By James Hall
29 May 2019
With the average cost of a funeral edging towards $10,000, some Australians are turning to “do it yourself” alternatives. But it’s not for the squeamish.
An investigation by consumer advocacy group Choice shines a light on the process to offer a better understanding of the customary and legal roles needed to go it alone.
Taking on these duties can save thousands of dollars but it can also give the grieving parties a more unique and personalised way to say goodbye.
Elspeth Hull was one of these people, who told Choice she wanted to take care of her estranged husband in death as she felt unable to in life.
With the help of death doula and funeral planner Lola Rus-Hartland and a few friends, Ms Hull transported the body from a funeral home outside of Sydney to her own residence in 2016.
Children decorate their mother’s coffin for a funeral arranged by death doula Lola Rus-Hartland.
The group carried the body from a van through her home and into a spare bedroom where he was placed on a cooling plate set at -15 degrees.
Ms Hull and the death doula washed the body, covered it in a crushed velvet sheet and a scattering of gum leaves.
She reminisced to Choice about how normal he looked; with his skin’s pigment retaining its pinkish-brown, he just appeared as though he was asleep.
“He looked so peaceful, of good colour, and as if he would wake at any moment with one of his characteristic cheeky remarks,” Ms Hull said.
“Only by day five did his face very slightly start to turn grey and begin to actually look dead.”
This process isn’t just a means to save a few bucks, Ms Rus-Hartland says, it also offers those who are grieving a chance to come to grips with the loss of life.
“We need all our senses,” she says. “We need to touch them and realise they are no longer there; we need to see their facial expressions change. We need to no longer hear their breath, no longer hear their voice.”
The co-founder of the Bereavement Care Centre Dianne McKissock agrees, saying the process of having the body at home gives the family and friends control.
“Not everyone feels this way of course,” she told consumer advocacy group. “The important aspect is really about choice. We feel empowered when we can make choices that are in our best interests.”
A recent study by comparison site Finder.com.au found that the average cost of a professional funeral in Australia is $7500, but basic extras such as flowers and funeral notices push this figure higher.
When it comes to organising and running a funeral, the investigation says Australians have more power than they may realise.
A funeral director isn’t legally needed to buy a coffin. The body’s transportation to the funeral can also be done with the help of a few friends, as can the lowering of the body into the ground and placement into a furnace at the crematorium.
The funeral itself can even be conducted at home.
Jenny Briscoe-Hough, founder of non-profit company Tender Funerals, admits the DIY approach isn’t for everyone but says her clients often choose to take a hands-on role in preparing their loved one’s body.
“They sometimes start out not wanting to do anything and by the end of it, they’re doing everything, including washing and dressing the body and helping us place it in a coffin,” she told Choice
You don’t need a funeral director to buy a coffin. In fact, in some parts of Australia you can build your own.
The lack of consumer awareness related to the funeral industry means the options once a loved one dies becomes limited, the investigation’s author, Saimi Jeong, told news.com.au.
“At the moment, the whole funeral is offloaded to a funeral director because that’s seen as the easy and done thing to do,” she said.
“It’s such a rough time for people who are grieving that they want it taken off their plate, which is understandable.
“But then what you get is this opaque industry where you actually don’t know what goes on and that means there’s room for exploitation.”
Ms Jeong says there needs to be more information made available to consumers.
“Because if you don’t know your options then you don’t have a genuine choice,” she said.
“It should be made easier for someone who isn’t a funeral director to go about that process without having to rely on someone from the industry.”