get back to work’, but we’re actually shooting ourselves in the foot, because that is a key part of the funeral; it’s the extension of the finishing part.


You mentioned celebrants; you said ‘good effective celebrants could help here’. Would you like to make any comment on how we find a good celebrant?


It is such a challenge, isn’t it? One of the things that the Celebrants’ Association of New Zealand, and good celebrants generally, have been trying to do is to bring discussion into mainstream society about the importance of using celebrants, and using good, trained, effective and professional celebrants, because a good celebrant is going to be absolutely committed to doing what the family needs at that point. Often funeral directors haven’t given bereaved families the full possible choices around the funeral, so the funeral celebrant needs to be able to share what all the possibilities are, including simple things, like if it’s a cremation and they’re at the time when the body is going to be lowered, the family can actually press the button. So often either the celebrant or the funeral director presses the lowering button. That’s the equivalent of lowering the body into the ground, and the family should have the right to do that, and to see the significance of the power of pressing the button.  So a professional celebrant is raising lots of things that need to be talked about: the need for people to share individual stories that aren’t necessarily going to be talked about in the ceremony – how do you do that? Do you have a special gathering afterwards? Could you have another event?

If you gave people sufficient time… and that’s another thing that needs to be thought about. Could you give families four or five days rather than the two or three? That enables people to realise, ’Well, yes, we could have a gathering the night before’. You look at the Catholic tradition that’s now called The Rosary – that’s often turned into a sharing of stories. It’s a very new development within the Catholic tradition that’s worked really well for them, that they’ve learned, I think, from Maori traditions. But in terms of the Irish and Celtic tradition, the body would be at home, everyone would come and say goodbye to the body and then would gather in the kitchen or the dining room for food and drink, and that’s when all the stories got told. We have to enable people to come and share the stories, and that often needs to be said in the funeral notice (in the paper and /or Facebook).

So, yes, it’s educating the public on what the possibilities are, and the importance, no matter how complicated or simple the funeral ceremony is going to be, of having a professional who holds you through that process, so that you as family members and beloved of the person who has died can openly grieve and honour together.

My big sadness is for families who are just doing these quick cremations. They’re losing out, but many of them have experienced either church ceremonies that for them have been meaningless, or celebrants who have just done the basics and no more, so families look at each other and say, ‘We could do that’.


Yes, it’s no wonder. I also wonder about the cost factor – I gather the average funeral costs $11,000 at the moment, which is just mind-blowing.


It is a terrible cost!


Whereas if people understood that probably for a fraction of what you’re going to pay for your afternoon tea, you could have a really good celebrant… The celebrant is such a key piece, to me. Maybe, Mary it’s because you and I are celebrants – but no, it’s not just that.


You are totally right, Margie. It makes or breaks what people remember.

I should also mention something about affordable coffins. I mean the incredibly expensive prices that many funeral directors are charging. . .  This is every bit as

unaffordable as the price that gets charged for catering. However, it looks as if quite soon you’re going to be able to buy coffins without going through funeral directors (for example Mitre10mega will soon be selling kitset coffins), or through funeral directors but at reasonable prices. It looks like that’s going to open up, because up until recently you couldn’t buy from the makers of the coffins, you had to go through the funeral director, and they would make a huge profit on these.

The coffin should cost a maximum of $1000, and ideally much less than that. State of Grace have bought in beautiful shrouds, and a beautiful plank with hand-holds that you can put the shrouded body on, so that you can still pall-bear a body in a shroud. It’s probably a maximum of $500 for a beautiful silk shroud and the bearer. You have to have the bearer because you can’t bury a body unless it’s on a solid surface, and you can’t pall-bear either without a solid surface.

And there are Coffin Clubs around the country – like a coffee club where people get together to make their own coffins. I know that lots of the post-war baby boomers are going to want to do that.

And the Death Cafes around the country – they’re also making more information available.

And so, bringing food to share on a plate, making our own coffins or having them affordable, under $1000, we can bring the price of funerals right down to $3000 or $4000, which is much more manageable. And so it doesn’t bankrupt people. No wonder people are turning round and saying they won’t have a funeral.


There was a comment you made at a funeral celebrants’ workshop I attended, about a refusal to acknowledge suicide in the context of the funeral. Could we look at that?


I think it’s so important that we find some way to acknowledge suicide and yet not let it be glorified or exploited in any way. Tragically, we have very high levels of suicide in New Zealand, particularly amongst male youth and older men. And part of it is linked to Kiwi culture – not talking about death and dying and life generally, and not enabling for it to be socially acceptable for men to be vulnerable and talk about stuff that’s happening to them. Men are supposed not to need to talk about these things. So we’ve got high degrees of male suicide. We’ve also got rules in the country that prohibit specific naming of suicide in the paper, and I think we’ve done it all back to front. Actually we have to start talking about it; we have to start naming it, and that’s why I think I said at the seminar that I will no longer act as a funeral celebrant where there’s been a suicide if they’re not able to say the word suicide, or ’taking of life’, because I think we’re becoming complicit in the culture of suicide, and in many ways that encourages it. Imagine the young person who knows his or her friend committed suicide, and they’re having this amazing ceremony – all this publicity that the young person may have hungered for. Perhaps he or she thinks, at some level, ‘I can do that too. I’m so miserable, why not?’ Let’s rather talk about the horror of suicide, and name it – not have it as something that gets shoved under the carpet and seen as a shame, and something you just don’t talk about. It’s got to be brought out in the open. We have got to deal with it. We’ve got to recognise that a lot of mental illness with depression is resulting in suicide because people just feel that life is so dark, to be dead would be better than living with the depression and the challenges it brings. We’ve got to open it up and talk about it; we’ve got to find healthy ways for people to be open about what’s happening to them.


Yes. Thank you for that… And sanitising death?


(moan) I think some funeral directors have enabled sanitising to take place, because it can make things easier for them. Some say, ‘We’ll just bring the coffin in ahead of time. You don’t need to pall-bear it’. And, ‘Leave it behind (leaving the coffin in the room where the ceremony has been held); you don’t need to worry and get all upset. Yes, cremation’s a really good idea, and yes, we can take the coffin and you don’t need to come, and it doesn’t need to upset you’. Instead, we need to be upset! We need to be tearful and distressed as the coffin goes down, because we are literally letting go. We need to hold the coffin and pall-bear it, because it lets us fully be with the fact that this person has died and is physically leaving. Things that remind us of death are very important, not the sanitising or pushing it away. It’s got to be fully there. So it’s not helping at all, the sanitising around death.

The getting upset, the crying, is very healthy. We’ve always got upset and cried when people whom we love aren’t going to be with us any more, and if we don’t get upset and cry, we’re likely to get sick and disturbed. And so sanitising and keeping death away and keeping it all pretty, like with angels and cherubs, doesn’t let the meanness and the tragedy and the loss and grief be expressed. We’ve got to let that come out and be shared, and sanitising death closes it all down and attempts to make it all pretty and nice with flowers and nice music, and death is not pretty and nice. Death is raw and it cuts us open and we want to bring the person back and we can’t, so we’re grappling with all these deep emotions that sanitising stops – it holds it down, it zips us up, it stops us being human.


And embalming is part of that?


Well, many of our ancient traditions did embalming based on what their top technology was then, be it shark oil, herbs, mummification, whatever, and certainly today, to slow the onset of decay, natural embalming can be done. There’s also highly toxic embalming. What that does is it gives people time to farewell a body, still in a relatively recognisable, live state.

The problem with that, of course, is that the person has died. In modern society many of us have got terrified of death and its smells and its decay. Often in response to this  we embalm fully with a rather toxic system to try and keep the person life-like, which is an oxy-moron. Actually they’re dead. But you can understand why it’s done.

Having the body at home, and being able to be with the body for a few days, is part of the step towards bringing death back into our life. Maybe we have to use toxic embalming as a beginning process with this, leading to more natural forms of embalming, then leading towards not needing to embalm but keeping the body cold, or wrapping the body like the Maori do who’ve gone back to their traditional ways – weaving the flax like a coffin, kete, woven around the person who has died, with many layers of flax, with many of the traditional herbs and oils. This way you’ve still got a body disintegrating, but you’re minimizing the smells of decay. We’ve got to move towards being able to accept again the smells of death. We’ve become so sanitised; we want everything smelling sweet. We don’t want anything that reminds us of decay, and yet what happens when we die? We decay. So the area of embalming – there’s nothing wrong with it as long as we’re mindful of ‘What’s going on here? Why are we doing it? And what ultimately could a society do?’ Once again it’s opening up the discussions we need to have around life and death.


We really do sanitise, don’t we, even to putting bright green fake grass over the pile of earth beside the grave.


That’s one of my pet hates! I would love to go to any cemetery and burn the false grass! They take away the earth and clay and they hide it, or they cover it in false grass. I mean what’s wrong with a pile of earth and clay because you’ve made a hole? When my Mum died, Dad chose to have it triple depth, rather than being side by side – it’s more economical to go that way, but what it meant was, it’s so deep that you were into absolutely yellow clay. Well, we didn’t hide it, and we didn’t use those lowering mechanisms, because we wanted to lower Mum down with the ropes. And we did the same with my brother, because once again it connects you more when you are fully involved in this process.

So I say get rid of the false grass; let’s see the real soil. And let’s not throw that silly sandy stuff into the grave; let’s use proper soils and mud. Yes, you can’t help but hear that noise of thud, thud, because that’s clay and soil going onto the coffin. Some people don’t like to fill in the grave because they don’t like the noise. Why don’t they like the noise? Probably because they’re scared of death they don’t want to hear the sound. But once again it helps with fully letting us grieve, by being fully in what’s happening. So, filling in the grave – you know that’s often a thing that funeral celebrants have to say to people when they’re having a burial, ‘Do you know that you can fill in the grave?’ Because it’s often something funeral directors won’t usually inform families about, unless they’re Maori. If you don’t let people know, the spades won’t be there. So, educating, especially Pakeha Kiwis, around death and dying and what your possibilities are, is huge, because unfortunately we’re actually being denied so many things that would help us in our grief.


And help us therefore to face up to our own death, and live more fully because we’ve done so.




Thank you, Mary. Thank you for sharing your concerns and your passion.



2 thoughts on “Concerns about funeral practice: an interview with Mary Hancock

  1. Margaret – I found this article so incredibly interesting, informative and helpful. It touched on aspects that I have thought about and experienced myself and it has solidified a lot or me to be more courageous in challenging some of what I have often witnessed and experienced as impersonal and separating rather than allowing a full expression of grief and giving people permission to grieve in a more healthy way.

    Thank you for sharing this .
    Love Shari

  2. Thank you Margaret
    I enjoyed this interview.

    When my father died it felt important for me to be as present as possible to the ritual aspects of his journey after death.
    I was not offered information to attend the actual cremation. When I asked I remember there was not much encouragement just that I could do that for an extra $150.
    I decided it was important to me but I remember feeling it was “hard” to ask…like I was asking for alot. I see that so differently now but at the time it was new territory to navigate and I was on my own without many people to talk to that would have understood my desire to do this.

    I requested to attend and asked to follow the vehicle that was carrying his body to the crematorium. I booked it for when my partner arrived back in town and we went together. We had private time with his body, helped put his body into the cremation oven and we stopped outside to silently witness the smoke coming out of the stack. It was deeply meaningful to somehow steward his body through this final process.

    When I look back I see how simple my request was but it didn’t feel that way in comparison to the most common funeral practices at that time. Some basic encouragement and understanding about the importance of the ritual aspects of death would have been so supportive to me at that time. I am glad so much is changing in how we are with death and dying. Thank you to you and Mary for the work you do.
    Love, Heather

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