New technologies, increasing cultural diversity, revised industry standards, rising land costs and competing demand for space are just some of the factors affecting how councils must now manage cemeteries and crematoria.
We live in complex and changing times, and how we manage death is no exception. People have widely varying expectations when it comes to the manner in which they want to farewell their loved ones or decorate grave sites. Accounting for personal grief while setting clear rules around how grave sites are managed can be a challenge for councils and other administrators.
Auckland Council cemeteries manager Catherine Moore says many people want something unique and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. “With increasing cultural diversity, this can present something of a challenge. Councils and funeral directors have to be flexible while factoring in aspects such as by-laws and health and safety.”
In Auckland, the council also has to consider the issue of space, an increasingly rare commodity when people expect burial ‘in perpetuity’.
“We’re competing for space with developers, and there are other considerations such as the need to maintain parks and other open spaces,” Catherine says.
Growing cultural and ethnic diversity in New Zealand’s largest city also means different groups follow different traditions.
“We have members of our Hindu community for example wanting to scatter ashes into flowing water, while for Maori the waterways are considered tapu – sacred.”
The council works with migrant communities and their religious leaders to resolve some of these issues, and this can lead to positive results. In one instance, an iwi agreed to allow a specific waterway to be used for Hindu funeral rites.
Catherine says a collaborative approach is needed but working out solutions takes time.
In terms of space, councils try to plan ahead.
“We’re trying to purchase land, and we’re looking at areas outside the city,” says Catherine. “It’s the only way to keep it affordable. In Auckland, we look at where growth areas will be, at public transport options and likely motorway expansions.”
New Zealand Cemeteries and Crematoria Collective (NZCCC) Advisory Group chair Michelle Rivers says improved contact and collaboration can ensure understanding and consistent service between private and public cemeteries and crematoria, and with related industries such as funeral directors, industry suppliers and monumental masons.
NZCCC is the national representative body for New Zealand’s cemeteries and crematoria. The organisation works to improve sharing of information among relevant organisations and to support workers in the sector by connecting them with appropriate professional development opportunities.
“We need to ensure there is enough funding for training and professional development,” says Michelle. “The sector requires a talented, committed workforce, with adequate qualifications and industry standards to support it.”
Smaller towns have to deal with similar challenges to those faced by busy urban centres such as Auckland and Christchurch. They too have to plan ahead when it comes to burial space. Waipa District Council parks and reserves team leader Max Ward says councils need to be planning 40 to 50 years ahead.
“Traditionally, many cemeteries were situated away from towns but with population growth and urbanisation, towns have gradually grown around these burial spaces, and now many of these spaces are landlocked. This means extension is not always easy or possible.”
Waipa District Council recently purchased a subdivided plot of land adjoining Te Awamatu cemetery so that it could be used to extend the cemetery.
“For now at least we don’t have a space issue,” says Max. “But we are all in the same boat in the longer term.”
Technology is another influencing factor and has changed the sector in significant ways. Nowadays, people can for example ‘log in’ to a funeral service online, instead of being physically present. This means people who are not very mobile or who are too far away to travel, are able to be there at least in a virtual sense.
Alongside technological advances, there is for many a desire for greater simplicity in the rituals associated with death. Wellington-based funeral director Fiona King says there is a marked increase in the number of people seeking natural burials.
“The driver is a greater awareness of the environment. People who choose natural burials are often driven by a desire not to impact on the earth. They don’t want the fuss or the bling, and they don’t want waste.”
In Wellington, the Makara Cemetery allows for natural burials. These take place in more shallow ground than traditional burials and have no headstones. Trees are planted over the burial area.
“This means that, rather than standing over a grave, what you’ll be doing where someone was buried is standing back and looking at a general area covered in trees. That’s quite a big mental shift for people, but that shift is occurring.”
Fiona predicts the next generation will want natural burials and that by 2030, it will be quite common.
“Increasingly, with social media and other online activity, people view their legacy as being online, not buried under a headstone,” she says.
Then there is the attraction of reconnecting with nature.
“The ceremony around natural burials is quite beautiful. Out at Makara, you’ll see sheep and geese in the area, and lots of birds. Sometimes there’ll be horses in the nearby paddock and children are encouraged to feed them carrots. It’s more physical, more down-to-earth. People turn up in their gumboots.”
This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.