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Coronavirus restrictions are changing funeral rituals

Social distancing measures have spurred new ways of thinking about funerals.

Last updated: 30 April 2020

Need to know

  • National restrictions allow only 10 people to attend a funeral, with a space of at least two metres between each person
  • Funeral homes report that the rates of people choosing a cremation without a funeral have doubled
  • The head of the Australian Funeral Directors Association says people with prepaid funerals can hold services for a later date or get refunds of any leftover money if they don’t go ahead with all arrangements

In the middle of a blue-carpeted room, surrounded by 11 chairs arranged in a circle, is a coffin resting on a trolley. On its lid, a bouquet of white and pink flowers, a Richmond Tigers scarf and a broad-brimmed, brown hat have been carefully laid. A man slowly approaches, lifts the hat and kisses the coffin, before placing the hat back where it was.

The scene is captured by a camera mounted on a tripod in a corner of the room, beside two laptops live-streaming the proceedings. This is now the standard setup at a Melbourne funeral parlour, which, like all funeral parlours in Australia, has had to change what it offers the grieving in recent weeks. 

New rules pose challenges

Every activity we engage in outside our own homes has been subject to restrictions designed to curb the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). In states and territories that adopted all of the national cabinet's recommendations, funerals have been allowed the largest gatherings. It's a sign of our times that this entails a maximum of 10 attendees, with a space of at least two metres between each person. 

Since these rules were introduced, reports have laid bare the challenges of enforcing them. Queensland's chief health officer conceded the restrictions were "extraordinarily difficult" after dozens of mourners on Palm Island gathered for funerals in their community. A woman in Victoria spoke of being inconsolable after armed police entered a church during her father's funeral and began counting the number of attendees.

[A follow-up ceremony] will be some time after the initial mourning so it could be more of a celebration

Jen Paterson, who attended her aunt's funeral online

A week after funeral restrictions were announced, Victoria Zilizi and her family stood at eight of the 10 chairs dotted across a spacious hall at Lakeside Memorial Park in Wollongong, NSW. The other two were for the funeral director and the celebrant who were conducting her mother's funeral.

"It felt so unfinished," Victoria says. "In the sense of letting go of emotions with each other and mourning the loss of a beautiful woman." Being unable to touch each other, she says, meant the family was unable to properly comfort each other. "This is not what a family should remember." 

Touch was what Jen Paterson, a CHOICE employee, also missed the most when she watched her aunt's funeral in Perth from her bedroom in Sydney. She joined about 60 family members and friends of her aunt, who gathered online to mourn her death. The live-streamed footage began with a wide shot of the funeral parlour: 10 members of the same family, sitting in household groups on different pews. Jen found it strange to see her uncle, the husband of her late aunt, sitting on his own, "when normally he would be sitting close to friends and family". 

The hardest part of watching the service from afar, Jen says, was wanting to be physically affectionate with her family. If the world wasn't in the midst of a health crisis, "we would have been over there in Perth," she says. "There would have been a bigger family gathering, which I would have really wanted to go to and say goodbye in person." 

Nigel Davies, the director of Lonergan and Raven Funerals (pictured), says mourners sitting in a circle are more willing to relax and share stories than those who sit facing the front.

Despite its limitations, the virtual experience was "still lovely" and her uncle's eulogy was "one of the most amazing pieces of writing I've heard". For Jen, it still felt like a funeral – a chance to acknowledge that her aunt had died, to feel the loss, and to mourn. 

Her family plans to have a follow-up ceremony after social restrictions are lifted. "It will be some time after the initial mourning so it could be more of a celebration of her life," Jen says.

home_funeral_ceremony_in_a_backyard

A set up for a funeral outside. Photo: Lonergan and Raven Funerals

Waiting for rules to be relaxed

Nigel Davies, the president of the National Funeral Directors Association, says more people are choosing to get the ashes now for a ceremony later on, when larger gatherings are allowed. His funeral home has seen a rise in the number of people asking for cremation without a funeral. 

"We've had a big increase in what's called no-service deliveries, where people are just saying: collect the person, cremate them, return the ashes to us," he says. Normally, a quarter of his customers opt for cremation without a funeral. In the past two weeks, the figure has doubled. 

There will be some long-term change to the way people are going to interact with funerals

Nigel Davies, president of the National Funeral Directors Association

Members of the Australian Funeral Directors Association also report that their usual rates of no-service cremation have doubled, depending on the region, from 10–20% of their business to 20–35%, according to Dale Gilson, the association's CEO.

Davies doesn't believe the rate of no-service cremations will fall back to levels before COVID-19. "There will be some long-term change to the way people are going to interact with funerals," he says. "We're going to probably head towards more no-service deliveries."

What about prepaid funerals?

A prepaid funeral is a funeral arranged with a funeral director and paid for in advance. But what if someone made prepaid funeral arrangements with 100 attendees in mind, and only 10 can now legally attend? 

NSW Fair Trading says any changes to a prepaid funeral contract would have to be negotiated with the funeral director. Along with some of Australia's other consumer protection agencies, it stresses that while current rules limit the number of people who can attend a funeral, prepaid funeral contracts tend to specify the goods and services that will be provided for a funeral – not the number of attendees. 

The Queensland Office of Fair Trading says a provider is "unlikely to be required to provide a refund for a prepaid funeral because there will be fewer attendees at that funeral than would usually be expected".

It goes on: "This is because the funeral provider was contracted to supply specific goods and services for a specific funeral and it is government regulations brought in after that agreement was made that is the reason the number of people attending is less than originally expected."

The OFT expects funeral directors will treat their clients with empathy and sensitivity given the current situation

Queensland Office of Fair Trading

Similarly, the ACT government says that if a prepaid funeral can still take place in the way it was set out in the contract, it's "unlikely the family or estate would be entitled to a full or partial refund, even if there are restrictions on the number of people that can attend the funeral". 

Australia's largest funeral provider, InvoCare, says that at this stage it's able to provide all the services within a prepaid funeral. In the event that it no longer can, it's statement continues, "we would provide a refund to the family as per the terms and conditions".

But Gilson says many of the arrangements included in prepaid funeral contracts can no longer go ahead due to the government's 10-person limit. He says funeral directors are "working with families to provide the best outcome", either by postponing memorial services until a later date, or giving refunds of any leftover money to families that don't go ahead with all the arrangements. 

The Queensland regulator says it "expects funeral directors [to] treat their clients with empathy and sensitivity given the current situation". For example, if catering or venue hire were included in the original agreement, the funeral director could give a refund for the unused services or substitute them for others, such as live streaming and recording the ceremony. 

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In a similar vein, the deputy commissioner at Northern Territory Consumer Affairs, Sandy Otto, says: "Given these unusual circumstances, the [funeral] provider may be willing to assist." Her advice is to try to reach a compromise – and if that fails, to get legal advice.

Consumer and Business Services, South Australia, was the only agency that got back to us saying that people "may be entitled to a partial refund to reflect any change in costs as a result of changed circumstances that are beyond the control of both the consumer and the [funeral] provider".

woman_spreading_ashes_by_herself

A woman scatters ashes from a bridge.

CHOICE campaigner Amy Pereira says: "Unfortunately, if you or a loved one has prepaid for a funeral that can't be delivered in full due to government-mandated restrictions, you may not be able to get a refund under the Australian Consumer Law.

"However, you need to check your contract closely – it should outline exactly what was meant to be delivered and what you may be owed if a service can't be delivered."

Regardless of the contract terms, Amy says, CHOICE's position is that ethical businesses should be giving refunds for any prepaid services that can't be delivered. 

If you're in a situation where you can't receive a refund or a fair outcome from a prepaid funeral, we want to know. Share your story online at choice.community or via newstips@choice.com.au.

Adapting to new rules

Amy Sagar, a funeral director with the nonprofit organisation Tender Funerals, has been exploring ways of supporting people through the pandemic restrictions. In order to allow more mourners to physically attend a funeral, the organisation is giving people the option of having two ceremonies for one person, having a celebrant call in and conduct the ceremony from afar, or having families act as the celebrant themselves. 

Sagar has been surprised by how understanding her clients have been about the limitations, though there's still heartbreak. "We understand the importance of having a rite of passage and a ceremony and having the opportunity to participate," she says. "And so, on a personal level, that's really challenging to not be able to do what we would normally do." 

Anything can be sacred if you hold it as so

Amy Sagar, funeral director with Tender Funerals

Nevertheless, she says, there are still ways to get involved in honouring the dead, including things people can do at home. She suggests those who are unable to physically attend a funeral could hold a candle-lit vigil: at a specified time, everybody at home lights a candle and reflects on the person they've lost. "The thing is," Sagar says, "anything can be sacred if you hold it as so".

Nigel Davies, who arranged the Melbourne funeral described earlier, had a clear purpose in mind when he placed the chairs in a circle. Unlike chapels that have been set up in the more traditional way, with seats facing the front but spaced apart, the circle is meant to "change the psychology" of mourners at a funeral. 

He says a conventional service with 200 people has to be structured and, by extension, formal – with orders of service precisely laying out who is going to speak when. Ten people sitting in a circle, on the other hand, are more willing to relax, share stories and memories, and joke among themselves. "It's much more emotionally satisfying when people feel that they're part of the group, rather than there sitting, observing performers at a distance," Davies says.

In the video of a funeral he showed me, the man who kissed the coffin presses a crumpled tissue against his eyes. 'Hello Again' by Neil Diamond plays. After the last piano chord fades, the son of the woman in the coffin strikes a match. As he lights a candle on a pedestal beside the coffin, he explains that it's for his mother and for those watching from Sydney. It will burn for as long as the service lasts, and then it will be extinguished. When they can all get together, in person, the candle will be lit again.