Lifting the lid on funerals


CHOICE examines your funeral options, and the impact on your pocket and the planet.

Take control of your last rites


Navigating the funeral industry when dealing with a loved one's death can leave many of us vulnerable and confused with no comparative pricing and little idea of our rights and choices.

With CHOICE's help, you can avoid excessive costs while creating a sensitive or more sustainable send-off for your loved ones. 

Much of Australia's funeral industry is now traded on the stock exchange, with industry giant InvoCare dominating the field.

InvoCare's former chief executive officer Andrew Smith described pricing in the industry as "inelastic" – because only 15% of us are inclined to shop around when someone dies.

We're turning a blind eye to our end of life planning, with 86% of Australians over 50 not thinking about or making arrangements for their funeral. So it's little wonder that funeral homes have deftly taken the reins from families, creating a $1 billion industry with high profit margins.

However, there are other options, as Costco shoppers now know. Among the giant cheese wheels, toilet paper, Hershey's chocolate bars and Wagyu beef, Costco stores in Victoria and NSW now offer a selection of coffins.

Do we need the services of a funeral home?

When a person dies a doctor must sign a certificate that confirms the death and if there's anything questionable about the death it will be reported to the coroner. If the certificate is signed, government websites advise that a funeral director should be engaged by the executor of the will to collect the body for storage and preparation for the funeral. However, CHOICE could find no laws in Australia that said this was legally required.

Having the deceased at home

Libby Moloney of Natural Grace Funerals feels the body should be in the presence of loved ones from time of death through to the completion of their funeral ceremony.

It's a touching concept but the practical hurdles leap to mind. Like, how long can you keep a body unrefrigerated? One source told us the appropriate time frame is 24 hours. After that, we were told by a funeral director, "They leak, they purge."

However, Libby Moloney says that a portable cooler can keep the body below 5°C at home.

You can contract a funeral director to simply transport a person home and to the funeral if that is all you require. In NSW, once the body is in the care of a funeral home, laws are in place that dictate how the funeral home should care for the body. For instance, a funeral home must not let the body be unrefrigerated for more than eight hours.

The Natural Funeral Company in Adelaide will transport the body to the mortuary for storage, and then to the service site and the burial place for $1300.

Can you BYO coffin?

Coffins are a large component of funeral costs. The mark-up on coffins by funeral directors can be greater than 100%. Robert Larkins, a family law barrister, suggests it could be as high as 200-500% in his book Funeral Rights.

Costco and other outfits like Coffin World now sell coffins direct to the public. It's a move that has met with resistance by some funeral homes, but many are now accepting BYO coffins.

Issac Leung of Scientia supplies the Chinese and Italian-made coffins and caskets to Costco, priced from $360 to $3800, they're delivered in two days.

ACA Funeral Supplies have a range of Australian-made coffins, including a seagrass woven coffin with willow support and seagrass handles. They'll store the coffin for six months and deliver it.

Environmental coffin options

Some outfits call coffins made of MDF 'eco' but MDF has resin binders made of toxic formaldehyde. An FSC plantation timber coffin would be far more sustainable.

Other options include cardboard, wicker, seagrass and felted woollen coffins.

The Coffin Company offers the Eco Rental Casket with a separately sold cardboard inner. The casket is not buried or cremated with the deceased, and is returned to be re-used by another family. 

Burial in a shroud instead of a coffin requires an application to the relevant Chief Health Officer (NSW) or their delegates and must meet certain conditions.

Burial sites

Burial plots in metropolitan areas are very expensive and some in NSW, WA and SA now come with 25-year leases that can be renewed for up to 99 years. Plots in rural and regional cemeteries are much cheaper.

Can I be buried on private land?

You can apply to be buried on private property. In NSW, the property must be greater than five hectares, and it must not be liable to contaminate drinking water and needs to be approved by the local authority. In Victoria an application must be made to Secretary of the Health Department. In South Australia you'll also need approval from the council. Check specific regulations in your state.

What is a natural burial site?

There are approved natural burial sites in most states. These allow for burial without a coffin in a natural environment allowing nature to take its course. Pesticides and herbicides are not used and native vegetation is restored and protected. At Wirra Wonga Natural Burial Ground in Adelaide (owned by the state government) a tree or shrub will be planted on the grave.

At Wirra Wonga it costs $5000 for the grave digging, interment and 99-year licence.

Burial at sea

Burial at sea requires a permit and is very expensive. The site must be at least 3000 metres deep and not in an area of trawling or shipping. The body must be in a heavy shroud and not a coffin. 

Cremation

Cremations are significantly cheaper than funerals, especially in metropolitan areas where burial space is in short supply. Over two-thirds of Australian funerals involve cremation.

Read this before you contact a funeral home

If you're contracting the services of a funeral director it's important you know your rights before making that first phone call and it helps if you understand how the industry operates.

Funerals start from $4000 for a basic cremation to around $14,000 for a casket, burial and flowers, but, like a wedding, there's no end to the amounts that can be spent.

Typical items you'll pay for when arranging a funeral via a commercial service are:

  • Funeral director fees
  • Transport
  • Coffin
  • Death certificate
  • Permits
  • Burial/cremation
  • Cemetery plot
  • Other expenses, such as a celebrant or clergy, flowers, newspaper notices and the wake.

Buck the trend and shop around

Funeral directors tread a delicate pathway between providing a professional and sensitive service for the community, while also performing the role of salesperson charged with maximising profits for their company.

On first contact, a funeral director will suggest an 'arrangement' meeting in which the crucial decisions about the funeral are worked through – burial, cremation, embalming, viewing, and the selection of the coffin. This is often within 24 hours of the family member dying ­­– a time of grief, shock and vulnerability for most.

One funeral director told CHOICE: "By that stage they've spent two hours planning and they think it's too late for them to back out."

In his book, Funeral Rights, Robert Larkins advises that you don't allow the body to picked up before you've agreed on your costs: "Funeral firms are all too aware that if they can get the customer to agree to the body being picked up, the funeral – and the profit that flows from it – [is] as good as theirs."

Ask for an itemised price list over the phone, before you meet with any funeral director

When CHOICE rang a Simplicity Funerals office in Sydney to ask about the costs of a funeral, we were told that a price list wasn't available and instead figures were quoted over the phone.

According to Fair Trading NSW, any funeral director who provides basic funerals must give all prospective customers a written notice itemising each of the basic funeral goods and services and their costs. It should include necessary disbursements and the total cost of the funeral.

In Victoria, a funeral director must provide a copy of the price list (and a coffin price list) to anyone who asks about the price of its goods or services.

In Queensland, funeral homes must give clients a written itemised estimate of costs and the terms of trading before the client accepts the provider's service.

Are you comparing prices from the same company?

InvoCare owns 40% of the $1 billion funeral market in Australia. It operates low-range Simplicity Funerals, mid-range Guardian Funerals and top-line White Lady Funerals, as well as a number of other brands like Green Endings. It also owns and runs many Sydney crematoria, cemeteries and mortuaries, as well as LifeArt coffins.

A funeral director from Sydney told CHOICE that the concentration of the industry in Sydney meant prices were going up. Outside of InvoCare the industry is highly fragmented with many family-run funeral homes, especially in rural and regional areas.

Tip: Source at least three itemised quotes, including independent funeral homes. Check the InvoCare website, it lists all of their brands so you know you are getting quotes from different companies.

Avoid unnecessary items

Larkins describes some of the sophisticated marketing methods of the funeral director, including techniques to upsell elaborate caskets over cheaper coffins, memorial books, expensive notices in the newspaper, floral arrangements, vehicles, refreshments, grief counselling, viewings and embalming.

Excessive spending from your loved one's estate, or your bank account will not provide anyone more comfort.

Coffins

Issac Leung, who supplies coffins to Costco, has heard of some funeral directors charging a handling fee for a BYO coffin, or a fee to have it tested (despite Costco's coffins all meeting the required quality standards).

When CHOICE spoke to a representative from Simplicity Funerals, we were discouraged from bringing our own coffin because it added "another level of stress" and we were asked "How would you get it here?". (Costco delivers the coffins within two days.)

Tip: Ask a funeral director if there are any extra fees that come with sourcing a coffin yourself. If so, consider another company.

Embalming, viewings and spending time with the deceased

When CHOICE asked a Simplicity Funerals representative from Sydney about bringing the body home for a period, we were told we'd need to have the body embalmed at a cost of $1000. This involves injecting toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde into the circulatory system and cavity to slow decomposition. 

By law, embalming is only required if the body is to be buried in an above-ground vault. If we were hoping for a more sustainable end of life for our loved one, cremating or burying an embalmed body is not the way to go.

The funeral industry promotes embalming and the pre-funeral viewing.

Larkins writes, "The standard sales technique of the funeral director is to talk about embalming and viewings as if they are a matter of course."

CHOICE was told by a Sydney Simplicity Funerals representative that if a family wished to spend some time alone with a deceased family member in their care before the funeral, they could do so at Chatswood Chapel, at a cost of $200 per hour ($3.33 per minute).

A viewing is a whole new level of involvement and revenue for the funeral home. The coffin is much more visible and clients may be motivated to spend more. It is often held in the funeral home's premises. There is more transport of the body involved, and embalming and make-up are added.

CHOICE was told by a Sydney Simplicity Funerals representative that if a family wished to spend some time alone with a deceased family member in their care before the funeral, they could do so at Chatswood Chapel, at a cost of $200 per hour ($3.33 per minute).

Do you want a sustainable farewell?

Cremations are a significant polluter, emitting 160kg of CO2 into the atmosphere. Other pollutants include dioxins from the coffin finishes and veneers, heavy metals such as mercury and carbon monoxide.

One Australian study found cremations to be 10% greener than burials. This is largely due to the ongoing maintenance required for grave sites.

Conventional burials involve anaerobic (without oxygen) decomposition of the body, producing methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Although rare in Australia, burial of embalmed bodies may leach toxic formaldehyde into the soil.

A conventional burial disturbs the soil and landscape and will continue to produce CO2 emissions through the ongoing maintenance of the site, such as watering and mowing, as well as herbicide use.

Natural burial sites avoid many of these issues. Professor Roger Short from the University of Melbourne believes natural burials to be the most sustainable way forward for Australia.

Because the body is buried at a shallower depth, without preservatives and in biodegradable materials, there is more capacity for microbial activity and aerobic (with oxygen) decomposition. One source says it will likely contribute less than 30kg of CO2. And by restoring natural vegetation and trees, carbon dioxide is absorbed and nutrients returned to the lifecycle.

A relatively unknown alternative is Aquamation, in which the body is dissolved through a process called alkaline hydrolysis. The Australian company offering this service claims Aquamation is far less carbon intensive than cremation.

Make plans to assist your family

It's important to tell your family what you'd like for your funeral. The executor of your will is the person who will be charged with making the decisions about your funeral.

 8-step plan to communicate your perfect send-off

  1. Indicate the type of burial, cremation, natural burial or other.
  2. Indicate the type of coffin, or shroud – or even make your own.
  3. Name the songs, poems, passages – even your favourite dish or drink.
  4. Write or record a message.
  5. Fill out the online forms for organ donation if you'd like this, and inform family and doctors, as it needs to happen immediately.
  6. Compile invitees, including those your family may not know so that all of your friends and contacts can share the celebration of your life.
  7. Remember that a funeral is not just for you, it's also for your friends and family to be able to properly grieve and remember you, and for them to say goodbye.
  8. Write a will and tell people where it is.

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