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Have You Been to a Funeral in New Zealand? | Keith Newell | Wellington

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ශ්‍රී LankaNZ is a free distributed Sri Lankan Community Newspaper that aims to reach a Sri Lankan population of over 18,000 all over New Zealand. The demand for entertainment in literacy media itself gave birth to ශ්‍රී LankaNZ

The cultural diversity of New Zealand is reflected in the myriad of rituals carried out by its population. These rituals acknowledge and celebrate life events that are important to all of us as human beings. The many races and cultures represented here all have their own rituals, and very few restrict attendance to exclude those not of the particular culture celebrating an event. All are generally welcome to attend, but it is helpful to understand particular rituals if attendees are familiar with any specific requirements before attending a ceremony. In addition, it can enhance the overall experience if they are aware of any traditions, even if there is no expectation that they are involved or partake in them.

Two years ago, I retired from the funeral industry after 17 years as a Funeral Director/Celebrant with ‘Lychgate Funerals’ in Wellington. In that time, I was privileged to be involved with many cultures and assist families in arranging funerals for loved ones. I am still a Civil Celebrant and often asked to officiate at funerals for cultures other than typical New Zealand funerals. 

Funerals are an important ritual in any culture. The farewell and disposal of the dead is carried out with reverence and respect, and it is important psychologically for human beings to feel that they have done this “properly”. In New Zealand, the typical funeral ritual follows either secular (non-religious) or non-secular (religious) tenets.

Secular funerals are often conducted by a civil celebrant or a family member or friend. A professional Funeral Director arranges the logistics for the funeral, with the Celebrant taking responsibility for the content of the ceremony. Non-secular funerals are conducted by clergy of the particular religion to which the deceased or their family belong. Again the logistics are taken care of by the Funeral Director.

A typical New Zealand funeral, whether secular or non-secular, usually follows a standard format. Notification of the death, the date, time and venue for the funeral is generally through a published newspaper notice or online death notice service run by individual funeral homes or media. Sometimes families wish to have a private ceremony, in which case attendance will be by invitation. No prior notification will be given, or the public notification will say that the ceremony is private. Attendance by invitation has become more common in this Covid world we now live in and when numbers attending have to be limited.

There will normally be an address for messages to be sent to those who cannot participate in the ceremony. There is no standard dress code for attendance at a New Zealand funeral. Smart casual is the norm, but it is also acceptable to dress more formally if you feel more comfortable doing so. At times the standard of dress might be very casual, but this would normally be advised and is usually to recognise the dress habits of the deceased. The general rule is to wear what you feel most comfortable. For example, it is appropriate to wear black in some cultures while others prefer white. There are no such preferences for attendees at a typical New Zealand funeral, and in fact, you will sometimes be made aware of a request for people to wear bright colours or some particular clothing style.

In most cases, family members will be present to greet attendees before the start of the ceremony. There could also be a book to record your name so that the family knows you attended and if they don’t get to see you there. Rarely is there a seating plan, so you are free to sit wherever you like? The bereaved family will occupy the front seats, but don’t be afraid to sit towards the front rather than right at the back, especially if not many attendees are expected.

A service sheet showing the format of the service will be given out as attendees enter. This will show who is speaking, if there are any hymns or songs, the words of which will be printed or shown on an overhead screen, and any other information to do with the format. There might be an invitation to refreshments after the service and an address to send donations to any charity that the family chooses. Donations are not compulsory.

At the end of the ceremony, the casket will usually be carried to the hearse, which might depart straight away for the Crematorium or wait until after refreshments when the family accompanies it to the Crematorium or Cemetery. Attendees might also be invited to attend the burial or Crematorium committal, but this is not compulsory.

Church-based funerals can be more formal than secular services, and the format is more rigid. There will, of course, be more religious content with hymns and prayers, but the general logistics are similar to secular services.

As with all cultures and their rituals, if in doubt about what to do, don’t ever be afraid to ask someone more familiar with the procedure. Put yourself in the shoes of a New Zealander attending one of your culture’s rituals and think about how willing you would be to help them understand the process and meaning behind the ceremony. Attendance at funerals is a sign of respect for the deceased and their family, and it should be a memorable and meaningful experience for all. 

Keith Newell JP, Celebrant, Wellington

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