By William Verity
25 January 2016
With the standard funeral leaving little change from $10,000, it is no surprise that money, more than religion, is often uppermost in the minds of families when a loved one dies.
That is particularly true when those families are living on welfare payments.
But the community in Port Kembla, south of Sydney, has taken matters into its own hands.
Locals have raised $100,000 for one of Australia’s first not-for-profit, community-run funeral parlours, offering services at a fraction of the price.
Tender Funerals is run by community worker Jenny Briscoe-Hough, who had her first encounter with the business of death when her mother died seven years ago.
“I was shocked by the cost of a funeral,” she recalled.
“And I said, maybe we should just start a not-for-profit funeral service.”
Since then, Ms Briscoe-Hough has worked towards getting Tender Funerals off the ground.
The organisation became the subject of a 2013 documentary film called Tender.
Ms Briscoe-Hough is about to move Tender Funerals into a disused fire station, having secured a low-interest loan, philanthropic funding and more than $100,000 from the community.
“For me, what Tender Funerals is about is saying to people, you’ve got control over this process, what do you want to do? We’ll work with you,” she said.
“We are trying to say, we are not going to equate the money spent on a funeral with love.
“We are trying to say love has got nothing to do with that.”
The changing face of funerals
Tender Funerals has come to the attention of an arts organisation named Groundswell, which is dedicated to making death an everyday part of life.
Jessie Williams is on the board of the Groundswell Project and travelled to Port Kembla last week to lend her support.
“There is a call from the community to actually bring conversations about death to life,” Ms Williams said.
“For the last 50 or so years loved ones have stopped dying in our homes, they have stopped dying in our communities, most of us die in hospitals or in aged care facilities.
“So we recognised the mediatisation of the dying and so the community started to say, well, actually we want to have some choices around our final days.”
The idea of taking back control of dying and of grieving is an old fashioned one that is becoming modern once more thanks to the Baby Boomers.
“Remember the Victorian ages, I suppose, of where you had the front parlour and mum or dad, their body stayed in the front parlour and the family members came in and out of the home and had a conversation around the person, wept on top of the person, put their grief onto that person, which is appropriate,” Ms Williams said.
The idea of enlisting community support is one that has operated for years in another of Australia’s most deprived communities: the homeless and destitute of Kings Cross.
For more than 50 years, the Wayside Chapel has been an institution in the Cross, and marketing head Laura Watts applauds the changing face of funerals.
“We believe at the Wayside that every life, no matter what happened in it, deserves to end with dignity and everyone deserves to end with a standing ovation,” she said.
It is a vision that Ms Briscoe-Hough hopes will spread across Australia once Tender Funerals opens its doors for business by the middle of the year.
“I think it’s pretty exciting because it’s really about us saying we are able to keep on looking after that person through this final stage.”