Problems with the current legislative scheme for burial and cremation
Lack of recognition of diversity of needs
11.2Our terms of reference ask us explicitly to consider whether the Burial and Cremation Act 1964 (the Act) is meeting public expectations and needs in a number of ways, including:
- the provision of culturally appropriate options for burial or cremation;
- responsiveness to individual or group requirements (for example, environmentally friendly burials);
- the suitability of religious affiliation as the sole criterion for the establishment of burial grounds; and
- the responsiveness of the Act to the beliefs, customs and practices of Māori.
11.3As mentioned previously, the main thrust of the burial provisions of the Act is that cemeteries should be provided by local government. This means that groups that wish to adopt particular burial customs or practices must work with local authorities to have those customs and practices accommodated.
11.4Everyone has a right to practise their faith and to enjoy their culture, profess and practise their religion and use the language of any ethnic, religious or linguistic minority they belong to. The Act only goes part way towards requiring local authorities to recognise those rights. For example, the Act provides that every cemetery shall be open for the interment of all deceased persons to be buried with such religious or other ceremony, or without any ceremony as the friends of the deceased think proper. It gives local authorities the power to set aside portions of a public cemetery for the exclusive use of religious denominational groups and provides that those religious groups may apply to the Minister for permission to establish their own cemeteries.
11.5There are examples throughout New Zealand of local authorities responding pro-actively and positively to requests from different groups for accommodation of their beliefs and practices relating to burial, but the general picture is very inconsistent. Two positive examples were revealed in our consultation:
- Representatives of the Muslim community have entered into agreements with some cemetery managers to allow burial according to their beliefs within public cemeteries. This involves burial within 24 hours of death, alternatives to a coffin and mourners actively assisting with all aspects of the burial.
- Wellington City Council has entered a partnership with Natural Burials New Zealand Limited to establish a natural burial area within the council-owned Makara Cemetery.
11.6However, the current statutory provisions are very limited:
- The Act specifically requires councils to recognise requests from “religious denominations” but not from ethnic groups or those with other beliefs, such as those who wish to have a natural burial, yet we have found that there is an increasing diversity in the ethnic, cultural and religious needs of New Zealand society in relation to burial.
- While the Act specifically permits local authorities to set aside separate denominational areas, they are under no obligation to do so, and there are no guidelines in place governing the exercise of this discretion. Our local authority survey showed inconsistency in how councils are responding to these requests. The difficulty for local authorities is that requests for separate areas complicates cemetery management, increases maintenance costs and makes it more difficult to project future capacity.
11.7The Ministry of Health has only approved six new denominational burial grounds since 1995. This may indicate either that groups feel their needs can be accommodated adequately within existing public cemeteries or that the cost and complexity of establishing a denominational burial ground under the current provisions are simply too great for most religious groups to contemplate.
11.8We have concluded that, while some local authorities appear to be proactively accommodating requests to accommodate particular ethnic, cultural or other beliefs, the experience is patchy.