30 Mar 2020

Covid-19: Health Ministry announces new rules for funerals and tangihanga

5:50 pm on 30 March 2020

The Ministry of Health has announced new guidelines for funerals and tangihanga, allowing a restricted number of family members within the same bubble of the deceased to visit them in the funeral home.

Casket at a Wellington funeral home.

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

The old guidelines meant whānau who had lost loved ones had just three options: immediate burial, immediate cremation or refrigeration, and only one member of the whānau could visit the funeral home to facilitate arrangements.

Ministry of Health deputy director-general health Māori John Whaanga said following talks with funeral directors, iwi and Māori organisations, the guidelines had changed. However he said the rule change is only likely to be in relation to those deaths which are not related to Covid-19.

"Those within the bubble of the tūpāpaku [the deceased] will be able to be part of a funeral service at a funeral home, through negotiations with their funeral directors.

"Funeral directors will make key decisions around how many whānau members within the bubble might be able to participate safely. Funeral homes are the only place we are looking at because it is a controlled environment.

"By that stage, tūpāpaku will be embalmed and have protective casing around it. Funeral directors have also looked at having clear latex so that you would be able to see the tūpāpaku."

The burial must be undertaken at a local cemetery, Whaanga said.

"There are two fundamentals it has to operate within as set by the prime minister: We must remain in the domesticated bubble and we can't have interregional travel.

"None of this allows us to give the full expression of our tikanga and we know that. It is, nonetheless, an opportunity for us to bring a bit more humanity into our advice from last week."

He said the changes could be reconsidered if there was a large increase in community transmissions of Covid-19.

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Tipene Funerals was among several groups which recommended to the Ministry of Health it change the guidelines to allow two or more whānau members the opportunity to visit the deceased and grieve properly.

Director Francis Tipene said the old guidelines meant whānau did not have that opportunity.

"When we come to uplift your loved one from the place of death be it the home, the rest home or the hospital that's actually the last time you will see your loved one, so they're off to the crematorium or the burial without any family present so just getting around that situation is difficult.

"Even in our Pākehā culture you're allowed to go to the funeral for a viewing, one or two people, just to have that moment."

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He said allowing whānau members within the same bubble to visit the deceased might not be possible in a death relating to Covid-19.

"Anyone who dies from Covid-19 I totally understand it's probably going to be a close sealed casket and no one's allowed to be present. But if somebody dies of cancer, or heart problems, or any deaths that aren't Covid-19 deaths, then they are being restricted as well, so I think let's put strict measures in place so that these families can have time with their loved ones in a secure and hygienic premises.

"I'm sure you've got more of a chance to catch something at the local supermarket than you do bringing two family members into a funeral home."