Death and the institution

by Rachael Dexter | @rachdexter64

The modern death process is clinical, corporate and incredibly profitable.

An exhausted son sits by the body of his father. The room is light, warm. He spends the first day crying, talking in murmurs, whispering forgivenesses and memories. The next day he sleeps curled up next to his dad, perched on the side of the bed.

Four days are spent like this: grieving, sleeping, being. Only on the fifth day do the tears stop. He opens the window, breathes in and is ready to say goodbye.

Slow, intimate, simple and family led. It’s the way most people want to say goodbye to their loved ones. Only two generations ago, most Australian families cared for the dead with their own hands. Today it’s a different story.

The modern death process is clinical, corporate and incredibly profitable. According to market research company IBIS World, the Australian funeral industry makes over $1bn each year, and it’s not hard to see why. On top of cars, houses and weddings, we don’t often consider the other life expense ironically awaiting us after death.

Funerals, hearses, undertakers, embalming, tributes, flowers; the avenues to posthumously spend our money are endless. With the average cost of a funeral nearing $10,000 and Australia’s death rate expected to double over the next 20 years, the business of death is spruiked to shareholders as a no-brainer investment.

Yet there is a push back. Baby boomers are now hitting their twilight years, and some determined folk are rejecting the commercialisation of death and reclaiming it as their own.

“It’s not like the funeral industry has been an industry for very long,” Jenny Briscoe-Hough says.

Jenny is the manager of the Port Kembla Community Centre. Her mother passed away six years ago and her family did as much as they could: arranging flowers, making memorial cards, washing, dressing and caring for the body.

But the funeral still cost $10,000.

This was the catalyst for Jenny and the Port Kembla team to start something unusual in regional NSW. For the past five years they’ve been preparing to open a completely community based, non-profit funeral service – a journey documented in the 2013 documentary Tender.

During the process, Jenny realised Australia’s ignorance of death care often leads to monetary exploitation. The same warning also surfaced in a recent Grattan Institute report.

The report, Dying Well, warns poor planning, misinformation and reluctance to talk about death puts families through unfavourable and sometimes exploitative funeral experiences.

Sascha Andrusiak from Melbourne had the stock-standard encounter with a corporate funeral director just last year.  While happy with the overall service provided for her grandmother’s funeral, she still described it as “incredibly overpriced”.

A simple two hour ceremony and burial on the Mornington Peninsula totalled up at $13,000.

“They hit you with a million decisions worth loads of money and you don’t have a lot of time,” she says.

Surging costs often result from a lack of inclusive fees. According to consumer affairs body Choice, initial quotes for funeral director fees fluctuate between $450 to $2750.

Then comes the coffin or casket. The price of a simple cardboard coffin hovers around $700 but soars to over $9,000 for lavish, hardwood caskets. Transport? Anything from $129 – $1995. None of these prices include the actual disposal of the body either: cremation starts from $500 and burial can cost anywhere from $1000 to more than $10,000 (not including the fee to dig the plot). Sascha was also charged $900 more to hold the service on a Saturday.

“They hit you with a million decisions worth loads of money and you don’t have a lot of time,” she says.

“Because you’re so overwhelmed with grief your bargaining capability is poor, also you can feel as though you are being cheap if you consider bargaining over the cost of saying goodbye to your loved one.”

In very few other situations would such a large transaction happen in a time of such emotional trauma. But despite this, being part of the process was cathartic for Sascha, who cherished the process of collecting photos and memories.

“I cried continually as I saw her life laid out in front of me like a beautiful bittersweet melody,” she says.

This is why so many want to reclaim death from strangers, to slow the process down and embrace the fundamentally human experience.

In Australia, we tend to do things quickly. Funerals usually happen within 10 days, delaying only for relatives to arrive from overseas or exams to finish. But there are no laws governing how quickly a body must be disposed of.

“No one really tells you that you can take your time,” says Lynsey Ward, who lost her brother seven years ago to suicide. Unexpected deaths cause especially traumatic funeral processes and Lynsey, like many other Australians, assumed a funeral had to be planned just days after his death.

“I probably would have liked some more time to process what the fuck just happened, and then deal with the organisation of saying goodbye to someone I loved so much,” Lynsey says.

“Our experience when someone dies is this: someone comes and gets them and then they disappear,” says Jenny, who wants Tender Funerals to focus on end of life care at home.

She says many people are left alone in the grief process if they are not able to physically participate in the experience.

“If that body disappears the next time you see them… it’s in a box, then they’ve gone, and then the funeral’s over and everyone goes away,” says Jenny.

“You’re just beginning your [grieving] process there”.

Death is more institutionalised in Australia than any other country, according to Dying Well. While 70 per cent of people want to die at home or in home-like settings, only 14 per cent currently fulfill their wish.

This puts Australia well behind Ireland, the US, the UK and France where around 30 per cent die at home. While the report highlighted a dearth of funding for community and home death care, it also revealed social taboos around death talk contributed to the rate.

“People need to empower themselves, the funeral directors aren’t all to blame,” says founder Zenith Virago.

The Natural Death Care Centre (NDCC) is a not-for-profit organisation on a mission to start those discussions and educate the public on their rights and options for end of life care.

“People need to empower themselves, the funeral directors aren’t all to blame,” says founder Zenith Virago.

NDCC educates on the practicalities of dealing with a corpse. It’s not commonly known that in NSW, funerals can legally be a DIY affair. You can build a coffin, file the paperwork, store the body, run a ceremony and drive your own vehicle to the cemetery or crematorium. You can even bury the body in your own backyard with permission from local council.

Confronting as it may sound, Jenny says people often do want to be more involved in the body care process.  She says it helped her grieving process to care for the bodies of her family and friends.

“If you have your hands on the dead body of a person you love, your body gets to know that they’ve gone,” she says.

“If you take away the mystery, then suddenly it becomes okay – just a normal thing to do.”

She says fear of talking about death or dealing with the dead means we outsource it to the professionals.

“And there’s a huge money making opportunity because it’s mysterious,” Jenny says.

While there are dozens of small, family funeral businesses in Australia, an international behemoth dominates the market.

Over 50 household funeral brands including Le Pine, White Lady and Simplicity are owned by Invocare Ltd, a multinational company turning over $250 million in revenue annually.

Currently, one in five people are buried or cremated to the profit of Invocare.

Their gross sales hit $413.0 million in 2014, with 250 funeral homes in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, and soon America. The 7.2 per cent increase on the year before was put down to an increase in deaths, good news for investors.

Death is the ultimate defensive stock, and the increased death rate in 2013-2014 meant the 7.2 per cent jump in sales was music to investors’ ears.

The company deceptively goes by many different brand names and shop fronts offering the same services and facilities at varying prices.

In a 2011 review, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission found no problems of formal anti-competitiveness. Yet the commission did flag concerns some consumers would not be able to identify brands owned by the same company.

Kathryn Hodges, who runs a Victorian based charity funeral service, says this is often why people agree to exorbitantly priced funerals.

“They are ringing three different places to get a quote, but in actual fact they are ringing one company with lots of brands who have streamlined their costs,” she says.

Currently, one in five people are buried or cremated to the profit of Invocare.

Kathy’s service, Bereave Assist, now performs 500 free or low cost funerals per year to victims of crime, ethnic or indigenous communities, social security recipients and  people with simply no family or friends.

But not all those who use the service need the financial help. Kathy says many people like the idea the profit made from standard fees goes toward paying for funerals for the needy, rather than shareholders and big business.

Bereave Assist’s standard fees are, on average, a third of the price of the corporates.

“People ring us and say ‘I don’t understand’, they think they are going to get something that is less [quality] because our cost is so much cheaper,” she says.

“They ask ‘what’s the catch’ and we say ‘there’s no catch, we’re not designed to make a profit, we’re here for a community service’.”
Yet, profit is the reality of the commercial sector and Zenith Virago says many people are satisfied with the corporate services currently available.

“My experience is people don’t mind paying for a service, but they don’t want to be ripped off,” Virago says.

She recommends approaching a funeral director like you would any other service provider.

“If you went to a travel agent and they were bossy and controlling and they said ‘This is the only holiday we’ve got available and we think you should go’, then people wouldn’t stand for it.”

Jenny also says that there are “a lot of good and lovely people working in the funeral industry”, but is wary of big corporations buying up brands and cemeteries.

The Port Kembla Community centre is still in the process of raising $200,000 to cover the start-up costs of a morgue, funeral director and a hearse with hopes to open in 2016.

The resounding advice from many DIY and not-for-profit advocates is simply to slow down embrace the process of death.

“Death puts you right at the centre of life, you’re never more alive than when you’re at that edge, you’re suddenly completely awake, you know?” Jenny says.

“It’s such an extraordinary stage to be in and I just think, ‘Why would you miss it? Why would we miss it letting someone tell us how we’re gonna do it?”

“Why not be in it?”

Photo by Rachael Dexter

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