Auckland , New Zealand

Last Words: Cultural Approaches to Death and Dying

Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand (FDANZ)

May 18, 2009

Acknowledging diverse cultural values, beliefs and practices.

“…in looking at the diverse approaches to death in our country, we learn not only about each other but also about ourselves.” (Joris de Bres, 2005)

Mariam is a young, Christian Ethiopian refugee, working behind a Wellington shop counter. When her brotherin Ethiopia died, she wanted to do what is the cultural norm back home – shave her head as a sign of respect and mourning. But she feared her boss would not understand and she would lose her job. Encouraged by her refugee counsellor to broach the subject with her employer, Mariam was surprised to meet a respectful response. Mariam shaved her head, and her boss agreed that she could wear a beanie or scarf when serving if that made her feel more comfortable.

This story, recorded in Last Words and featured in national publications like the New Zealand Herald, illustrates how communicating with others about cultural values, beliefs and practice is critical to living in an integrated community, especially perhaps in times of grief.

About Last Words

Last Words is a 200 page publication commissioned by the Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand (FDANZ) and published in 2005. Based on a 1987 publication by the Ministry of Health, Last Words recognizes and helps plan for the ways in which different groups in New Zealand approach death. It is intended for those who work with the dying and the bereaved as well as those wanting to care for, support and understand friends, neighbours and colleagues as they approach death or deal with its aftermath.

Endorsed by the New Zealand Race Relations Commissioner, Joris de Bres, the resource “offers insights into the beliefs and practices likely to be important to different groups of New Zealanders – particular foods or remedies, the comfort of familiar prayers and rituals, the presence of wider family and community members, ceremonies to say farewell or to dispose of the physical remains of the deceased.”

The handbook describes 32 separate ethnic, cultural and/or religious approaches to death and dying, based on the traditions of the most populous sub-groups in New Zealand. Accounts are largely based on interviews and personal experiences that provide insight rather than definitive statements and these perspectives are written in the context of immigration to New Zealand. However, Last Words is careful to recognise that even among distinct groups, there is great diversity in how death is marked: “Things aren’t fixed,” says author, Margot Schwass. “You can’t fill out a checklist and say, if you’re a nurse with a Muslim man dying in bed three, ‘I’ve got to do this, this and this.’ It’s not going to be as cut-and-dried as that.”

Recognition that migration has intersected with culture and religion to create changes in practices is also illustrated. For example, ongoing cultural migration amongst Chinese New Zealanders has revived an old tradition of throwing rice into the grave, ” a tradition that had been lost but is being revived by new migrants coming in,” says Ms Schwass.

The Impact

To engage with dying and death in a manner that is appropriate and familiar, and respecting of ethnic, cultural and religious beliefs and practices helps to bridge an emotional time. It also acknowledges the relevance of such beliefs and practices in often vastly different spaces from where they originated. Acknowledgement and understanding are often not enough and, as Dr Rod Macleod of the University of Auckland writes, planning, preparation and practice are crucial: “…to get it right we must ask what to do and how to help, … we must ensure that social and cultural aspects of life and death are identified, embraced and understood by health professionals so that the needs of patients, and their families, are met as they approach death. Planning and preparation will ensure that practitioners understand different cultural perceptions of dying and death and respect patients’ belief systems and cultural norms.”

Having a wide range of approaches to death and dying documented has resulted in a well-used resource for those working in the caregiving and funeral sectors. As FDANZ President Neil Little of Davis Funerals in Auckland explains, qualifications within the funeral profession are gained post-employment, which means initial training is largely provided within funeral homes. “Many funeral homes put together their own training programs and supplement them with whatever resources are available,” he says. “Last Words has provided an invaluable education tool for people coming in to the funeral profession and is an excellent source of knowledge around a number of cultures and faiths. Furthermore it has been of benefit to some of our colleagues in rest homes and private hospitals, as well as funeral celebrants and the clergy. Many FDANZ members provide death education in their communities and this publication has been useful in this area also.”

Making it Work for You:

  • Rituals around birth, marriage, death and burial need to be recognized and acknowledged for intercultural understanding.
  • Be careful not to generalize and be aware that there will be differences in practice within cultures and faiths
  • Ensure that the information in a "diversity" resource or handbook has been collected in a reliable way from local people and reflects their real practices. Culture, like local practice, is not static but responds to and is influenced by environmental context and over time.
  • A published guide provides information but is not an alternative to communication. Always ask what to do and how to help - there will be widespread variations in practices and customs.
  • Review and update cultural guides regularly. Culture and practice evolve and resource guides need to, too.

For this Good Idea contact:

Neil Little
Davis Funeral Services
400 Dominion Road
Auckland, New Zealand,

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