21 Jun 2021

Regulation of funeral directors, 24hr death certificates among recommended changes

6:27 pm on 21 June 2021

The Burial and Cremation Act is one step closer to being overhauled after the Ministry of Health released a report detailing public submissions.

funeral, generic, coffin, death

Photo: 123RF

One recommendation was that a 24-hour time limit be imposed on the issuing of death certificates to reduce undue delays.

The ministry's director of health Caroline McElnay said there was strong support for stricter rules to remove delays in the death certification process.

"Death certification drew some of the strongest submissions with a majority of submitters agreeing bodies should be disposed of without undue delays - we are looking at introducing a 24 hour timeframe for death certificates in most cases; and expanding the pool of certifying practitioners," she said.

"There was also interest in the idea of auditing death certification to ensure information about how people die is accurate, but also doesn't cause delays for family and friends to farewell their loved ones."

The ministry acknowledged concerns around whether there were sufficient levels of medical practitioners available to ensure the 24-hour time limit was met.

New Zealand Medical Association argued the 24-hour time limit for death certification would be an inconvenience (excluding where required by cultural practices) both to doctors and families when someone dies on weekends or on public holidays.

One submitter noted that 24 hours was too long, especially for Māori.

Funeral Directors Association chief executive David Moger believed the time limit would help funeral directors and medical practitioners to be more efficient, allowing them to work together to a shared timeframe.

The report showed strong support for the establishment of a national register of funeral directors and a push for added transparency around funeral costs to help avoid consumer bill shock.

Moger welcomed the support for a national register but stressed that any system must be able to hold all practitioners to account.

The association's members currently account for processing approximately 75 percent of all registered deaths in New Zealand.

Moger said the association's standards offered a good level of protection to consumers but new businesses would enter the market as the death rate inevitably rose. Without a national register he feared they would not be held to a similar standard.

"It's important for us that we have a system that is workable, practical, not too expensive but also one that is effective and if people do not meet the requirements then we believe there should be sufficient teeth in the process to ensure that they are stopped," he said.

Moger was adamant the establishment of the national register must be cost efficient as any increased costs that were passed on to businesses were likely to fall to customers.

He recommended the Registrar General be responsible for establishing the national registration process.

Director of health Caroline McElnay said the legislation has to be suitable but also has to be adaptable to changing beliefs towards death in our country.

"We want the legislation to be fit for purpose now - but we want to ensure it's future proofed and can adapt to changing beliefs and attitudes towards death and how we care for our deceased in New Zealand," she said.

The current legislation only included the traditional methods of ground burial and fire cremation within the scope of body disposal methods.

However, the ministry received a number of submissions from organisations that pushed for new legislation to allow for the regulation of new methods of body disposal.

Many submissions focused on increasing the availability of environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional burial and cremation - these included composting, alkaline hydrolosis and natural burial.

Moger supported the regulation of new body disposal methods but said there was currently no framework in place to decide whether a method is appropriate for use in New Zealand or not.

McElnay said the submissions received in the review process would enable the ministry to begin work on updating the legislation.

It is expected some of the draft legislation will be ready and presented to Parliament by the end of the year.

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