17 May 2021

Funerals: Behind the scenes with a funeral director

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 2:45 pm on 17 May 2021

Shows like Six Feet Under and New Zealand's homegrown reality show, The Casketeers, have taken us behind the scenes of funerals. But what is it like when the cameras go off?

Funeral director Nigel Rowland from the Wilson Funeral Home first looked into the job as a 16-year-old at school. Now with 26 years in the industry, he estimates he does 100 funerals a year.

"In a nutshell I think what we do is we manage a very specific event...making sure things go well so that the families have the opportunity to farewell a loved one and also honour their life and celebrate their life as it should be."

funeral, generic, coffin, death

Photo: 123RF

Funerals aren't always sad, Rowland says.

"When you've got a person who's naturally come to the end of their life, which in my opinion is very natural, it's always a celebration of that person's life. It's a very long life well lived."

Rowland says his grandfather is a classic example, dying at the age of 92.

"As you can imagine, someone of that age who'd been through wars and built houses and lived through tough times, and it was a great way to honour his life and celebrate what he had done in those 92 years."

While families might often be nervous to ask, there are no unusual requests in funeral directing, he says.

When Rowland first started in the industry, embalming was very much the norm.

"But these days there's multiple different factors which make people chose otherwise, one would be eco. If someone is going to be buried in the natural section of the cemetery, they cannot be embalmed. If someone is not embalmed, we highly recommend that they're not viewed because we can't control mother nature."

Cultural aspects also come into play, as does if the person is being taken home.

"Sometimes if people have been through a very long illness, it's just nice to let that person rest rather than have them go through an invasive procedure."

In New Zealand, Rowland thinks about half of all funerals are open casket.

You can look at a casket a bit like a bottle of wine at a restaurant, Rowland says. "You can get it cheaper from Pak n' Save but you're paying for the pleasure of having that wine in that restaurant."

A standard casket is made from MDF, which breaks down in the earth. Rowland says you can also buy solid wood and steel caskets.

If someone has made their own casket, he says there are a few considerations for its use; it must be strong enough and able to be carried. Rope handles, despite being popular, don't work in reality.

About 65 percent of people choose to be cremated, Rowland says.

"Burial plots are getting more and more expensive from the city councils, also people these days I think have a bit more of a concern about taking up that valuable land, so they prefer cremation."

It's a relatively long process and can take about 3 hours for the burn to finish, he says.

Between each cremation, the cremator is sweep out thoroughly, and is clean before being used for the next person, Rowland says.

On average, in Wellington, a full funeral service with 100-200 people attending and everything down to catering and livestreaming, Rowland says you're looking at around $15,000 for a burial and $13,000 for a cremation.

He says there's a lot you can do yourself to cut back on costs like using flowers from your garden, finding people to make up some sandwiches rather than the caterer at $25 per person and posting the funeral notice to social media rather than in the newspaper.

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)