Kiwi ways of dying, Abby Letteri

Last Words: Approaches to Death in New Zealand’s Cultures and Faiths
ed Margot Schwass
Bridget Williams Books, $29.99,
ISBN 1877242349

The primary school my daughter attends has one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse populations in the New Zealand State school system. Children from war-ravaged countries such as Somalia, Sri Lanka and Iraq attend classes beside children whose parents were born in India, Tuvalu and the Cook Islands. Girls wearing headscarves play games at lunchtime with Maori boys. They chase the raven-haired children of Greek immigrants and have obstacle races with my American-born daughter. As I watch their play, I am aware that many of these children will have lost almost everything that underpins their sense of security and identity: they may have lost their homes, their countries and one or many family members.

Last Words: Approaches to Death in New Zealand’s Cultures and Faiths, compiled by Margot Schwass, explores not only the universal dimensions of its subject, but also the diverse customs and beliefs held by members of an increasingly multicultural society. The text is largely based on interviews with people from many of New Zealand’s cultures and faiths, with significant contributions from members of a wide range of new migrant communities.

According to Schwass, “If too many people currently die in pain, in places they do not wish to be, and without the comfort and peace they wish for, then we need to change the way we think about death.” She suggests that there would be value in talking more openly about death and dying in schools, and to look more closely at cultures in which the burden of death “is borne by the wider group rather than the individual alone.” Yet there are often taboos and proscriptive practices surrounding the experience of death, which complicate any meaningful cross-cultural dialogue. For instance, an elderly Chinese person may find any talk of death abhorrent, while the attending physician may feel a moral imperative to inform the patient, however gently, of the certainty of a terminal diagnosis. In this case, the family, who are often the sole translators for the dying person, will make every effort to avoid any mention of disease, let alone death, frustrating the objectives of the good doctor.

Commissioned by the Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand, Last Words builds on the foundation of an earlier compilation, The Undiscover’d Country. Typewritten and staple-bound, The Undiscover’d Country (prepared by the Department of Health in 1987) included only 16 cultural and ethnic groups: the main Christian faiths (Anglican, Protestant and Catholic) and several Pacific Island and Southeast Asian perspectives. There were no essays on the universal nature of death, or on the migrant experience, although The Undiscover’d Country included Paratene Ngata’s essay, “Death, Dying and Grief: Maori Perspectives”. This essay also appears in an updated form in Last Words.

“Facing Death”, the first of four essays included in Last Words, and one of two written by Schwass herself, is concise, yet deeply and carefully considered. It looks at the way New Zealanders encounter death, at current medical practices, at the hospice movement, and at the impact of various cultural approaches to an inherently personal experience.

In his updated version of “Death, Dying and Grief: Maori Perspectives”, Paratene Ngata discusses traditional Maori tikanga. The essay is followed by short conversations with three young Maori, who underscore the range of differences in present-day Maori approaches to death, and impart a sense of the vibrancy of contemporary spiritual values that lift the clinical nature of dying into a far more humane and compassionate realm. Indeed, writes Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres in his introduction to Last Words, “the multiplicity of Maori perspectives serves to illustrate the diversity within and across every culture and faith.”

Last Words concludes with a short essay on grief by Tricia Irving of the Skylight organisation. Also included are appendices covering legal requirements, the role of the funeral director, police, emergency services and coroner, a list of related organisations and a bibliography for further reading.

Schwass’s “Migrant Communities in New Zealand” sits in the middle of the volume and introduces the reference section. “On Cultures and Faiths” provides brief overviews of the beliefs and practices related to death of 32 distinct ethnic or faith-based groups, from Anglican to the Horn of Africa (a section which covers several refugee communities including Ethiopian, Somalian and Sudanese). The list for inclusion in Last Words was based on 2001 census data, and effectively doubles what was offered in The Undiscover’d Country.

Schwass observes that “nearly one in five New Zealanders was born overseas” and asks, “If we are an immigrant nation, what is our national identity? Is it the collective expression of all New Zealanders, regardless of ethnic origins?” With these questions, and her subsequent discussion of cultural variation and “the recognition that [the migrant] presence enlarges us as a people”, Last Words takes its place in a growing discourse on multiculturalism. Schwass deftly points out the differences between migrant and refugee communities, and those of established or indigenous communities. She also highlights the adaptations that occur as second- and third-generation migrants blend traditions, and individuals add infinite variety to the way that we experience our lives and our deaths.

The essay on migrant communities provides not only a succinct history of immigration, but also documents contemporary shifts in social attitudes and expectations as new migrant communities make demands on health care, the bereavement industry and other social services. Most important, perhaps, is Schwass’s discussion of the differences between the experiences of migrants and refugees. A migrant comes by choice, and may have advantages such as a grasp of the language or an offer of employment. Nonetheless, migrants face enormous challenges and often feel a sense of dislocation, a groundlessness based in loss and grief for what is left behind: “Refugees face all these challenges and more. By definition, a refugee has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinions or membership of a particular social group.” Affectingly, Schwass quotes from Kapka Kassabova’s poem “The Immigrant Cycle”:

We came looking for paradise and paradise
we found, but it wasn’t enough
so we wept and talked about leaving
and never left.


Last Words speaks to the impact of loss on the most vulnerable among us. It is a timely reference book and should be widely read, and not only by those working in the bereavement area. Anyone who provides pastoral
care to migrant communities will find Last Words an indispensable guide to the many ways we experience loss, death and grief. It is a valuable resource not only on dealing with death and dying, but also “on living with cultural diversity in New Zealand”.

Dr Jonathan Adler, a palliative care specialist at Wellington Hospital recently remarked, “Loss is as profound a shaper of our lives as is love.” How any individual deals with loss, whether or not that loss is the death of a loved one, or simply the rootless dislocation of life in a new land and its attendant anguish (such as grief for a pet or a beloved object left behind), is determined not only by society, culture and faith, but by individual spirit. How we support one another in the face of loss may be one of the best measures of the moral fitness of our society.


Abby Letteri is a Wellington writer and editor.


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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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