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Guiding Locals Toward Affordable & Eco-Friendly Funerals

Guiding Locals Toward Affordable & Eco-Friendly Funerals

Historically, births and deaths have always been handled by family and friends without the need for professional help.

While birthing has been reclaimed by midwives, most funerals still involve a funeral director, a costly casket and ceremony – with the average cost of a “very modest” funeral and burial now $10,000 according to the Funeral Directors Association.

In 2019 the Eastern Bay Villages charitable trust held a public meeting to discuss the growing issue of funeral debt. What emerged was a strong desire for affordable and eco-friendly funerals and burials, so the Funeral Guides Collective was launched.


Re-learning Old Customs

The collective now provides trained guides in the Eastern Bay to help whānau prepare the tūpāpaku (deceased body), and navigate the burial process including how to register a death and comply with all administrative and medical obligations.

Contrary to popular belief, anyone can perform these tasks and embalming is not a legal requirement in New Zealand. Natural containers such as a shroud or a wooden or cardboard casket can be used, and families are able to plant a tree over their loved one’s remains instead of having a traditional gravestone. There are now 22 natural burial cemeteries in Aotearoa, and more are being developed every year.

“We want to see all families and communities able to honour and farewell loved ones in a meaningful way, without experiencing financial hardship or distress,” explains spokeswoman Ruth Gerzon.

“For grief and loss, it is so much better for the whānau to be able to prepare the body themselves. It’s a last act of love they give to the person they’ve lost. And also the tūpāpaku stays with the whānau from death to burial, it never leaves their side. That’s both a Māori kaupapa and a Pakeha one. My mother-in-law used to lay out the bodies in England, that was her role in her village. It’s not that long ago that we did this stuff ourselves. Communities can look after each other in death and we’re re-learning what we once knew.”


Guided Support

Families can be involved in the process as much or as little as they feel comfortable with. “Some whānau really like to prepare and wash the body themselves. Some would prefer their funeral guide do that. You can include whatever beautiful rituals you want such as candles, waiata (song), karakia (prayer)… it’s up to the whānau to choose the rituals they want, but all of those things are available to them.”

Instead of embalming, special cold plates or moemai pads are used to keep a deceased’s body at 1- 5˚C – the same temperature as in a morgue – so they can remain at home or on their marae until burial. Shrouds and woven flax kōpaki can be used instead of expensive coffins, and Whakatane was lucky to have a certified natural cemetery where people can be laid to rest and a tree planted instead of having a gravestone.

“There are some rules,” Ruth explains. “In crematoriums obviously if you have a pacemaker, it has to be taken out. You might need a funeral director for that. But all the administration stuff is not that tricky. We have all the forms you need on our website.”

Having a guide is particularly useful when there hasn’t been any pre-planning. “Once someone’s died, all the emotions kick in so it’s hard to go through that process and learn about what to do. So that’s why we have trained funeral guides to support whānau.”

The ‘collective’ structure provides ongoing training and support to guides, allowing them to debrief and learn from one another. Most work on a part-time basis so need to juggle their own family and work commitments.


New Beginnings


Until now, the collective has operated under the umbrella of Eastern Bay Villages. But it’s grown to the point that a separate charitable trust is now being set up. “We’re currently working on our mission, vision, objectives and looking at who will be on the trust and how we’ll operate,” Ruth explains.

BayTrust has granted $10,000 to help cover operational costs which will include further training both for guides and new board members.

“We’re really pleased to receive this grant. It is enough to get us over the hump and will make a significant difference to getting our new trust underway.”

Ruth says people are coming from all over New Zealand to train with the collective and there’s now a growing nationwide movement. “There are now funeral guides around the country but they tend to be in small areas like ours. Not big cities. Te Teko is big on it now. They’re doing lots of things on their own out there. People are really jumping on board.”

Once the new charitable trust is set up, a public launch will likely be held and the collective’s services promoted more widely. Until then, the collective is doing one or two funerals a month. “But there’s certainly demand for a lot more, and particularly for education about all the funeral and burial options that are actually available. We are empowering whānau to reclaim their key role in after-death care.”


Picture: Harakeke casket Iramoko marae