Living Legacies was established in 2001 by Lynda Hannah, a counsellor, environmental activist, writer, and mother. The company was founded to offer a natural alternative to the existing funeral industry, and a source of information and education about people’s rights and responsibilities around death, because we believe that dying shouldn’t cost the Earth.
How it came about….
I created Living Legacies to meet a need I perceived in the community, and also to do what I can for the conservation of this beautiful and unique country.
One route to Living Legacies was through environmental activism. I am often appalled at the way in which we humans live our lives. We have become a race of consumers and wasters. There is very strong pressure in our culture, and others, to conform, to consume and not to care about the consequences. Gradually the concept of recycling was born to reverse this and it’s doing well, but we still have a very long way to go. Our landfills are still filling up far faster than they would if we all recycled, reused and reduced our rubbish. We are still buying products we don’t need at prices we can’t afford, to feed the illusion of immortality. Until 2002 Timberlands was still logging our native forests on the west coast. It’s irresponsible enough to chop down a 700 year old Rimu tree to make a profit by selling furniture, but to use that timber for a coffin which will be destroyed within a week is unspeakably selfish.
Economic necessity demands that I earn a living to support my family. Personal choice requires that I build an ecologically sustainable business because my conscience wouldn’t allow me to be in business just to make money. Life is to precious for that. I needed to know that I was doing something valuable for the planet and for my community. So this is a business, not a charitable trust, and I intend not only supporting my family by it, but also, more importantly, demonstrating to my children that it’s possible to do it, go for it, whatever you want to do, no buts, no excuses. For me that means running an ecologically and economically sustainable business.
There are personal motives behind Living Legacies too. Four years ago I nearly lost my daughter. I watched her in the Intensive Care Unit for 24 hours, plugged into all manner of machinery, pumps and drips. Since then I have become acutely aware of many young people in our area dying unnecessarily, sometimes on the roads, some by their own hand, some of life-threatening illnesses. We all know that it is the natural order of things that we die, and we accept it in the very old, even though it’s still hard to say good bye. But when high numbers of young people die of unnatural causes it’s much more difficult to take. Recently my daughter attended the funerals of two teenage boys who died in a car crash. Earlier in the year there was another, which I helped with the catering for. In the last few years my family has been touched by death to a degree that I’ve personally never experienced before, and Living Legacies is a response to that.
I realised that I did not know enough about the subject and that when I needed to know, it would be too late to find out. So I started researching the funeral industry and what I found didn’t impress me:
- I found the cost of most funerals to be too high for those on low incomes. We all know that death is the great leveller; it affects us all, rich or poor. But those on benefits and low incomes have to pay the same amount as the rich and that’s not always possible. There is a WINZ grant available to those who need it but it’s only $1203.52, which doesn’t even come close to the total cost of most funerals. Grief is certainly complicated when a family is left with a $5000 debt to pay off over the next 3 years, instead of their 17 year old son who was just about to start earning and launching into his own career.
- I also found a great deal of misinformation on the subject; people generally don’t know their rights and responsibilities around death, they may not want to ask, and they don’t know who to ask. They will also get different answers according to whom they ask. Even the Ministry of Health, which is responsible for administering the Burials and Cremation Act 1964, and the local councils often have to find out what their own rules and regulations are. So accurate information is very difficult to get.
- I discovered that the range of choice and available options was far lower in NZ than many countries overseas. For example, in Britain people can be legally buried on private land. Six years ago the first woodland burial ground opened there, so they also have the option of a tree being planted on the grave instead of a tombstone. The body nurtures the tree until it becomes a forest. There are now about 130 woodland burial grounds in the UK, and they are also happening in the USA. Every country has it’s own rules, rituals and resources around the “disposition of human remains”. New Zealanders have fewer options because no-one has asked the right questions previously, so no-one has broadened the possibilities.
- I found that more than 20 funeral homes in NZ are owned by a large American funeral conglomerate and that prices of funerals are rising substantially. Having read “The American Way of Death” by Jessica Mitford, I became very aware that we must not allow the same abuses of consumer rights to happen in this country as happen in the USA. I also believe that all commercial profit should stay in the country, not just from the funeral industry but from every industry.
- I discovered that the majority of coffins used in NZ are made of chipboard or MDF, with the toxic glues which hold them together being released into the atmosphere when cremated, or leaching into the soil when buried. The funeral salesperson naturally has a preference for the hardwood timber coffins at the top end of the range. These can be oak, mahogany, beech or rimu. They all took hundreds of years to grow, supported many ecosystems in their branches and root systems, and were chopped down and exploited for profit.
I have been involved in peace groups, women’s groups, and environmental groups, all of which are trying to improve this world for its occupants in whatever way possible. I offer Living Legacies as another means to do this. It doesn’t claim to have all the answers but I believe it will help. It may be only a small step in the grand scheme of things but it’s a step in the right direction…
~ Lynda Hannah, Founder of Living Legacies