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Interracial families spending thousands of dollars resolving burial disputes – Expert

Legislation passed over a half-century ago governing funerals in NZ needs to be overhauled in light of an increase in interracial relationships and the need to protect cultural diversity and Māori tangihanga, according to an industry expert.

Research shows ethnic intermarriage to be common among Māori, Pasifika and Asians and significantly higher for those people born in New Zealand.

Michael Powell, general manager of Davis Funerals, says the Burials and Cremation Act of 1964 needs to be updated to accommodate modern funeral requirements and the ever-broadening racial and cultural mix we have in NZ today.

He says gaps in the law can see interracial and mixed-religion families spending tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to resolve disputes around funeral arrangements immediately – following the death of a loved one.

“Right now we have numerous issues impacting the funeral services sector including differing cultural and religious customs, changing views on what a funeral should entail, and environmental impacts.

“The current legislation, created 59 years ago, is very prescriptive about the appropriate permissions required for burial and cremation and how the body should be handled, but it doesn’t consider how much our society has developed.

“In its current form, the Act does not provide sufficient acknowledgement of tikanga Māori, or the needs of other cultures.

“Decades ago, a funeral was a much more straightforward affair with a church service and a burial. But now we have a situation where we have ceremonies for a broad mix of cultural and religious groupings in the community. We have directed and facilitated services for and observed the rights and rituals for Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Catholic, Pacific Island families, and secular and non-denominational families.

“Powell says when making a will Kiwis should also make a detailed funeral plan. We need to dispel the myth that your funeral arrangements may be captured in your will, often when someone dies it can take weeks for the will even to be found; further the arrangements contained in the will can be overridden by the decisions of the executor.

“In the absence of any clear guidelines we need to rely on common law to get a resolution about what the funeral arrangements might be. There are well-documented examples of cases that have been heard in the High Court to decide what should happen. A funeral which could have cost $10,000 to $12,000, may result in many times that amount to achieve a resolution due to the legal fees that can be involved,” he says.

Regardless of any steps taken to modernise the Act, Powell says Kiwis need to understand the responsibility they have in formalising their wishes to provide guidance for their family and mitigate the potential for disputes.

“While a couple may have learned to navigate and celebrate any cross-cultural differences during the course of their relationship, often their respective families have not worked through the same process and the first time they are exposed to these challenges is immediately following the loss of a loved one. As funeral directors, we recognise the significant responsibility placed on us to ensure the needs of all family members are understood.

“We have seen situations where Pākehā relatives have opted to have a traditional ceremony and even cremation as they believed these were the wishes of the deceased. However, the Māori side of the family wants a tangihanga and the body to be returned to the land.

“We are seeing an increasing number of mixed marriages – each with differing religious ceremonies and cultural practices. When there is no clear direction left from the deceased and when emotions are high it is difficult for families to find a compromise.

“Contrary to popular belief, the funeral is as much about the person who has died as those who are left to mourn their death. Ultimately the funeral service benefits those who have suffered loss as a result of that death,” he says.


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