Conversations around death and dying

For something that all of us are going to experience do one day (even the Queen, eventually), we’re all exceptionally good at avoiding conversations around death and dying.

Often, unless we’re forced to face our mortality through illness, injury, or the loss of someone close to us, it’s a topic we avoid discussing much at all. And while this does mean we don’t have to face such a difficult, challenging subject, it can also cause problems further down the track.

Almost 9 out of 10 of us believe that we need to talk more about death and dying, according to our recent Cost of Death Report. Fortunately, more than 85% of us are actually comfortable talking about our own deaths.

So let’s start the conversation. Here’s why these discussions are so important, the different decisions we can make about our funerals, how to prepare for them, and who is ultimately responsible for them.

Why we need to have conversations about death

Right now, the vast majority of Kiwis believe there simply aren’t enough conversations being had about death and dying. At the same time, we believe that there are several important reasons why we should all be talking about passing away.

The first and biggest reason, with 82.9% of us citing it from our Cost of Death Report, is that death is natural and should not be a taboo subject. When a subject is taboo, it creates connotations with something being hidden, shameful, or unpleasant. And even though death is certainly unwelcome, creating a taboo around it makes a difficult time even harder as it isn’t cushioned by a deep understanding of it being a natural process.

The next biggest reason that we should be having these conversations is to ensure that our wishes are met, with 67.8% of us believing that this is an important factor. This is an especially important reason as even if you don’t have any particular wishes in mind for your funeral, it can add to the stress of decision making for grieving families. If there is no discussion beforehand, it can leave families trying to guess what you would have liked and researching options rather than taking that time to grieve and be together.

Finally, 56.9% of us think that another major reason we need to talk more about death is because it helps us come to terms with our own mortality. Throughout life, talking with loved ones about tough times and difficult problems can ease the burden of keeping those thoughts all to yourself, and it’s no different when that topic is death. Chatting about it with family or close friends can help you feel connected and understood in your feelings, and perhaps even more at peace with the inevitable.

Other cited reasons from the report include being able to grieve more easily if the subject had been broached prior to death, and to minimise the financial burden following a passing.

Different ways of having a funeral

Kiwis’ attitudes towards funerals are changing, and it’s affecting almost every aspect of having a funeral.

One of the biggest decisions is whether to have a burial or a cremation, and more New Zealanders are choosing cremations. More than two in three of our survey respondents (67.3%) said they would prefer to be cremated, and just 18.3% said they would prefer to be buried. Roughly one in 10 weren’t sure or didn’t have a preference.

For some, the preference for cremation was due to the cost, while others preferred the more eco-friendly aspect of cremation. Others cited there not being much room left for burials, or for there to be no need for family to visit and maintain a gravesite.

On the other hand, those that preferred to be buried did so because they would be buried with a loved one, or so there is a dedicated place where their family can visit and remember them. Others again said they simply didn’t like the idea of cremation.

Additionally, there are new modern trends appearing for funerals. Just over half of survey respondents (54.5%) said they would like guests not to wear black at their funerals, almost a third (29.2%) wanted an eco-friendly funeral, and one in five (19.1%) wanted an at-home funeral.

These new trends are offering Kiwis more ideas and options to personalise their funerals and take control over their passing in new ways. From viewing a funeral as more of a celebration of a life well lived than a time for mourning, to taking the opportunity to be kind to the environment, Kiwis are embracing different ways of having a funeral more than ever before.

What you can do to prepare for a funeral

The first thing you need to do to prepare for your own funeral is to simply think about what you want. The majority of our survey respondents – a massive 78.2% - had not yet shared their wishes with family, and over a third of those said it was because they didn’t know what they wanted yet.

You will need to make decisions on:

  • burial or cremation
  • where you would like to be buried/where you would like your ashes to go 
  • if you would like a tangi 
  • whether you would like a green funeral 
  • your wishes for a memorial service
  • whether you would like a religious ceremony or not
  • any important cultural elements
  • if you have any special requests (such as a themed funeral, or for guests not to wear black)
  • songs or hymns to be played, poems or prayers to be read
  • who the pallbearers will be, if you are being buried
  • how you plan to pay for your funeral. 

Even if you do not have any specific wishes for your funeral, it is best to make that clear, or at least make one or two key decisions to help give your family some guidance so they aren’t left with all the decision-making themselves.

Most of our survey respondents said they thought their families were aware of their wishes. More than seven in ten had advised their family verbally, and one in five had given verbal and written instructions.

Who is responsible for planning your funeral?

While you are responsible for making decisions and sharing your wishes, there is, by design, only so much you can do.

It is a good idea to include all of your wishes in your will so they are locked in, and have a dedicated power of attorney to see it through. You can also name one or two close family members to help figure out the minor details, which may help to ensure there aren’t too many people trying to make plans and spoiling the stew, so to speak.

You can speak to a funeral director about your plans and even about how it will be paid for. Options include pre-paying for your funeral, having insurance such as funeral insurance and/or setting aside savings to cover the costs (partially or fully) of your chosen farewell. All of these things will greatly ease the responsibility on your loved ones at a difficult time.