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July 13, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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A Dying Trade

Belief in death is more than just musing on the afterlife, Heaven, Hell and eternal oblivion. Death is very real, and there are choices to be made about how you choose to go, how you are remembered, and the cost of these decisions to your family and the Earth. Salient spoke to a local funeral director about what death means to people beyond the metaphysical and got an insight into an often deliberately obscure industry.

As teens and twentysomethings with our whole lives ahead of us, we never pay much consideration to death. It is something of a misnomer to call death a part of life; death is not an experience, and forgoing any belief or proof of an afterlife, it would be impossible to describe. It would be more appropriate to say that the death of others is a part of life. If no one close to you has died, you are fortunate, but we should all be keenly aware of how finite our time on this earth is.

Going to a funeral can put all this into perspective. The event is intended to celebrate life, but the rigid adherence to custom makes them seem as lifeless as the people they intend to honour. There is this perception that there is a ‘right’ way to grieve and a ‘right’ way to have a funeral. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

Fiona King, a funeral director for over four years and owner of central Wellington funeral company Broadbent & May, prides herself on letting people arrange funerals their way. The inner workings of the industry have been adapting to accommodate this philosophy, combining customs from older cultures and recent technological developments in the industry. When you’re six feet under, the sky’s the limit.


Prior to the institution of the funeral industry, families traditionally looked after their own dead. When a family member passed away, it was usually at home. The body remained at home for a few days (the wake) which was held to ensure the deceased was, indeed, deceased. After the corpse was cleaned and dressed, they would then be buried almost immediately, often at a local churchyard or on the family land. Funerals are meant to increase the period between death and burial or cremation, prolonging the time before the ‘final farewell’.

The modern funeral industry traces its origins to the American Civil War, where a medical and scientific interest in embalming (the process of preserving the deceased to slow decomposition) became the solution, to ensure soldiers returned to the family in a preserved condition. The Victorian era was the first to define the traditional funeral as we know it today, with strict rules of proper mourning, etiquette and dress, and the creation of the role of funeral director. This has carried over to the modern day, creating a notion that there is an absolute ‘right’ way to have a funeral. As if bringing the afterlife to Earth, death was made to be mysterious and plagued with uncertainty by the funeral industry.

Over time, handling of death became more professional and much less personal. The role of a funeral director is to bridge this gap by collaborating with the family and advising them of their options for handling of the deceased, while also guiding them through the grieving process. The funeral director also acts as an events manager, booking the venues for the funeral and liaising with mortuary workers, celebrants, cemetery staff and the family to organise the funeral itself. When appropriate, Fiona King’s own practice at Broadbent & May is to delay the disposal and the burial by a day; otherwise, the service can seem rushed or of no consequence.


Everyone’s a bit squeamish when it comes to the dead, but this is more of a stereotype derived from the sombre but fecklessly uptight appearance of Victorian funerals. Other cultures, by contrast, are surprisingly cool and collected when it comes to funeral customs.

King highlighted the funeral practices of Jewish and Muslim communities. When a member of the community passes away in the Jewish community, the autonomy of the body is given absolute respect. There is no embalming, and all ‘deceaseds’ are dressed and buried in same simple clothes and a wooden coffin. The central funeral philosophy of Judaism is that we all come from the earth and we return to the earth equally. Muslim funerals usually have no service, and the dead are buried quickly to ensure the soul can ascend to eternal peace.

King has arranged funerals for Pasifika and Māori communities, and has noticed their ceremonies have a much more relaxed and inclusive feel to them. Funerals involve the whole community, including the children, who then learn the practices and customs associated with their culture through the ceremony. King recalled one story to me she had had related to her from a cemetery technician, of a seven-year-old Pasifika boy who was overheard guiding adults through the funeral process like an expert.

In regards to her own practice, King encourages the family to be ‘hands on’, emphasising the familial independence of old. These days, the ‘do it yourself’ funeral has become increasingly popular. More and more families eschew an ostentatious memorial in favour of a smaller, more intimate ceremony. A smaller family-guided ceremony can feel more cathartic than a strictly ‘traditional’ service. “A funeral you can live with,” says King.


There’s the old adage that you die twice: first when your body expires, and again when someone speaks your name for the last time. As such, funerals are not just an event for family and friends to say their final farewell to a loved one, but a plea from the loved one to not be forgotten. This can lead to over-memorialisation of the deceased, as if they have to remain preserved in perpetuity. In the United States, 115 million tons of steel goes into making robust metal caskets and 2.3 billion tons of burial-vault concrete is used each year.

King believes that the future of funeral care lies in the green revolution, providing environmentally friendly methods of burial and less obtrusive memorials. A green funeral has no embalming, and instead of a headstone, a native tree is planted at the burial mound. This seems to be the popular choice, with most people desiring to forgo headstones and veneered coffins and declare: “stick me in a plain pine box and bury me naturally”. We come from the earth and we return to the earth, equally.

King encourages you to have that conversation about your funeral and make your intentions clear to friends and family. You can find more information on funeral options and the funeral industry at her website:

10 facts about death

  • Until the recent establishment of two small funeral companies, the funeral industry in central Wellington has been a duopoly (only two providers).

  • Around 70 per cent of funerals are cremations, often preferred because it is a cheaper alternative to burial.

  • The ashes collected after cremation are known as ‘cremains’.

  • Some services offer the option to have ashes compressed into a diamond, or planted into a tree, or converted into a ‘living reef’ to be placed at sea.

  • Traditional Jews forsake flowers at funerals, due to the belief that one should not have to kill other living things in remembrance of another’s life.

  • The United States uses 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde for embalming annually, the equivalent of 1.2 Olympic swimming pools.

  • In Tibet, one method of disposal is the ‘sky burial’, where the body is lacerated into pieces and left to be fed to vultures, leaving just the skeleton.

  • ·         During the 19th century, bodies were often stolen from graves for the purposes of medical research, so cemeteries had to become guarded.

  • One idea to phase out headstones is to have a ‘digital headstone’, detailing the GPS coordinates of your burial site online.

  • The current worry in the funeral industry today: is it ever appropriate to take a funeral selfie?

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  1. Nathaniel says:

    -In the United States, 115 million tons of steel goes into making robust metal caskets and 2.3 billion tons of burial-vault concrete is used each year.

    Are you sure about those figures? With an annual death toll of around 2.5 million, each corpse would require an average of 46 tons of steel and almost 1000 tons of concrete…

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