16 Nov 2023

DIY funeral: How does it work and could it save you money?

From Checkpoint, 5:22 pm on 16 November 2023
A modern wooden coffin at a funeral being lowered into a grave with a lowering mechanism a dirt and grass background.

Photo: 123RF

Death and taxes are said to be the two certainties in life, and both could cost you big time.

A report from the Funeral Directors Association shows a growing number of New Zealanders are choosing cremations over burials because of the cost of going into the ground. 

Last year, 69 percent of people were cremated versus 27 percent buried (the other 4 percent simply listed as 'unknown').

According to the association, the average cost of a "very" modest funeral and burial is $10,000 but cremation only $7500. 

The cost of council cemetery plot went up anywhere from 9 to 20 percent last year, with the biggest hikes in Nelson and Auckland.   

So is it possible to go out on the cheap? And what does that look like?

Frances Potter from DIY Funerals thinks people spend far too much on elaborate ceremonies centred around what is essentially a "shell". 

"I feel that there's a great deal of false piety in the funeral industry, you know?" she told Checkpoint on Thursday.

"These kind of hushed tones and you've got to have something in shiny mahogany or whatever in order to show respect. And I think, unfortunately, some communities are particularly prone to that… like a big ceremony and a big fuss made of the body. And honestly, you know, it's costing them a fortune…

"My own personal belief is, you know, we are spirits in a body. Once you die, your vehicle is gone. You know, the part of you that is you is elsewhere. You are just dealing with the shell. So I don't really know where all this stuff comes from that you've got to make a huge expense over a dead body when really there is nothing of the person left there."

Casket cost-cutting

Almost three-quarters of funerals in New Zealand at present were 'traditional' in that they involve a casket - costing potentially thousands of dollars - even though most bodies were cremated. Many people hosting DIY funerals could significantly cut their costs by forgoing a pricey coffin, Potter said. 

"You're making a box, right? It's a box of some kind that's got to be holding a body. It's got to be strong enough to carry a body. 

funeral, generic, coffin, death

The average cost of a "very" modest funeral and burial is $10,000, but cremation only $7500.  Photo: 123RF

"I think practically speaking, the most practical materials you can use is something like plywood or MDF. MDF is quite heavy, plywood is lighter but, you know, you can get plywood, a full-size sheet of plywood for 60 bucks down at Mitre 10. A couple of those cut up into a rectangular box, which is perfectly legal and you know, perfectly adequate.

"A rectangular box is fine. It does not have to be that traditional six-sided shape, obviously. That's just traditional because it's you, you can get more boxes out of a sheet of wood if you make them with that tapered shape.

"But for the average person, you know, the basic joinery with rectangular panels is quite feasible for anybody who's got basic carpentry skills."

Line it with plastic to prevent leaks and it meets all the legal requirements for burial, she said. 


Bodies did not need to be transported via hearse either, she said - a ute or a van would do just fine. 

"Obviously, the body can't be seen. You can't just sort of roll it in a sheet or a tap or something and throw it on the back of the ute. You know, discretion, discretion is wise. 

"But basically, as long as it is in a container of some kind, you can transport it, you know, in your own vehicle. Anyone can do it. I have actually been told that you can get a coffin in a Ford Festiva. I don't know if that is true from personal experience. But you know, most vehicles - a station wagon is ideal, a van obviously… whatever you have to hand."


The most difficult part of a DIY funeral was the planning, Potter said - being basically impossible to pull off without some serious preparation - and not literally doing it entirely by yourself.

"There's a dead body, you know. The first thing you are going to do is sort of reach for a known name. Who do we call? Oh, a funeral director.

"You have to think ahead if you're going to try and do it yourself. Obviously you don't want to be figuring it out and doing the research when you've got a dead body there, you know, mum's died at home or something. You want to think about it ahead, basically… 

"You can save the cost but in order to do it yourself, make no mistake, you've got to have support - you can't do it all yourself. You've got to have people who are going to let other people know who are going to organise the venue. You've got to have somebody who's ideally already made the coffin for you. You're going to have to have people to carry it physically, pick it up. You're going to have to have people around you who can, are willing to dress the body. House it somewhere like, you know, whose house is it going to be in? How do you keep it cool? 

"All that sort of thing, that's gonna all require manpower."

Talking about death should not be a taboo, Potter said - and refusing to pay through the nose for an expensive funeral should not be seen as disrespecting the deceased.

"I think maybe some of it's guilt. Some of it is perhaps making up for the fact that you weren't nice enough to them when they were alive or something like that. But there's a lot of stuff there that doesn't need to be there."