Archive by Author | Margaret McCallum

Buried in the serenity of the bush: An interview with Mark Blackham

My daughter proudly handed me a newspaper article. The heading was something like NZ’s first natural burial ground opens. I stood there, perplexed. I was briefly back in Aotearoa New Zealand from the UK where I had begun to work as a funeral celebrant. At the time, about 2007, there were well over a hundred natural burial grounds in the UK, and I had simply assumed that good old green NZ would have plenty, too. But no, it had taken the death of a baby at birth, and fifteen years of dedicated hard work to bring one natural burial ground into being here.


Years later, in 2015, I would of course want to speak with Mark Blackham as part of my research for the book I hoped to write – Re-Imagining Death.



Thank you so much for being prepared to do this interview, Mark.



Okay. What do you need to know, then?



You started this organisation, Natural Burials, and you’re its Director. Can you tell us about its vision?



Well, in 1999, the starting vision, if this can be a vision, was choice. My wife and I lost our first child at birth, and faced that question about ‘What do you do?’ and that’s when it all came back to me, this idea I’d had when I was about 15 years old. You can get a bit dark when you’re in your teenage years, and you think about those sorts of things, and then you don’t think about it again until you’re much older. So this idea came back you me, and my wife liked it too, and so we asked around. Everybody said, ’You can’t do that.’ The idea was to be buried in the bush. I just thought that would be very cool, and I couldn’t see a good reason why not. (For non-Kiwis – “the bush” is what we call out native forests as they’re mostly quite dense.)


Then a while later, when I began exploring a little bit, the common theme with all of the burial grounds (and when I looked at the law as well) was a set menu of things, a very narrow set menu of things. In fact, that also applies to funeral directors. All the experiences people told me about were of funeral directors not doing things people wanted to do, so people felt very left out. So, for me, choice was absent, and if there’s anything about the modern consumer, the modern individual, it’s an expectation of choice.


So that was the starting vision. The vision itself, the choice that we wanted, was to be buried naturally, either in bush, or in an area that would return to bush. It was as simple as that. And that we would have these places everywhere.



And it’s been a long journey. I’m surprised how long it’s taken.



Oh, goodness. Yeah, well … funnily enough, I think we followed the pattern that might be familiar to others who come up with a new idea, and that’s that in some ways they overdo the newness of it. And newness frightens people – they get nervous about it. It sounds like you’re trying to change everything. And after a while I realised I was not talking about anything new, just some modification on what was available: you don’t go quite as deep; you just use a casket that’s made of slightly different material to what people have been using; the family get to do a few more things that they want to do, like digging the grave themselves, or filling it in; and that there’s a tree rather than a concrete or stone memorial.


So then we turned it around a bit like that and began doing less of the, ‘Hey it’s a great new environmental thing’, and more ‘It’s just a little bit of a change on what we’ve been doing’, we began to make a bit more headway.


Also, councils … I hope you don’t mind if I talk quite a bit …



No, you go for it.



Councils were very reluctant, kind of still are, but less so now. Cemeteries are just holes for money, for them. They cost a lot in terms of maintenance, and they’re nothing but trouble because people always pester them about memorials that have fallen over, or something that hasn’t been mowed often enough. Oh, it’s just endless; people want to pull people out of the ground … Cemeteries just lose councils money, hand over fist. So here we were coming along to them saying, ‘Tell you what; can you open up a new section for us?’ I mean with this thing they just said, ‘Oh go away; we don’t want any more trouble; you’re just trouble’.


The Wellington [City] Council were less like that. They were still circumspect, and still focused on practical things, which is right, but were open to the idea. First off, though, they were mainly open to the idea of assisting us doing it ourselves, but we figured that, because of our initial rounds of approaching councils and them saying no, probably what we’d be best to do was to get the council to certify us setting up our own one. This is because under the law, only a council can designate an area as a cemetery, so we would have needed them to certify an area that we had chosen, that we had bought ourselves, as a cemetery. And the Wellington Council was willing to do that.


But then (this is about 2006) somewhere along the line … the main problem was that they didn’t want to be lumbered with a piece of land with about five people in it and the trust we had formed going bust. I could see that, because under the law they would have been lumbered with the responsibility of managing it. So they said, ‘Could you give us your business plan?’ (and when I say business plan, this was never an idea for a profit, it was just something we wanted done). In the end we had to spend a lot of our own money, and we were prepared to sink our own money into it to make it happen.


So we gave them our business plan and they went, ‘Oh, it really does work, doesn’t it?’ So they said, ‘I’ll tell you what, we’ll do it ourselves then’. Well we were both cross and … well we were cross, actually. We’d spent a lot of time and money taking this other route. We were about to buy a bit of land, and had done planning consent requests, traffic analysis and all the rest of it, but we said, ‘Okay, let’s do it together’. They had a piece of land already, which was adjacent to the current cemetery.



Yes, to the Makara one.



Yes. It wasn’t designated to be used … well, it would have been eventually, but it could have been 100, 200 years, who knows. So they said, ‘Let’s set it up there’, and the rest is history really. It opened in 2007. We had twelve people in the first year, and then it’s probably increased by 20 to 25 percent in numbers every year after that. There are 150 people there.






I think key in that have been funeral directors, by the way. We did a lot of massaging of funeral directors. The years from 2000 to 2006, they were nasty towards our organisation and our ideas. Every council we talked to, the funeral directors association went and talked to afterwards. Early in the piece, when we presented to Wellington Council, one of their funeral directors went along to a council meeting and told them a whole lot of stuff about how dead people need to be embalmed because of the danger of infection and all the rest of it, all of it completely untrue. We even had the monumental masons, probably not surprisingly, complain about us.



All afraid of their bottom line, I guess.



Yes, all of them were worried about that. The monumental masons probably justifiably so, but really … someone says they don’t want a headstone and so you attack them and criticise them for it? It’s personal choice.


Funeral directors I think were worried that we were trying to take business away from them. So we took that one on directly, here in Wellington, anyway, with the prospect of the Wellington [Natural Burial] Cemetery starting up, and me and another person went round visiting all the funeral directors, and made it clear that we weren’t interested in taking business off them. We weren’t interested in business, full stop. We were just interested in having a natural cemetery. We’d done proper opinion surveys. We showed them the numbers, the number of people who were interested in this and the sorts of things they were interested in, and said, ‘You guys can provide the service; we want you to provide the service, to get these people into the cemetery’. So one or two of them picked it up, including and primarily, Simon Manning.


The guy is … we just can’t say enough good stuff about him. He’s a businessman, and he’s shrewd, but that just goes hand in glove with an awareness of meeting people’s expectations and needs. You know, he saw where the market was going, but he’s generous as well, generous with his time. He got right in behind us; helped us with the council. He adjusted his presentation to clients, distributed the material to them, and embraced it fully. That made one heck of a difference. So, not all funeral directors are tarred with the same brush, and gradually over time they have all, well I’d say two-thirds of them, have adjusted.



Good. Well, what a long journey, and quite a tumultuous one really.



Yes, it’s had its moments, that’s for sure.


You’re probably aware of the Law Commission Review recently. One of their recommendations involves allowing private cemeteries to be set up, but in the end, all these private cemeteries still need to go through the local authority to be signed off.


We’ve just been working with the Palmerston North City Council on setting up a cemetery there, and they’ve gone for a tiny little swampy piece of land. Oh, and the other part of that Law Commission Review says that if a group of locals demand a natural burial ground, or sort of cemetery, or component of a cemetery, councils have to provide it. What I’m trying to say here is that the Palmerston North example shows that you’re still … You know councils are not always the best way of doing these things. They’re bureaucratic, they’re risk averse, so it’s not necessarily going to be an answer. There’s always going to be barriers to this.



Well, until we wake up to how we can’t sustain life on the planet the way we’re living now.



No, that’s right. Actually, it’s funny you should say that, because one of the things that often gets said is, ‘But cemeteries take up land’. And we say, ‘Yes, isn’t that fantastic! Let’s take up more, and put bush on it!’



Yes, very good.



Yes, you’re right, it’s been difficult, but that’s what happens. I think we’re over the hump, though. We now have council people coming to us and saying, ‘Can you help us set one up’, rather than us going to them and saying, ‘Will you set one up’ and they say ‘No’. So the difficulties are in the practical application now. There’s been a great transformation of attitudes to death over the past ten years that we’ve been pushing this. We like to think we’ve had some part in that change.



I’m sure you have

Now, I don’t know if you want to go into this sort of detail, or if we just refer people to your article, Going up in Smoke, for instance, (I did like that) but I wanted to ask why is natural burial a valuable and necessary alternative? There are two factors there: an alternative to traditional burials, and an alternative to cremation.



Well, I’ll start with something slightly different if that’s all right. I think the primary reason that people choose a natural burial has to do with their concept of natural, in a really general, holistic sense, not a specific sense. It’s about simplicity, and a return to nature, a sort of completing the cycle. Also the idea of being buried in an area of bush … there’s a tranquility and a peacefulness, which I think attracts. So there’s some psychology involved. That’s one of the reasons, if not the main starting reason.


That’s been a learning thing for us because we started off reasonably environmental about the thing, and probably over time that’s adjusted with the reality of the sort of people who are picking it up, which is exactly the people we hoped for, mainstream New Zealanders, not greeny alternatives … just everybody. And the reasons people pick it up are all those things I’ve just said. And that’s why it’s an alternative; it’s an alternative because it seems to just synchronise better with people’s ideas of the peace and tranquility of death, and the completion of the cycle.


And to your specific point. Well, it’s better than a traditional burial because the traditional burial locks you away in a casket that is not necessarily going to break down as quickly. (I mean it does break down if you’re looking at hardwood, or if you’re looking at chipboard, and most of them are chipboard with veneers, those have got lots of glues, formaldehyde, a lot of synthetic stuff, plastics … a whole heap of chemicals. And of course, heavy in the processing: veneer, plastic, that’s all had to be manufactured using raw resources, and electricity – the whole thing.)


So the caskets themselves are both a dead weight … sorry, I haven’t used that one before; it’s quite good … and an environmental cost, plus they have a tendency to lock away all your body goodies from the soil.


But what’s worse, in terms of that locking you away from the soil, is the depth at which people are buried, because not only do you decompose without oxygen (because there’s almost no oxygen at six feet under, or at one and a half meters that people go) you kind of liquefy rather than decompose. And what happens to that liquid and what’s in your body is that it gets washed down, straight into the water table, rather than being absorbed by bacteria, macro- and micro-organisms and plant roots.



And therefore turned into harmless matter – well, not just harmless, but helpful matter.



Yes, make sure I come back to that in a moment. So it washes down into the water table and that’s where you get toxification of streams. Plus, all that stuff from the casket goes out with it. It does break down eventually, but all those plastics, chemicals and what-not are going to wash out as well.


So, the cool chemical thing that happens with a natural burial is about the twelve basic elements in your body, and how they get taken up by other life, by bacteria and worms and other stuff in the soil, plus by plants. So nitrogen in your body gets fixed and becomes nitrate, carbon becomes carbonate, sulphur becomes sulphate and so on. There are twelve of them. So that gets used by those animals and turned into more life.


And also, in terms of traditional burial, you have your headstone, and the area is mowed and looked after. So we like the idea of the bush overhead providing both tree-life and oxygen, and also habitat for other organisms. Goodness, I heard yet again today, another quote about biomass and how important it is, even just a square meter of grass and a couple of weeds, how much life is in there.


So that’s the direct contrast with the traditional burial: depth, decomposition format – providing no nutrients to the soil – and let’s call it a sterile environment above.



And embalming?



Well, the biggest problem with embalming is the denial of the body to the soil, and its contribution to that liquefying format. We have to be fair; the research seems to say that if you test the soil around a body after ten years or so, the formaldehyde from the embalming is hard to detect. It’s probably been there for the ten years beforehand, but the levels of toxicity are low. It’s not a biggie; I don’t want to overdo that. So it’s more that you’re denying your body unnecessarily.


But you’ve also got the problem of thermaldahyde as a cancer-causing danger to the people who are carrying out the embalming. Actually there is quite a high incidence of needle pricks and things like that with embalmers, and they’re affected by the stuff that’s in the embalming fluids. The other thing to say is that we’ve got two or three embalming fluids now that are green, environmentally good. We still discourage their use because they slow down decomposition, but they’re actually okay. One’s called Mortech 2-in-1. I don’t think it’s a New Zealand product. It’s a salt-based cleanser of your internal system. It washes a saline solution through the body. It’s all unnecessary, but, if you insist on it … if you really think you need it for an extra day or two for the body, then it’s okay, but it doesn’t really do any better than putting a body in the chiller. You know, you just don’t need it. Most burials are on that third or fourth day and that’s still fine for an unembalmed body. It’s adding something artificial, and our general principle is ‘Don’t add anything synthetic to the earth’.



That’s a good principle.



And in terms of the comparison with cremation, well in that chemical thing I told you about, when you force an extra element of oxygen, in fusion, in fire, into those elements I told you that the body is made up of, you turn a bunch of them toxic. So sulphur becomes sulphur dioxide; nitrogen becomes nitrous dioxide I think it is, and those are pollutants. And at a crematorium they’re thrown up into the air, giving us air pollution. Yet they could go into the ground and become food. It’s madness. It’s kind of crazy.


In Europe they actually have crematoriums classified in their industrial-use surveys for polluters. Now compared to a factory or something like that, crematoriums are nothing, but they’re significant enough to feature on the monitoring of levels of pollutants emitted into the air. So, they don’t need to be there.


Of course you’ve got the casket thing – all that resource put into the casket, which then gets burned. At the very least, the ranges of caskets that we triggered, which include untreated pine, are much quicker-burning. This new generation of caskets is at least better for people still insisting on cremating.



Well, that’s a good sort of offshoot, if you like.

I have a question about the quantity of gas it apparently takes to cremate a body. I was at a friend’s home when a man came to swap their gas bottles.  He and I got talking and he said that when he started delivering gas the amount of gas it took to cremate a body was something like one fifteenth or one tenth of what it is now, because our bodies have so many more heavy metals. That was mind-blowing to me.



I’m not sure I’d believe that. I think the crematoriums have become far more efficient. The quantity of heavy metals in our body is still a tiny proportion of the total weight of the body. And if you watch a cremation it is fairly fast, but that’s because they heat them so high, but you’ve got to keep them vented as well, but they do use a lot of gas, and unnecessarily so. In the end it’s all wasted resource.



So, in terms of the availability of natural cemeteries, I guess for on-going access to information it’s best to refer people to the Natural Burials website, as the availability is going to keep shifting, or growing. Is that the best way to be up-to-date?



Well, we’re just a voluntary organisation, so the website is never as up-to-date as it might be, but we do keep a list of all the natural cemeteries that exist, plus the ones coming on-steam.



So I guess it’s good to ask your funeral director, too, because that helps sow the seed as well.



Absolutely. It is bizarre. It was only a couple of weeks ago; we were doing a little bit of work with some people in a town, in Northland somewhere, who were interested in getting a natural cemetery set up. They got a little bit of media coverage and made a proposal to the Council. And a funeral director said to the Council, and in the media, ‘I’ve had no requests for natural burials’. 


No, of course he hasn’t. There aren’t any available. We got a bit of that. I remember one of the councilors in Wellington saying to us, ‘If this was such a great idea it would have been done already’. Yeah, that’s what they said about the wheel! Such lunacy, but there you go. You might not want a natural burial for yourself, that’s perfectly fine, but why you would attempt to deny it for everybody else, I don’t know.


So, my point being, responding to yours, yes, people should ask their funeral directors about it. Ring up and say, ‘Do you offer natural burial? How would you go about it?’ And if they say they don’t have one locally you could ask, ‘How would you go about making sure my funeral is as natural as possible? Do you have the untreated soft pine caskets available? Would you bury me in a shroud?’ (Which of course you can. There’s nothing illegal about that). ‘Can you make sure that I’m buried only half a metre down?’


Now technically there is nothing stopping any cemetery in New Zealand doing that. I think there were only a handful of councils, when we did our research, which had a by-law that said it needed to be six feet, or whatever it was. Most of them don’t specify.


So if you just ask a couple of questions like that, those sorts of things get a funeral director on notice that there is indeed interest out there and they’d better start thinking about it.



And apart from the website, what resources would you like me to list? Id’ love to share your article, ‘Going Up in Smoke’. Can you think of any other good resources?



The other one is the Natural Death Centre in the UK.



Yes, I had ten years in the UK as I think I indicated. The Natural Death Handbook and the movement – they’re very actively supportive, aren’t they, of people creating natural burial grounds.



It’s funny though, over the fifteen years that we’ve been doing our thing, we’ve been asked questions in New Zealand that they never got asked. We’d get in touch with them and ask questions like, ‘How long does it take a body to decompose?’ They had no idea, because no-one ever asked those things over there. They just thought it was a great idea and went from there. Over here we kind of wanted to know the nth degree about stuff, which is a great thing about New Zealand, but also a curse.


So our website has got probably more than you’d get anywhere else in terms of some of those hard facts, like the chemical composition of the body I was telling you about. Those things are all on the website, and you won’t find them easily anywhere else. We’re the ones who had to do all the work.


More specifically, we got some of our information out of the guys in America [USA]: the FBI Body Farm. Yes, they’ve got a hundred acres or so and they bury all these John Does or whatever they call them, in various states of decomposition, and see what happens, and they learn from that so that they can help in police investigations. So we asked them a few questions. They were really, really helpful; they’re the only people in the world who’ve done it.



That’s brilliant! This journey has led you all over the place, hasn’t it Mark?



It certainly has. I’m just taking a look at my books. I’ve got a bunch of books here, but these days everything’s on line. The Natural Death Handbook from the UK is great.



And this new one? ‘A Better Send-Off’, is it?



Yes, by Gail McJorrow. It’s good. Her book’s more inspirational. She’s asking the ‘Why Not?’ question. If you were looking for the hard facts, that’s probably not the one you’d go to.


The other website would be Simon Manning’s Eco Funerals. He’s set up an eco-funerals network. There is an international network owned by an American funeral directing company, but Simon has tried to set a New Zealand-based one, and one of the formats he’s done it under is the Eco Funerals website.


The other people I’d always recommend are the Return to Sender caskets in Auckland. The reason I mention them is because it’s not just about caskets; they sell them (they’re not for everybody because they’re very designed, though they’ve got some simple ones now as well) but they are totally into the concept of natural burials, personalised funerals, the whole of thing. Their motivations are pure.


We’ve updated our fact sheet, but I’m not sure if it’s on the website. It’s a four-pager with a lot of that chemical stuff that you might want to have as a resource. I’ll email it to you.


There’s probably stuff to be talked about in terms of people’s engagement with funeral directors, or how much of the work of a funeral you take on yourself …


We’ve stayed away from any critique, or any involvement with funeral directors the past few years because they were so critical of us, but through that period we’ve learnt a few things about how to find out who’s good and who’s not.



I’m going to speak with Phillip Tomlinson, shortly. Do you know of him?



Yes, he’s the do-it-yourself, do-it-on-the-cheap man, but good on him.



And I think he’s also coming very much from a point of view that it’s so much better for the grieving process to have a lot of participation and involvement in a funeral.



I’ve actually looked up his book a lot because I’m convinced that the pre-planning, personalising stuff, where a person gets to plan and do their own funeral, is such a good preparation for death, and I’ve witnessed it. It seems to have people feel more content about their approaching death. We’ve got personal testimony from dozens of people who’ve used the natural cemetery about how important it was to them: dressing their parent, keeping the body at home, filling in the grave – that stuff where they participate. And referring back to what you were saying, how much better grieving is. Even seeing the person dead, rather than ‘sleeping’ in the sense of being all ‘lovelied up’.


So I’m convinced about that, but so far all we’ve got is effectively anecdotal; it’s just personal testimony. I’ve found no research that’s been done that you could say proves it. Personal testimony is no proof about better grieving, but I could put you in touch with a couple of families about how much better it made them feel. It gets you close to the real thing, but hard proof there isn’t any.


I think one of the great things about natural burial is that the experience has been so good that people want to share it. Obviously it’s to our advantage to have them talking about it, but for you it’s that personal involvement. It was part and parcel of what we started to do early on, was this idea of family involvement. We’ve all got too far away from death – it’s foreign, and scary, and we keep it at arm’s length, and we don’t need to. So these people will be able to speak to you about that.



That’s wonderful. Thank you, Mark, and for your time this evening.



Mark Blackham



Article referred to above:


Going up in smoke

Despite the recent efforts of some local authorities to encourage it, cremation is not a fitting way to dispose of your body after you die, according to the founder of Natural Burials, Mark Blackham.

Cremation turns your body into air pollution and barren ash. In our era of personal choice and environmental consciousness, it is odd that some City councils have recently decided to increase burial prices to encourage people to use cremation.

Studies of emissions reveal that cremation turns people into at least 46 different pollutants. Some of these, like nitrous oxides and heavy metals, remain in the atmosphere for up to 100 years causing ozone depletion and acid rain.

This fact would have horrified my Dad, who was cremated when he died last year in Australia. Being above all frugal, he had selected a no-frills cremation service for himself. They collect the body, burn it, and you pick up the ashes two weeks later.

I like to think that the fact that he had any choice at all is an indicator of the transformation beginning to work its way through the death industry. 
Society is becoming once again less fearful of death. People are demanding more involvement, more personalisation, and more choice in what happens to their body after they die.

At the vanguard of that change is natural burials – the concept of being buried without embalming, in a bio-degradable casket, at less than half the depth of the traditional burial, so your body is returned to the earth rapidly. A tree is planted over your grave, which becomes part of a new natural forest.

The natural decomposition processes utilised by a natural burial rapidly returns your body to the soil in the shape of around a dozen fundamental life-giving nutrients.

Not only do many people find the acres of bush in a natural cemetery a fitting memorial to their lives, they also regard returning their body to the ecosystem as a far better legacy to leave for future generations.

In the UK, the number of natural burials is growing at a rate three times faster than that enjoyed by cremation when it was first popularised and commercialised in the late 1800s.

Natural burials are bringing human death practices full circle.

For thousands of years early humans buried their dead in simple shallow fashion. Cremations only emerged relatively late in human history. It first arose in the Western world when Romans sought to mimic the dramatic fiery end of their great mythical heroes. Entombments soon replaced cremations thanks to the smart marketing of elaborately carved sarcophagi. By the fifth century cremation had become almost completely obsolete following the spread of Christianity, with its associated belief in the resurrection of the dead (thought to be a bit difficult if your body had been burned to a cinder).

Cremation was revived in 1869 as an idea at the Medical International Congress of Florence, and a model of a cremating apparatus and ashes was exhibited at the Vienna Exposition in 1873.

The first crematorium was built in the UK in 1885. The first crematorium in New Zealand was opened 24 years later, in Karori, Wellington.

Although New Zealand has one of the highest rates of cremations – around 70% of all deaths – the practice has met with mixed success internationally. In Britain only 56% of people are cremated, and in America only 26% of deaths are cremations (although the Cremation Association claims 39%).

Given the high cremation rate here, it is hard to understand why local councils think they face bigger cemetery issues than other countries.

I cannot leave under-answered recent claims that cremations are environmentally better because they reduce pressure on available land, and are “clean”.

The pressure on land and the environment is living humans, not dead ones.

If there is a ‘problem’ posed by cemeteries, it is traditional burial methods. We are the only species in which the dead do not return naturally to the eco-system. Long-life coffins, deep burial and embalming result in the dead remaining intact for a very long time.

Councils are worried by the realisation that, hundreds of years after you die, they will still need to meet the costs of mowing around your grave and re-erect your crumbling gravestone.

They are also jittery about the cost of buying land for new cemeteries, and the costs of owning intensely valuable cemetery land that can’t be sold or developed.

But if traditional burials seem problematic, let us consider the real effects of cremations.

Bodies take up to three hours to burn in a crematorium, using up large quantities of fuels like electricity or natural gas.

The process emits pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, sulphur oxide, mercury, dioxin, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, cadmium and chromium.

Although transport and raw industries are the biggest contributors to air pollution, crematoriums are statistically significant polluters.

The European Environment Agencies Emission Inventory Guidebook says crematoria contribute 0.2 % of the total emissions of dioxins and furans – among the most environmentally destructive and long lasting pollutants.

San Francisco’s Public Works Department found in 1999 that crematoria were the third-highest contributor of mercury (from burning amalgam fillings).

Crematoriums claim to comply with environmental standards, but standards are relatively weak. For example, “clean-burning” crematoriums only reduce visible particle emissions, not the real pollutants.

Sadly, the remaining ashes are of no use to the environment either. Ashes are so inert that the soil in cemetery flower beds needs regular replacement to prevent accumulating dead ash choking the life out of plants.

A natural burial offers a far better alternative to both cremation and traditional burial.

It is better for the environment and a more satisfying choice for many of the dying and their families.

The greatest thing we can do upon our death is to be buried naturally, and lock land up in bush to be enjoyed by future generations of humans and flora and fauna.

I have not raised the biggest single reason against Councils forcing cremations – that it is ultimately a spiritual matter. It is not for Councils or Government to limit people’s choices.

And choice has been limited to date. Natural Burials is about to change that. According to our research, at least a third of all New Zealanders can’t imagine anything less fitting to our time alive than to be cremated after death.


Permission is granted to reprint this article, as long as the author and source are attributed prominently; Mark Blackham,

Death Cafés to Natural Death Care: an interview with Carol Wales

The first thing I’d love you to do, Carol, is give us some background – so, tell us a bit about the Death Café movement, where it came from, what it’s essentially about.


Okay. Jon Underwood, he’s in London*, he decided he would set up the website, Jon could see the need for people to talk about death, and have conversations about end-of-life – well, living, death and dying, really. He thought it’s always great to have food and a cuppa – people relax, feel comfortable, and generally speaking they feel more relaxed talking, about anything really. So that was where the café idea came from. And death, of course, is a word that often isn’t spoken about because people don’t like the word death.


He set this up in 2011. And we started our Death Café in 2013 – it was Mothers’ Day. When I set it up via the website – because that’s how you go about it – I think there were about 1000 Death Cafés in the world, and now (2015) it’s around 2500 world-wide. So it’s exciting to see the growth.


Yes. So tell us what you do. How often do you meet?


We meet every second Sunday of the month. The meeting is scheduled for an hour and a half. We open the space; I always light a candle. I never know who’s going to show up. I love it. There is no agenda, however I do bring along Advance Care Plan documents that attendees can take away. These are also available on the internet1


So it’s like any situation where people turn up to a cafe! You don’t know who’s going to be there.


Precisely.  A facebook page was setup, business cards and flyers were made up and left at Garnet Station Café where the Death Café was held.  


There is no set agenda for the meeting. I introduce myself, then we go around the room for the guests to introduce themselves. We then go through the guidelines which come from the Death Café website. These speak about privacy amongst ourselves – that what’s discussed within the room stays there – and about being respectful of the amount of time you’re talking in relation to others in the group. We don’t offer counseling, just hold the space for each person. People can share what’s going on in their lives or the questions they have about end-of-life.


So it’s a time for conversation.


Yes, which loosens people to feel comfortable to open up. It’s incredible seeing the transformation in people.


Can you give us an example? And I’m aware that I don’t want you to break confidentiality. So can you speak in general terms, or else check out with the people you speak of if they are happy for their stories to be mentioned.


Sure. One lady came along because she wasn’t able to talk with her Mum about the end of her mother’s life and what she wanted. She was the only daughter, and there was no-one else in the family. She just couldn’t go there with her mother. They did have a bit of a struggle in their relationship anyway. But through coming along – I think it was the second time she came – she talked about this in different ways, and we just shared ideas in which she could perhaps go about it. We weren’t solution-finding – we were just having an open discussion. After those conversations she told us she could actually approach it, and that she would like to be involved in the process after her Mum died, being with her body etc. She was realising the benefits of this in terms of grief, and being close to her Mum in those final days, sharing the ups and downs. We all know how meaningful that relationship can be with our parents. I just saw a softening in her, which was lovely to see. I see it in many different people and situations. People will often come to me afterwards and say, “That was so good. I feel so much better” – those sorts of comments. And then they want to have similar conversations with their families, their loved ones. And maybe we talk about Advance Directives. I always have Advanced Care Planning information available as well.


So, I wonder what the Death Café provides that enables people to then go away and talk with their mother or their family or a friend. What do you think it is?


What it provides is, from the comments I’ve had from people, that it’s a warm-hearted group that we have. My whole intention is that the place be warm-hearted and friendly and a place where people feel comfortable to talk. And as a facilitator, the whole time when I’m holding the space I endeavour to take it back to that friendliness, and it works. People feel it. It’s like when you go to a new job – if the space is made comfortable for you then you learn the job more quickly, you’re happier, and all of those things. It’s exactly the same with the Death Café.


And even the name of the movement, Death Café, is welcoming, isn’t it?


Well not everyone thinks that. I thought it just rolls off your tongue. But when we first started, and I had to push the button on Facebook when I set up the page, I thought, “Oh my goodness me. What’s going to happen here?” and then it started to flow – I put posts up, made flyers, made business cards, it becomes… normal. It takes the sting out of the word.


And to me, somehow putting the word café alongside the word death already starts to take the sting out of it.


It absolutely does. And what I’m finding is that people will ring me, or they’ll send an email, and say do you think I can come along. At the meeting I’ve had a 90-year-old couple come along, a lady at the end of life, a whole raft of people from different situations, and they share that.


So you might get people who are dying themselves (well, we’re all dying, but it’s a bit more up-front for some people) or people who are perhaps coping with someone who is dying but not able to talk about it easily with them?


Yes, or someone living on their own, with a long-term illness – it’s difficult for them. So the more we talk about it, the more people can be in the space with it. And I believe it helps with the fear. That’s what you want to eliminate, and enjoy that journey.


I know you work with death and dying, Carol, but I gather it’s possible to facilitate a Death Café regardless. In fact, I think I read on the website information that a facilitator needs to leave their profession at the door – just be there with everybody else – a whole group, all of whom are dying!


I don’t think you have to have that background at all.


No, just a willingness to talk about death.


And to not have an opinion.


Or have an opinion but be open to everyone else’s opinion, I suppose.


To not have an agenda. Like euthanasia has cropped up, and it’s not something that’s on my radar. However, we’ve had conversations and it’s great, because for people who are thinking, “Oh, if I get memory loss I just don’t want to go there”, maybe they discover that it’s really a fear around how they’ll be looked after? Through being in the situation with my Mum, that’s what I understand, too. And if you’ve got cancer it’s the pain that is often the concern.


So you’ve been able to see these themes, if you like, because you’ve got a group of people discussing whatever’s on top for them.


Yes, but also by having the conversation, a lot of things bubble to the surface. We never know what’s going to happen in regard to the conversation.


That’s interesting. So a person may come with one piece in mind – like the woman who wanted to be able to speak with her mother – but of course, get people chatting and you’ve got other things that might be quite under the surface in the same person, that bubble up for looking at. That’s brilliant.


It’s a process, because people are opening up. Like the elderly couple who talked about their relationship. He was so concerned about when he dies, would his wife be okay. He expressed this. He was a bomber pilot, so he’s been close to death many times and wasn’t fazed about dying. That wasn’t his fear; his fear was for his wife. And she was able to reassure him that it was okay.


You hold the Death Café once a month. Is that a pattern that you think works?


Yes. In my experience, if you have it every month – the second Sunday afternoon, the first Thursday evening, whatever suits – people know it’s on. They might not come for a few weeks, but they know. You can use the website to advertise, so people can check it out there.


What would your vision for the future be in terms of Death Cafés in New Zealand, Carol? What would you like to see?


I’d like to see everyone understand about dying. One of my desires or intentions deep inside me is that I want my son to know that it’s okay when I die. And for his own death – I want him to understand more about dying, not just, “I want to be buried”… I want him to know about the process. And that’s my intention for the end of life – it’s the process. I don’t want him to miss out on understanding that. I don’t want him to miss out on the mystery of dying.


Yes, that grieves me, too, Carol, when I see people fight so hard to stay alive because that’s the culture we’re in. I see Western culture as very directed to staying alive, and it can mean, I think, that people miss their death, and I think that’s a tragedy.


The conversations at the Death Café can lead into these things. Some people have been coming for a year, 18 months even, not every time, but over that time. And that says to me that people want more. But many people don’t think about it.


So you’d like everybody to have the opportunity to be able to talk about, and really understand, the process of dying?


I’d like it to be the norm to talk about it – that you don’t have to go and find a book about it because it’s just talked about. And we’d talk about it with children. Children are so receptive; they just get it. And a lot of elderly people do too.


And I guess the more we bring death back home, as it were – dying and after death – the more it will become familiar territory.


I feel that’s the movement, the times, we’re in. We’re just holding each other’s hands to go back home, teaching each other the natural ways to do things, so that when someone dies their loved ones know what to do, or they know who to call on to assist them. They can take the person home, and wash them, and spend time with them and talk to them.


Let’s close this piece in regard to Death Cafés, Carol, because we’ve segued into a different area.
I know it’s important for facilitators to have no particular agenda, but you have a particular passion, and also background, inasmuch as you are a death doula, a companion for the dying. And you’ve also done some learning about how to look after the body at home, that sort of thing. Is that right?


We call it natural death care.


So there are two trainings you’ve done – the death doula and the natural death care. Could you tell us about both of these? There may be people who would appreciate knowing where to go to explore these things further if they find they’re drawn to them.


I find it hard to talk about training, because it’s innately within me; it’s just been there forever.


Yes, I think it’s in many women especially.


Yes, it’s like everything in life. There are some things that are innately there, and not others. The difference is one of degree. I would say that if you looked at my soul CV you’d see many lifetimes of this. And everyone has their own way of doing things.

Going back to what you asked me about with the training, I already had this going on for me, but I felt I needed to do some training. It annoys the life out of me that we have to do training to show we’ve done something. That’s why I don’t really want to talk about it.




I’m not comfortable. A lot of what I do just comes naturally. I can’t do things if they don’t come naturally.


So you felt you had to do some sort of training, but actually you didn’t need to.


That’s right. And I think that is a very important piece. When you think in more traditional societies, and in our own society not so many generations ago, there would have been some particular women in the village who were more tuned into working with death, and quite likely with birth as well, but many women would have just taken their part.


Perhaps for them it was the most natural thing in the world for them to be involved with.


And others would have assisted. And I think we’re tapping into these things now; we’re tapping into the best of ourselves. So, yes, I did my ‘Accompanying the Dying’ with Deanna, but…


Maybe some of us had or have to do some training in order to break the hard ground – to initiate what for our society is rather new.


Maybe, and with the Natural Death Care with Claire Turnham, it was just so natural for me to do that. I adored it. And I’m all set to go. When somebody rings me and wants me there, I’m ready. Somebody has rung me and said he’s near the end of his life, so I’ve said just give me a call and I’ll be there to assist in whatever way you want me to.


So essentially you’ll go to their home and work alongside family to bathe and dress the body – that sort of thing?


Just assist with some of the things they’re not sure of, so they can enjoy this special time. I just know how much it’s going to mean to them when they look back.


Yes. I helped a friend of mine look after an elderly friend of hers when he was dying. A day or two before he died, I said to his wife that I thought it might be nice for the three of us – after just leaving his body undisturbed for a while – to wash him and put some nice cream on his body, and then get him dressed. She said, “Oh no, I don’t think so”. But when the time came, she did choose to be part of it. She became utterly and completely involved and just loved it. She said she wouldn’t have traded the opportunity for anything. It was a real last contact with her husband and gift to him, she felt.


And that possibility is in all of us. It does take a village to support. We can get called out at any time and we need each other. It just makes it so much easier. Somebody might be putting the kettle on… These are the things I want to see. Not all of us have got a lot of family, so if we know the community can do it, that feels so good – to know near the end of life that there are people who will come in and assist with loving arms. And if people are dying in hospital or a rest home, then we need to create a lovely space where people can gather.


Yes, I was thinking about that. There are times when the rest home or hospital are just going to be where death happens, but it’s about thinking ahead about how we can make the space feel warm and open and gentle, and to have asked what the person who is dying would best like around them, and how we can best serve them.


It’s about empowering people to do it.


So this is a real community thing you’re talking about now, isn’t it? It’s about developing these conversations beyond the Death Café and into community, so that we know each other, we know whom to call on for different things – we’ve got that sense of support around us.


I think the Death Café is going beyond its original intention now. However, it’s a great umbrella to be under. The name is becoming familiar. Whereas having all different sorts of names gets confusing.


And we’re a mobile society, so it’s good to have things that are familiar, wherever we are.

So is your sense that Death Cafés are becoming more like the beginnings of a community impulse around caring for each other at the end of life?


All the Meet-up groups are a way of bringing people together – things are already happening. Sometimes we don’t realise something’s happening, but it is. It’s like your Tango group; you can have a Tango Meet-up group for people who have always wanted to do the Tango. They don’t want to think it has to be perfect; they just want to have a go. Put a red rose and have a go!


That’s what living’s about, isn’t it? Just having a go at something and not thinking it has to be perfect. You know when you listen to Stephen Jenkinson2 he says that as a society we think we have to do everything right. Having to have certificates is part of this. And now what we’re saying is that innately within us is what we’re good at. There is a place for training, but we need to begin with what’s innately in us.


Thank you so much, Carol. As so often happens in these interviews, or conversations, we find ourselves somewhere even more interesting than the original intention!


*Jon Underwood died suddenly in 2017 at the age of 44. In the words of his wife, shortly after his death, “… through his work helping people come to terms with the idea of death, Jon was uniquely and unusually aware that life is short and appreciated his life fully, reflecting on this through daily practice … He lived every day reflecting very consciously on the fact that none of us know how long we have and focused completely on being present in, and making the most of every minute.”


  1. (created for New Zealanders, but a great resource regardless of where you live. Just check out if any particulars are required in your locality.)


  1. 2. Jenkinson, Stephen Die Wise – a manifesto for sanity and soul North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California (2015)


Māori traditions influence Pākehā (European) practices: an interview with Barry Brailsford

How shall we begin, then

So I’m really just interested in any thoughts you have about life and death, and how we live and how we die.



Cushla:  Not just little topics!



No, not just little topics. I’ve never been into little topics.



Any particular questions?



I am interested in what people come up against, in the society around them, in relation to death and dying, and how their work, and their thinking, and their living, have perhaps been inspired by their desire to take a different stance around death.



Well, I’ve had a wee think about what you’re doing – what your journey is and what you’re writing – and one of the things that has struck me in the last twenty years or more is the change in our society around how we handle our dead. I think that’s shifted enormously. For a long time there was a Māori* way of handling it and a Pākehā* way and they were very different. I look back to the death of grandparents and uncles and aunts and the fact that they died in hospital and an undertaker arrived and took them away and you didn’t see them again until an appointed time in the funeral parlour. And you were ushered in and ushered out …   end of story.


That’s so different from the Māori tangi* with the departed brought to the marae* where family and friends gather to sit beside them day and night. That’s embracing death, as opposed to leaving it with an undertaker. I see quite a marked change around that. We are now creating a culture that’s a New Zealand culture, with many dimensions I applaud.


The Māori way is very personal and family-oriented. There is an openness about expressing feelings. There are protocols that help us express loss and the honouring of the dead – be it with tears or through stories about the person and the family. And there is a place for healing through laughter. And that’s all wrapped around nurturing the people who come: welcoming them formally, acknowledging their journey, and providing food and shelter.


Then when you get in to the burial itself, the haka* of farewell can be so powerful it moves you beyond tears. It captures a unity of spirit, a wairua* that embraces the past and the future. So there are protocols that have been tried and trusted and true through many generations. There’s nothing artificial about them; they’re very heartfelt and real.


That’s all becoming part of our lives. More and more people are bringing their dead home. That’s wonderful! We did it for my Dad. His mates came and sat with him, had a beer and watched a one-day cricket match on TV. So I think we are learning to say goodbye in different ways. There’s a greater willingness to be open to change. It’s happening around other things too. That’s really a hopeful thing about the kind of world we’re starting to create – our own New Zealand culture. Of course, the Irish wake and Scottish traditions are ancient practices that help influence this change. There are old customs, ways of doing things that we can polish up and use again today. There are truths we have to learn and relearn each generation.


I think the indigenous cultures have, often at huge cost, kept the sacred sacred. In the Western world we’ve tended to hand that over to the Church to care for it on our behalf. Sometimes they handled it poorly. Today we are taking responsibility for attending to the sacred, taking it into our own hands. That’s just one dimension of the change I see in our society, and I think it’s significant. We are finding new ways to honour the departed and learning to embrace death in a different way – to actually see it in a whole different context, rather than hiding it away. 


I’ve attended a number of church funerals where we are getting away from the idea that the person who is at the centre of everything is the minister, who is asked to give a eulogy about someone he’s never met. We are opening up to the families, to sharing, to be truly involving those who mourn in closing the circle of life in a good way. That’s a promising, lovely thing.


Not very long ago we received word that a friend had a very aggressive cancer and was dying. We’d known him for quite a few years, but more and more he was retreating from society, even though he had really good practices in his life. He became more and more consumed by fear, by the conspiracy theorists who dominate certain parts of the internet. It had all become a terrible burden. We were in the South Island and too far away to help him but many dear friends gathered close in his last three months. When we arrived he only had a couple of weeks to go, and we wondered how he would be at that time of his journey.


We were told that on hearing his cancer was terminal, he changed – he let all of that fear go and became a delight to be around – that shift was huge. He was asleep when we visited him in the hospice so we just sat for quite a long time; it was enough just to be there. When I realised a thoughtful person had left a big pad and biro and written a wee message to him, I wrote him a few words. Eventually we left, and it was the next day that another friend sent us a little text saying… “Loved to have your words. I read them out to him because he came around and he was really very focused and alert, so I read him the words. He just sat there with a big smile on his face and said, ‘Far out!’” 


And so, it’s a big journey, but I think life has got phases. An old Māori elder whom I was very close to, sent me a message when he had a week to go…  “I’m walking the pounamu trail back to the stars”.



So, about life being in phases – would you be willing to talk a bit about the phase of life you’re in?



I think there’s a phase of life that’s a time when you can’t do the kinds of things you used to be able to do. There’s a time when you’re still thinking you’ve got the body of a seventeen or eighteen-year old — have great stamina and energy and you can do a lot quickly and well — but that changes. You can’t continue to do that. There comes a time when everything gets slower. You can’t sustain that level. I can’t sustain that level of writing or concentration or working. So you have to decide how you use the energy you’ve got. You have to get clever; you have to become a cunning old dog.


There’s a lot of letting go. We have a dear friend on the West Coast who is Māori, an old one who’s six months older than me.



That makes him really old!



That makes him really, really old. I always refer to him as the Old Guy. His family have white-baited in that river, for years. When six strong men arrived to carry his metal fishing stand down to the riverbank a few years back a young guy said… “Now mate, you need a wooden post up here, something to keep your hand on so you can balance on that high deck”. The Old Guy got angry. He said “I’ve been doing this for years and I don’t need a post”. You guessed it! He lost his balance and fell into the river three times that season. It’s a miracle he’s still here. And a joy too because he is one of the most generous people we know.


Accepting change, understanding what you can and can’t do, is something you have to work through. You have to adapt. It’s not just adapting to the physical change; you have to make mental and psychological changes too, decide what your priorities are, where you get enjoyment from and the source of your energy. It’s creative energy that excites me! In my seventy’s life changed faster than I expected. But I continue to write because that renews my life.



And what are the pluses of being in the final quarter, the last phase of life?



Oh, huge pluses! You can get away with a hell of a lot, really. You don’t have to worry too much about how you look, or what you do, or what people think you should do. I think for far too long in life we wonder what other people think of us, or how we look, or things like that. I’ve never been much of a supporter of that kind of stuff; I think it’s important to be who you are as best you can. Some people spend a lifetime accommodating everyone else.



And therefore never giving us their gifts, which is incredibly sad.



It is very sad. I often speak of the six-year-old little girl who spent a lot of time drawing a picture of herself for me, very colourful and very artistic and beautifully done, just on an A4 bit of paper, but on the bottom of it she’d written, ‘I’m the best at being me’. I thought wow, what wisdom coming from a child. I’m the best at being me. I think, ‘Know thyself’ is a pivotal question through the whole of our lives. The joy of life is in finding who you are, in terms of what really makes you who you are, what excites you, and to walk that.


I’ve been writing for years, and talking, about the journey. You walk the trail and the trail walks you.



I love that – both ways.



Something I like to live by, and that I’ve been putting there a lot for years, is…  the journey is the destination. We miss so much on the way if we’re driving from A to B and it’s all about getting there as fast as we can and not taking in what we’re passing through. There’s a way of being – Maori have a great phrase for it… ma te wa. It means everything has its own space and time. I thinkYou can’t push the river’ is another way of seeing it. It’s about patience and seeing the bigger picture, about timing as opposed to galloping through time. Of course, ma te wa, that watch-and-wait stage, needs to bring you to a te wa, the moment to act decisively with energy and commitment. The elders taught me to wait for the wairua to move, and then phew! Miracles can happen in seven seconds. What do I mean by seven seconds? Well it takes seven seconds to realise they’ve happened! 



That’s good. And that brings me to a question of how do we become in touch with, how do we stay in touch with, the wairua, with spirit, because I think that’s a real missing piece for many?



I think many in society today are diminished by the fact that for hundreds of years now we’ve taken spirit out of the world around us. In the western world the belief in one God took a strange turn. In a sense the Church made God so small that there was a denial of the creative God that is in everything around us. Maori, and the Polynesians and other aboriginal, indigenous peoples, retained the idea that there is spirit in the stone, spirit in the tree, spirit in the rainbow, the clouds, the rain, the river, the mountain and everything. But not just that, they also believe we can connect with it – understand that all are kin. We’re part of it. Now it’s fashionable to say All are One, but one what? What does this actually mean in our lives, our daily lives? For me it’s about honouring the mana* of the birds, the mana of the rain, the mana of the river, your mana; it’s the spirit within you, your spirit, that uniqueness. If we did that, there would be no war and no desecration of the land.



And we would live out our unique lives.



Because we’d have the opportunity. Seeking your truth is sometimes as simple as asking what excites you? Are you excited by water? Do you love rivers, lakes and the sea and swimming in them? Excited by forests and trees? By gardening and growing things? Do whales and dolphins call to you in a way you cannot explain? Do birds fascinate you? Are horses companions, too? Is building houses your thing, and the tools of the trade friends at hand? Do you yearn to farm the land? Is the artist in you drawn to carve and paint, and write and sing and make music? So many things reveal the truth of our journey and hidden depths within us. If we can explore what really excites us, and pursue those things that give us energy, we are sustained in remarkable ways.


But so many think that excitement is in having the latest television, or the latest iPad, or whatever. These are just things. They do not create real relationships; they are tools, and they have a limited life, a use-by date.


So it’s getting to that point of examining what’s within us that wants to be fed, and feeding it.

You must have heard the story about the North American Indian, a grandfather, about him and his grandson, and how there’s been a terrible accident in the family, a car crash, and someone has died, and there’s great grieving. And the young fellow says, ‘Grandfather, how do you feel?’  He’s trying to grapple with his own sense of loss, and the Grandfather says, ‘Well it’s like I’ve got two wolves inside my chest that are fighting’. And the little one says, ‘What are these wolves?’ and he says, ‘Well one wants vengeance, and the other wants healing, wants to forgive the one who’s caused this’. And the little one says, ‘Well, which one will win?’ and the Grandfather says, ‘The one I feed; the one I feed’.



Thank you for telling that story.



Yeah, we have a lot of control over attitude – it’s always what we bring to the table that decides what happens. We can focus on the negative and make our lives small or revel in the miracle of life and hold hope high.



There’s one other thing that comes up for me, and that’s something I referred to right at the beginning. I see you as very connected with the cycle of life – it comes through your cards, and your writing – and so I wonder if you’d be willing to comment on that in relation to living and dying.



I have a dear friend who for many years has counselled those coping with loss and grief. We have lots of interesting discussions around this. One day I told him that my sister, who had lived in a world of endless pain for ten years, explained to me with calmness and certainty that one day she would take her own life. I listened; I understood the pain was becoming too severe and that the medical profession had done their best. I held close all she had shared in complete confidence. A year later she left.


My friend listened quietly and said, “Well, there’s a way of looking at life, and the end of life. Life is a gift, and we have that gift, and we are that gift, and we carry that gift right through, but there comes a time when we can give it back again. We can give it back again”. He said, “That’s what she decided to do; it was time to give it back again. And there should not be any judgment around that. It’s fine!”


Life is a gift. I have precious pounamu* that travel to many people over time. One in particular has gone to those who are coming to their last days. It’s something to hold, something that’s journeyed for millions of years and has an ancient past. It’s played an amazing role their last days. The understanding has always been that it is gifted unto their end. Then it returns to move again. 



Like with us and the gift of life.

That’s lovely. I’m very appreciative, Barry.




            *Glossary of Māori words

I have used the Te Aka Māori-English, English-Māori Online Dictionary, reduced to key elements for accessibility.

Māori                                indigenous person of Aotearoa/New Zealand

Pākehā                             New Zealander of European descent

tangi                                 rites for the dead, funeral – shortened form of tangihanga.

marae                               the open area in front of the wharenui [meeting house], where formal greetings and discussions take place. Often also used to include the complex of buildings around the marae.

haka                                 posture dance

wairua                              spirit, soul – spirit of a person which exists beyond death

mana                                a supernatural force in a person, place or object

pounamu                          greenstone/ jade, or something fashioned from

This entry was posted on December 15, 2020. 3 Comments

Arranging a funeral – a guide to what we can do ourselves: an interview with Philip Tomlinson

Interview with Philip Tomlinson


My ‘interview’ with Philip Tomlinson was conducted largely by email because of technological difficulties. Some months later I had the pleasure of meeting Philip and his wife Dorothy in their Timaru home. I recall a man with a clear sense of commitment, and a couple with a big capacity to care.


As happened often when I was conducting interviews for the book that didn’t quite make it – Re-Embracing Death – what Kiwi baby boomers are up to – one person introduced me to another. I was told about Philip and given his superb little book by a woman I interviewed about Death Cafés – Carol Wales.


Philip’s book is Arranging a Funeral: What you can do yourselves – a New Zealand Guide. The great thing about it is that he breaks the process down into seven clear tasks so that the reader has clarity about what is required in each, and what they and their support team may wish to carry out themselves. The tasks are:


  • Interim care of the deceased
  • Paperwork legally required
  • Transporting the deceased
  • Newspaper notices
  • Acquiring a coffin
  • Organising a burial / cremation
  • The funeral service



I call your great little book a booklet so people get an understanding of how small and user-friendly it is – all 24 pages of it!


I like the way you break down arranging a funeral into seven clear tasks; that makes it seem manageable to me, and gives order and clarity at a time when clear thinking will likely be a challenge. Would you like to comment on this?



Yes. First a comment on dividing the proceedings into seven sections: as a pedagogue I found teaching/guiding depends heavily on carefully grouping information. Seven, I think, is the maximum number of different things comfortably ‘swallowed in one bite’. Particularly when under stress with grief, the notion of manageable packages is important.


If a funeral is divided into, say, ten tasks, which it could be, folk may feel overwhelmed by the size or complexity. It is important to nurture grieving families as they read, not hand out information to them. A number of nurturing mechanisms are woven into the book. The overwhelmingly positive feedback received supports this claim.


The seven tasks cannot lie in a rigid chronological sequence, therefore the chart at the back, on who does what, gets it all together without needing to worry about sequencing things, another way of nurturing stressed readers.


As you say, it is important to have “order and clarity at a time when clear thinking will likely be a challenge”. The book has been written to cater for this challenge. Discussing the interim care of the deceased needed great care. We live in a culture that does not ‘touch’ such jobs. Reaching out to help a family ‘get there’, while at the same time giving factual detail, needed some thought. The book carries folk along gently, encourages rather than merely states. With a home-based funeral, folk need to sort out ‘where they are’, not just ‘what needs doing’. All details are there so that rest of mind prevails.


The paperwork to many is formidable and therefore the information on this has been additionally pulled together and re-collated at the end of the book – in one single chart. Again, nurturing the reader.


Throughout the whole book the reader is in a way gently encouraged. 



You say, in the Foreword of your book, “This publication [then] has one purpose: to guide you, in what you, as a family, perhaps with help from friends and neighbours, can do for yourselves.” What makes such a book necessary in your view? 



This final paragraph of the Foreword uncovers the issue of who needs the guidance! It can be said, that ‘guidance’ is parental and that one ought not to rush to use the word. I agree. However, I chose this word because of our culture.


A funeral director, with this title, sells his or her services, not ‘undertaking’, as an ‘undertaker’ nowadays, but controlling as a ‘director’. To direct reflects what folk under stress accept. In grief, consumers can be directed.


When I was a child things were different. The word used was ‘undertaker’, and the job ‘undertaken’ – at the direction of the client. Today the undertaker directs the client and is renamed the funeral director. I want to re-empower consumers with this book. Consumers, by virtue of our culture, tend to be directed. I wanted a word that recognised a slight need for direction, but released us from its burden. The word ‘guidance’ seemed to fit. It is not too authoritative, it embraces the thought of a flexibility that some funeral directors might dismiss and at the same time it is a reassuring word, suggesting that I have walked along the road in collecting up the information. I want to guide folk.


Funerals are typically a matter older folk think about. Younger folk subconsciously assume life has no end. Older folk have the end in sight and wisely accept and value guidance. The wording ‘guide you’ fits.


‘Guidance’ is the sole purpose of the book! As a guide it sells itself well – without ever being advertised.


Why else is such a book necessary? Radio, television and the world wide web are all the buzz but in grief they are limited.


I tend to feel that when facing grief and needing to make maybe difficult decisions, it is comforting to have a little book ‘on one’s knee’, to feel more ‘in touch’ with the author so to say. We live in a world loaded with data. When searching on the internet, there is no even vaguely defined end point. Data is not necessarily information and information is not knowledge. Even knowledge is perhaps limited in grief too for want of the capacity to exercise the often-needed wisdom in a family circle enshrouded with grief. Over the past decade and a half I have been repeatedly told that this little book says ‘just enough’ to carry one through the bereavement hurdle in a comfortable and restful way, exactly as I felt it was designed to do, without the burden of unwanted extra data.


Another answer to your question about writing is the sheer cost of commercial funerals, now on average $12,000 (Radio NZ, 2015). A Naseby man, who I interviewed informally, claimed that a Dunedin funeral company had told him that “a standard coffin” is $4,000. Do most really want to bury/burn $4000 today? Many lack money. This also makes my book useful. However, the book fully ‘accepts’ those who want to spend heavily.


A third reason for why this book was written this way is that I could not find a book like it. My bibliography has good references, but none are written in the format I prefer – a succinct, easy-read, ‘to-do’ book so that those who haven’t done (vital?!) preparation can still do their family funeral. This is happening too. Recently I was phoned from Auckland to be told, “Your book arrived after the death had occurred but we managed the funeral by following it”. I pause to say this is exceptional!



There’s a lot around these days about planning your own funeral; most of us have encountered the idea, even if we haven’t actually done it and let our families know what we’d like. But that’s not the key direction of your book. Why not?



Planning one’s own funeral has little to do with a willingness to face a (any) death. At one’s own funeral, one will not be ‘present’ and not have any responsibility; one will not know anything about it. There is no ‘control’ of it. Granted one’s ‘wishes’ can be made known to one’s family, a good idea too, but one’s last wishes can be (legally) ignored. The issue is that ‘planning’ one’s own funeral is a completely different topic to facing a (any) death and taking some responsibility.


The funeral industry likes the phrase ‘plan your own funeral’ and likes to have the ‘instructions’ left in the industry’s care. This can be a distraction. Planning one’s own funeral is seldom, if at all, to do with defining and shouldering responsibilities.


The fact is, our culture cannot face death. To get around it, we are encouraged to ‘plan’ (our own) funerals. If I am a woodworker and I make my own coffin, all well and good but I am not planning to take any active responsibility at my funeral because I will not be ‘there’. My book is about facing a responsibility – for those who choose to shoulder it.



You mention the healing virtue of personal participation in a home-based funeral. How does this contribute to healing?



This is such a huge topic! It needs a book! Again, a matter not everybody sees the same way – an obvious thing that is just not obvious!


Convincing the subconscious that the death has ‘actually happened’ is difficult, and participation in the funeral process is one way to get this message through. I understand the subconscious mind finds ways of dealing with issues that the conscious mind has not ‘handled’, but these ways are not always helpful to us.


Obviously, in some cases, such as a bad fatal motor accident, it could be best to get a funeral director to help, but in general the more we do for and at the funeral, the better we are placed to overcome the grief. When our son died, I took the funeral service, but at that time I did not know that the whole funeral could be home-based. I went around the streets day after day looking for our little boy. Deep down I couldn’t ‘believe’ he had suddenly ‘gone’. I could not ‘heal up’.


My book is based on journeying with those aware of the relationship between mental health and grief. It is not a book written to discuss the problem but a book written to solve it. It signposts an escape route from repressed grief. From my experience of watching and helping families run home-based funerals, personal participation ‘better’ places folk to ‘accept’ in their subconscious minds, that losses have in fact, actually occurred, and to begin to integrate those losses.


One woman told me that she had cuddled her husband’s cold body all through the night and said that some had been critical of her. I comforted her with the thought that if she was comfortable doing this, it was a very therapeutic pillar to her grief to have done so and suggested to her that one day she perhaps could re-educate her unhelpful ‘Job’s comforters’.


I just know that shouldering the responsibility gives rest of mind. I have seen it so often now. I would like my wife to handle my body if I die first and if she dies before I do, she has told me the same thing.



What difficulties are people likely you come up against in arranging a funeral themselves? 



The difficulties people are likely to meet in arranging a funeral are usually through a lack of preparedness. We are often just not ready to act and under shock we are benumbed into not acting. The question of adequate preparation is thoroughly outlined in my book. 



Why is it important to build a support network as you suggest, and how might we go about that?   



The importance of a support network is a matter of our attachment to our culture. We are social creatures. We need to have folk ‘with us’, particularly under grief. Isolation is hard to bear even without the stress of grief. 


I feel a support network can only be built by first of all obtaining a clear picture of how each member of the immediate family circle feels about having a funeral organised without any funeral directors’ help. One support in this is to discuss different roles people may feel comfortable to take. By looking at the different tasks involved in a funeral folk may realise there are roles they’d be happy to take, like writing newspaper notices, or acquiring a coffin, or transporting the coffin to the funeral.


So, obtaining the book is the first step. Then, if you think you can manage all or some of the tasks of a funeral, build a network of support; that way you’re much more likely to see it through.



Thank you, Philip, for your responses, and for your excellent resource.



Philip Tomlinson  Timaru, Aotearoa New Zealand


The book is available from Philip for $10 (NZ) including postage within Aotearoa New Zealand.     




A care home where dying is just as important as living: an interview with Sue Coleman

A care home where dying is just as important as living: an interview with Sue Coleman

I love camping grounds, especially camping ground kitchens!

In winter 2015 I was having a spell of time in Dunedin, parked up in Nellie, my house truck, in the camping ground by the beach at St Kilda. It was in the kitchen there that I met Pam, a very happy staff member of a small nursing home much further up the island. We got talking, and as she spoke of this care home she loved so much I asked if I could go and get my voice recorder. On my return Pam was unsure about being recorded, but said she would put me in touch with her very special boss, the owner and manager of the little nursing home. Several weeks later Sue Coleman and I met via Skype.



Thank you so much, Sue, this is a privilege to speak with you. As you know, I met Pam, one of your staff – one of your very happy staff, I have to say – in the kitchen at the camping ground at St Kilda, in Dunedin.

I want to speak with you about how you do dying in the nursing home. I’m particularly interested in things like: What do you see are the needs of someone who is dying? How do you support them? What might the needs of their family be, and other residents, and staff? And similarly, after death. . .  So, I’m just happy for you to speak to that.



Righty oh. After I spoke with you the other day, I actually talked with two of my senior staff members and it was very interesting. I went out and I said, “How do we do death and dying? And why do we do it so well?” I’m actually pleased I spoke with them because I have got three pages of notes.



Wow, that means they’re really in tune with it, doesn’t it?



That’s right. So I’ll just go through what the three of us spoke about the other day. The main thing that came through – they both said it to me separately, “We care for the residents how we would like to be cared for ourselves, or how we would like our parents to have been cared for”, so I think that’s very important to us, and it’s what we have in the back of our minds the whole time. And the final thing they said to me is, “Death is just as important as living”.






And I know that no matter what staff members are around, when one of our residents is dying, they all put in extra cares, and extra time, and just want to be here. They really come to the fore to care for, not just the person who is dying, but their family as well. We extend it out to the family members.


We have got a double room at the rest home. If we can, we try and put the dying person in there, so that there’s another bed in there that any family member can stay in. But of course, sometimes the person doesn’t want to move out of the room that they’ve been living in for however many years. So if we’ve got a spare bed we always make it up and offer it to any family member to stay at any time.


We don’t have any set visiting hours; we just let family come and go as it suits them. We actually had a lady quite a few years ago who came in here for palliative care. They were an elderly couple, and her family lived quite some hours away, and apparently a thing she and her husband had done most evenings is that when they went to bed he would read to her, and then they would go off to sleep. So I said to him, “It doesn’t have to be any different; just come in and read whenever you want to”. So he would actually go to bed, and then he’d wake up at about twelve or one o’clock in the morning, come in and read to her for a couple of hours and then go back home. So we don’t want anything here to be different, if possible, from what they’ve had at home.


It’s just all the basic cares: we wash them two or three times a day; change their nightwear each day, or twice a day; change the sheets and bedding – that’s fresh every day; tidy the room and put away all the unnecessary clutter. Mouth cares are very important to us, as well as keeping their hands, feet, legs, arms, all their skin nicely moisturised, so therefore we’re giving them a massage after they’ve had their wash. We also encourage family to massage hands and feet, because sometimes family members just sit there and don’t know what to do. They may not have been a close family, or a touchy-feely family, so this is a good way for them to offer something to their parent.


Now a funny thing with the mouth cares – a lot of elderly have perhaps had a whisky every night, or a glass of wine, and we encourage that to continue, and when it comes to the time when they don’t want to eat any more, if the family agree, we actually use the sponge for the mouth care and continue dipping that into the whisky or the wine and just let them suck on it.



That’s lovely. What delightful continuity.



And we say to the family, usually it’s daughters, “Have a wine or a whisky with Mum or Dad at the same time. Do what you’ve done at home”. So even if they’re not eating, they’re still getting their little tipple. We involve and encourage family members to stay; we offer beds, as I said, give them a meal, cups of tea. We invite them to come and go and use our kitchen as they want to.


We make sure the person who is dying is never left alone. If a family member can’t be there, a staff member will pop in and out all the time, or sit in there. And this is where the staff come to the fore. They’ll say, “Oh, so and so hasn’t got any family here today. I’ll come round and sit here”. The odd time, if they’ve been particularly good friends with another resident, we’ll just say to that resident, “Do you want to go and just sit for five or ten minutes?” or they will notice themselves that there’s nobody in there and just ask can they go in. We always encourage that.


We never pull the curtains except at night. We leave the bedroom with natural lighting and fresh air. It’s not closed up and made to feel, “Oh, somebody’s dying”. It’s just life carries on as usual, and so often they have remarked on the scenery outside. We can see hills; we’ve got beautiful gardens. Naturally they can’t see the gardens when they’re in bed, but they can still see the sky. I think it’s important not to close that out.


We play a bit of background music if it’s been important to them. Whatever’s been important to them in their life, or in the time that we’ve got to know them living here, we will make sure that that’s carried on, even if they are dying. We will have incense going, or a candle, we put fresh flowers in every couple of days – anything to keep everyone nice and calm and peaceful and comfortable, and lots of reassurance for them.


We involve religion if that’s their choice and make sure ministers have been in to see them, or anyone that they’ve been close to in their church. The other day with a family we had the singing group come in. There were three ladies and they sat there for about an hour, quietly singing to this person. It was wonderful to listen to. So we know that that’s important and we encourage it to happen.


One thing we do discourage… so often when someone is dying you’ll find people from the church come out of the woodwork and want to visit. And they may never have visited in the whole time the person has lived here, so I just sum it up as the situation arises, and sometimes I say, “No, you can’t come, just family only”, because I think, “Why didn’t you come and visit them or take them out when they were well? Why come right at the end and think that you’re doing a good Christian deed?”



Good for you. Not an easy choice at times, I imagine, but good on you.



As I said, when family are sitting there, we encourage them to give a hand or foot massage, talk to them, read the bible, read a book, just talk. But then again, also silent times are very important – just being there.


I tell the family that hearing is the last sense to go, so just keep talking – and also remember that they’ll be able to hear whatever you’re talking about to other members of the family!


The look of a person is important to us, so we always make sure their hair is washed and clean. If necessary one of our staff members can give haircuts, even when they’re in bed and dying, trimming beards, trimming eyebrows, ears, making sure ladies’ chins and lips are hair-free – all of those little things are very important – putting on lipstick, talcum powder and nail polish if that’s what they’ve worn all their life.


We do try very hard to carry out any wishes that we know of. We had a lady who’d lived here for a few weeks, and she suddenly decided that she wanted to see the sea for the last time. Gore Bay is about eight kilometers away, and she also lived around the road from Gore Bay, and she decided that she wanted to go home to die. I don’t know if it was just luck, or good management, or instinct, which I believe in, but I decided, “Right, today I will arrange this with two of the St John Ambulance volunteers”. They came and collected her and they parked up on a hill, opened the back door so she could watch the sea, took her on home, and her husband and family were very happy to have her at home, and then she died peacefully that night. We always remember that. We just think it’s wonderful that she got to see the sea and then go home, even though she’d lived here for many weeks.


What else? We’ve got to put up with all the family dynamics, but we put up with that whether residents are living or dying – who’s talking to who and who’s not talking to who. Everyone has their own ideas, but we just listen to families and reassure them, and support them and tell them there’s no right and wrong way of dying. Just remember it’s your parent, and do what your parent would want.


When a new resident comes in, we now try and talk with them about their funeral wishes because so often family won’t approach the subject. We try to have all that in place so that I can say to family, “We talked about this, and this is what they would like”, right down to hymns, songs, funeral flowers – their favourite flower and colour – the family just don’t want to talk about it.



Sue, it’s brilliant. I’m so pleased.



We have two cats at the rest home. This has become a wee bit of a joke. One of the cats seems to sense when someone is unwell and will spend days and days sleeping on the bed of a dying person, and then when there’s nobody dying all the residents say, “Oh Alby or Chloe’s on my bed; I hope I’m not dying”. So we can joke about death too. They all like the cat on their bed, or sitting on their knee, but it’s amazing what cats do sense. I personally have got a little dog, so if a person has always had a dog, or likes dogs, I make sure our wee dog comes in frequently to jump up on the bed, or I’ll hold onto the dog so they can stroke her.


We’ve always used the Liverpool Care Pathway, though we’re not allowed to call it that now – it’s the New Zealand End-of-life Care, so we still follow that. It’s excellent for putting things in place ahead of time, and having conversations with family.


Being in a rural area we don’t have any after-hours cover by our local GP so it’s really important to spend time with our GP on a Friday to think ahead of time – what might we require during the weekend, if we have somebody dying over a weekend, or who’s not so well.


So I think that’s all we do leading up to death.



Can I just backtrack onto the last little piece? Do you alert the doctor? Is that what you mean?



Yes, and maybe we need to have extra medication in place over weekends, because we wouldn’t be able to get anything until the Monday. We can go three days without being able to access any medication. We work in closely with the GP, planning ahead with different signs or symptoms, or things that may happen.



So your nearest town, is it Cheviot?



Yes, Cheviot is a little rural town, but we don’t have a pharmacy here. We’ve got a depot, so our medication has to come up from Christchurch, overnight by courier. We have to have a little supply on hand.


Once a resident has died, we wash and dress them and put clean linen on the bed, and we encourage family to help us do that if they want to. If they don’t want to, that’s fine. And we always have a clean white sheet over them and a fresh flower is placed on their chest. We have a candle burning in their room once they’ve died, and the windows are open. For some reason I always liked the Maori idea of your soul flying out the window – I think that’s wonderful. We do pull the curtains slightly, but they’re not closed completely. I still want natural light and fresh air coming in. I do know years ago some staff would pull the curtains tight and just want the room looking dark. I don’t want that and neither do our present staff.


We make sure the rooms are nice and tidy, and a good way of teaching a new or younger staff member is that one of the senior staff members will do the laying out and ask one of the younger ones to come in so we can teach them and reassure them that it’s all part of living and nothing to be scared about.


We go and tell the other residents, and they are given the opportunity to go and say goodbye as well.






They respect that family, naturally enough, have first rights, but if there’s no family member there, the residents that want to will then go and say goodbye.


I text all the staff and tell them, so that they also have the opportunity to come in and say goodbye. Along with any close friends that that person may have had out in the community.



That’s so lovely, Sue; so much caring for everybody. I’m really, really touched.



Well, we’ve looked after them. We’re just one big family here.


We put up a photo in the main entrance for a week, and we have a candle burning next to that, and we have a flag flying at half-mast outside, so all the community knows when somebody’s died!


When the funeral director comes, if any residents or family or staff are here, we don’t mind if they walk out to the car with the deceased person. Some of the residents like to. You know, there are some very strong friendships made here. We never pull the curtains in the lounge when a person is being put into the hearse, to block the view. One or two funeral directors have said, “Do you want to go and pull the curtains in the lounge?” I just say, “No. No. We know what’s happening and it’s all part of life”.



Oh, this is so refreshing! It’s fantastic what you’re doing!



If a resident is upset by it and doesn’t want to watch, they’re given the opportunity to go to their room. I’ll just let them know when the hearse is arriving and they can either stay there, say farewell, or go to their room.


The other day one of our rest home cats followed the person out and was going to jump up into the hearse. The woman had a large family and they were all standing either side, and some of the residents were out there as well, and the cat, and it was really weird, because when the car drove away the cat slowly walked behind the car, and then sat in the gutter as the car turned into the street, and just watched the hearse go. By this stage the family are all sitting outside in our courtyard area. The cat turned around and walked to each family member and rubbed up against them. It was incredible.



Oh my goodness.



And that cat had spent two or three days on her bed before that. So there are special little things like that that you always remember that make it just a little bit more personal.


Of course staff have to carry on with work immediately after someone has died, immediately after they’ve been taken away. You still have to carry on, no matter how deeply it has affected you. A few years ago we had a real run of deaths, about five in three months. After about the fourth one I went and spoke with all the residents and just said, “We are affected by these deaths. You may not notice any emotion on us, and you may think we’re just carrying on unaffected. We have to; we have to carry on caring for you, but you have to know that deep inside these deaths have affected us too”. So I think keeping those lines of communication open with the residents who remain here, letting them know that it does affect us too – that’s important. They were quite reassured that we’re not all hard old biddies.



Yes, and they’ll be thinking in terms of their own deaths and wondering, “Will my death matter to you?”



Yes, so we reassure them that everybody matters to us.


One or two residents have actually said to us, following a death, that they feel very reassured about the way the staff care for somebody here, so it’s good to get that feedback from them, too.


Staff can attend the funeral – that doesn’t worry me at all. It’s their choice. I try to go, being the owner, and having been responsible for the resident all that time but sometimes I am not able to.


At the next staff meeting we will have a debrief about the death, or sooner if need be, just to talk about the person, share any stories that we have, any thoughts and emotions, have a laugh, and most importantly, just to respect each other’s feelings because we’re all different. Some people may not have liked that person; others could have become very close to that person. Of course all the staff know that there’s no talking outside of the building, so we do have that debrief.




It’s like your own little mini funeral in a sense. It fulfils some of the same functions.



We have a book where any staff can write their thoughts about a resident; it’s just kept in the office. Someone may not want to talk, but might write something down when they feel ready to.


During the resident’s time of living here, one of our activities is to make up a scrapbook for each of them. We put lots of photos of their life, and all the things they’ve done here, like trips out and everyday things, so we’ve got that to give to the family when somebody has passed away. At times it’s a real surprise to families, because if the resident has a wee bit of dementia they can’t remember what they’ve done all week, so we’ve got photos to prove, “Yes, you did go away on that trip”, and that week Mum said she hadn’t been anywhere. So it can be a surprise to a family to see what they have done while they’ve been here.


Of course some deaths affect the staff more than others. Some deaths are a relief to the person, and to the staff, depending on what’s been wrong. We’ve got one staff member who has a resident’s ashes in her garden, because he built the house that she now lives in. He had no immediate family and was just so delighted when she bought this house. He was able to give her all the plans, and photos of when he was building it. They became very close. His extended family were absolutely delighted when she said, “Would you like to bury his ashes in the garden of the house that he built”. And they’ve been made welcome to visit any time. She has planted a special tree for him and placed a garden seat there for family to sit on and for her to reflect on life – have a drink in memory of him, too.


We cared for another staff member here – that was palliative care. She died here, and her ashes are in our garden. We bought a weeping cherry tree, because her two sons didn’t really know what to do with her ashes. One lives in Australia and the other lives somewhere else in the South Island. They weren’t a close family so they agreed to have her ashes here. She’d been working here for six or seven years and we were really all the family she had.


I’ve been asked to do funeral services here at the rest home, and we’ve also had memorial services, especially if someone has lived here a number of years and the residents can’t go to the funeral. It’s easier to have a little memorial service here, so they see that we care, and it’s closure for the residents.


In our dining room we have a photo board, so at Christmas time – I leave it up for about eight weeks – I put up a photo of all those who’ve passed away during the year. And another thing we’ve done in activities… our beaches have quite a few flat stones, so Elysia painted all the stones quite bright colours, and in white put each resident’s name on, so we’ve got them sitting in a garden at our main entrance. So there are past and present residents’ names all out in the garden.


That’s really about it.



That’s amazing. You’ve given so much detail about the many ways in which dying matters in your nursing home, Sue.

I have one other question, and that is what’s your protocol around clearing the room after somebody has died?



After somebody has passed away we bless the room and wash it. Sometimes I will get it re-painted, and we always take any pictures out and hang different ones so that it’s no longer that person’s room, it’s a completely new person’s room.


The last thing I’ve written down is no matter who the resident is, or how we feel about them, they will always be cared for in exactly the same way, with the same dignity and respect from all the staff.


Death to us is just as important as living.



Well I am so, so glad that I happened on Pam and she led me to you, because what you’ve told me about your rest home is really special. Some of the big, expensive homes don’t seem to know how to do death, which is why I find this so moving, in terms of your care and respect for absolutely everybody involved.



As a small place we struggle; we can’t compete with those big ones, but I know, and the staff know, that care here is 100% better than what you get in a big place. Those places might look good – have all the movie theatres, swimming pools, cafés etc but they are only bricks and mortar. You might have all the flashest things, but it’s what actually happens inside that building that makes the place.



I could not agree more, Sue. Thank you for speaking with me, and for the exquisite example you give of how care can be, particularly in dying.



 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 



On 31 October 2020 Sue added:  I have read my interview with you and find it is still all relevant- we do death and dying exactly the same way after all these years except the Liverpool Care Pathway is no longer in use in NZ. 


We have wonderful support from the Nurse Maude Palliative Care service based in Christchurch. They appoint a Palliative Care Nurse Specialist to Aged Care facilities and Vicki is a very valuable colleague, offering regular support and education – my staff love her! 


On 10 November 2020 Sue told me: Cheviot Rest Home won the 2020 Aged Advisor award for Best Aged Care Facility NZ under 40 beds for the 5th consecutive year. 

This award is decided by reviews sent to Aged Advisor, from residents, their families, friends and visitors plus staff.  

I feel this award reflects the high standard of care we continually offer

This entry was posted on November 12, 2020. 2 Comments

Considering one’s own death – an interview with James Rose


James and I became friends through our shared exploration of community, our love of poetry, and our passion for the Hokianga. One evening as I cooked a meal for the two of us, I asked James if he’d like to listen to my CD of poetry, When Death Comes Close. I guess that opened the subject between us, because some time later he spoke with me about his thoughts around his own death.

Later, when I began interviewing Kiwi baby boomers with interesting approaches to death, dying and funerals, I asked James if I might visit him to get a fuller understanding of his intention. He took me to a beautiful dell on his property, and it was there we recorded the interview.


Thank you so much for this opportunity, James. I feel very privileged – moved, actually – to be able to do this.


I’m quite receptive really; I’ve got quite strong views, so I’m receptive to talking about them.


That’s great. And as you say, the soft murmur of the stream is just beautiful, so it’s a real privilege, too, to be actually in this little dell.


It’s a special place on the farm.


So, I’d love you to tell us why it’s so special.


The Dell? I think it’s one of those little places that is enclosed, so it’s a world of its own, and it has a sound that’s very special. And apart from in a big whirlwind, it’s always the most quiet place on the farm.


Yes, I can imagine that. And in terms of your looking ahead to your dying, it’s a very special place for you, isn’t it? I’d love you to tell us about your plan.


Aye. Well I’ve given a little bit of thought to how I’d approach it, and I want to start by acknowledging human mortality, and human frailty. Yes, I have a plan, that if I’m still going well, towards my late 80s, I’ll consider it a privilege to choose a time to relinquish myself of the will to take part and compete in this physical world.


So I envision that I would like to be there in good health, and for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, but in acknowledgement of not really wishing to stagger on with the processes of living into my 90s. I do acknowledge that looking at my heredity – and my mother who’s now well into her 90’s – it’s a process that I don’t really wish upon myself. So, all being well, at the age of 88, I would choose to, very gently, in a sense take a vow of poverty, complete poverty – no more than that really – that being a poverty from sustenance, from physical sustenance. And hopefully I’d be able to choose an environment, like this dell, but who knows where – a place where I can experience a meditative preparation for whatever the Mystery presents.


I would not exclude my loved ones. I would keep them well informed, as I have, that this is my wish, and therefore I would allow them knowledge and access to come and go, as one would, perhaps, from a deathbed. I would probably make myself reasonably comfortable. I imagine having maybe a heavy woollen poncho, and I would choose natural shelter. I would choose a strong, leaning tree perhaps, or a sheltered bluff whereby, with my woollen poncho, I can feel basically comfortable to begin my meditative preparation. 


So, I will tell my family and loved ones that they may visit me with sensitivity, as often as they so wish. They may sit with me, and talk with me, because overall I feel the meaning of life is a conversation, and the conversation requires one to be challenged, therefore, it’s great to have company. (The conversation of life, however, can be between oneself and nature, so equally so, without company, the conversation continues.) Therefore, in my imagination, I will have given myself completely to the conversation and to the Mystery. Quite simply, that’s the process, beginning, most likely, on my 88th birthday. So, maybe no birthday cake for me on my 88th. However, maybe I will feel something very special during my period of being 87, with the approach of this. So there is much to look forward to.  Simply put, that’s it – that’s the entire process.


Do you have a kind of explainable sense of why it’s 88, or is that just something in you?     


No, not really. I think that we’re always tempted to keep extending these things, especially if we are in reasonably good health. But there are lots of reasons really, and one of them is a feeling for my fellow humans and the rest of the planet. Why should I compete for the resources of younger, healthier, more productive people, for the scarce resources which we are all making a mess of, including myself. So, it’s a matter of choosing a time really, and to be so lucky to be in good health in one’s late 80s, I think is really a completion of a human journey. 


So your sense is that by then you’ll have completed what you came for?  


Very much so, because, having put a time on it, it will work me towards the time.


Of course.


It’s like any great thing in life – like a family reunion, or a wedding, or somebody else’s parting – well, not so much somebody else’s parting, because one can’t plan so much for that – but one can certainly plan for a family wedding.  And it also makes the rest of my family aware of this timing, and that there is nothing sudden about it, and there’s no urgencyBeing in good health, I might live very comfortably in this way for three to six months, who knows? Maybe less; I think I’d be doing remarkably well to still be there in six months.


You spoke about a poverty of sustenance – would that include water?


I think it would move to water, yes.


You mean it would move towards the exclusion of water?


Yes. Perhaps I would start my days there with some fruit juices, and vegetable juices, and then I would move to pure water, and then, when I was ready, I would relinquish water. I would move with sensitivity. I would move with sensitivity, but I would know the direction I was going.


And that sensitivity?  A sensitivity to something inner?


Yeah, because I would be readying myself as to the journey I was on, as one always needs to.


You’ve indicated that you’ve already spoken with your family about this – you have four adult daughters. How are they about it? 


They vary; some are highly resistant at the thought of it. However, they’ve got plenty of time to think about it, and I’ve got plenty of time to make them realise that I’m sincere, and that I’ve held this view for quite a few years now.  It hasn’t wavered, in fact it’s strengthened. 


So, did it come out of any sort of philosophy?  I can see the values – your values about the Earth’s resources and things…


Yeah. I am aware of some of the nomadic peoples of the Middle East, and perhaps places like the Tibetan Plateau, and there is a thing there where a very old person, who can’t keep up with the troupe, and is becoming a burden, will stop. And in some cases, they will choose a place, and – I’m not fully sure of the circumstances, whether some of their family may waylay with them, or whether they say their partings, and the person is left.  But these things are probably not so common in the modern world, but they certainly were still happening not so long ago, amongst these peoples. And the old person would just choose to waylay, and the others would keep moving. The people I’m referring to had a nomadic life, a very harsh life, a very crucial life in a harsh environment. So these things are done, and have been done.


I have read similar of the Maori.


I’ve never heard of it with the Maori, but I can imagine it. The ones I’ve definitely heard of were nomadic cultures where one must be fit to keep up with the life

I really enjoy a physical life in the outdoors, and I am very aware of how my body is now slowing – beginning to slow – and I can’t sustain the same activity of my youth, and so I’m very aware that by my late 80s it will be quite a release to not expect myself to be able to chop wood and carry water.


Yes. So what age are you now, James?


Sixty-four, so there’s plenty of time. When you think of being twenty-four and you look back at your whole childhood, it’s a long, long time. And that’s how long it is until I’m eighty-eight.


And do you imagine that your body will just gradually slow? You’ve indicated that you’ve noticed a slowing up.


Yeah, and I have friends in their mid-70s, and I talk to them, and they tell me about some of their frustrations, as things are moving on. So in many ways this is just a preparation for a very sensible arrangement.


You’ve always lived an outdoor, active life? Is that right?


It’s been my tendency. I tried to do university, and I tried to become a professional person, but the outdoor person in me wouldn’t let that happen. That’s how that never happened. The outdoor person in me felt threatened.


As if he might get lost?


Yeah, the outdoor person has been the dominant feature of my life.


So I imagine it would be difficult to look ahead to anything like a life where you were restricted to being essentially indoors.


It is. It certainly would be. I couldn’t imagine it really, because it would be like a prison. I would need incredible amount of stimulation – you know I’d have to paint the walls green, with trees and everything, and I’d have to have lots of windows that I could open up.


…because I guess the conversation with Nature has been there all your life and needs to continue.


I think so. My mother tells me that when I was a baby she used to put me outside in the pram – and this was in Stoke-on-Trent, in the Midlands, the industrial Midlands of England – and I used to come in covered in soot that was just falling out of the sky. She did say once she felt very bad because when she got me in she realised it had snowed. There was snow on the pram and snow on my blanket. But maybe that meditative contemplation with Nature had taken place way back. You know, to put a child outside for fresh air in ironically a totally industrial area… It was an industrial slum where I was born, and my mother said there were big oil-fired power stations, and oil-fired kilns for making pottery, and she said literally oil would condense on the insides of the windows, so it was a totally out of control, polluted environment completely set on industry, frantically trying to get its feet on the ground after the big War. So there’s a possibility something happened there, in a tiny mind, that maybe identified with different bits of greenery and birds and things that stood out so much from that environment. That’s about the only explanation I can put on it.


I have another question, and that’s about after your death. Would you see your physical remains being buried where you’ve spent your last days or weeks? 


That would be very nice, however I think the meaning of dying is to leave the physical, and therefore it’s not of great concern. I have actually said to my children it’s up to their convenience and their intention how they deal with my physical remains. But they do know what I enjoy, and it’s up to them to reflect that as they wish.


That feels a lovely balance, actually, because you’ve taken, or plan to take, an unusually strong choice – a very personal choice – in terms of your dying, so there’s a lovely balance there in your handing it over to your children at that point.


Because it is their concern, and you know, my wish is that they will all have completely accepted this, and see it as really a last sort of teaching from their parent.


That’s wonderful, because I think that’s a remarkable gift, when life is so full of fear and resistance around death, and you’re presenting a very solid example of something different.


I’m planning for it, and looking forward to the possibility of this happening, as I’ve explained, reaching my late 80s in pretty good stead, and then very consciously and intentionally setting off on the other journey – well, re-directing my entire process to a proper preparation for an imminent journey, which I can only and always refer to as The Great Mystery, the one we’re all bound to.


Thank you so much, James

This entry was posted on October 26, 2020. 2 Comments

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.



This entry was posted on October 8, 2020. 2 Comments