Funeral costs a trap for the unprepared

funeral-costs-unprepared
Photo of Shetlands war cemetery by Joanna Penn https://flic.kr/p/ri73H3

If there’s one thing that can put an unexpected dent in the household budget, it’s paying for a funeral. A new study by Finder shows that the average cost of a funeral in Australia ranged from $6,131 (Canberra) to $7,764 in Perth. Of course those who can afford it and deem it necessary pay $20,000 and more for a formal send-off.

Finder’s Money Expert Bessie Hassan says one in five Australians don’t have enough money set aside to cover a $500 setback.

“So if an unexpected death of a family member does arise it could cause significant financial stress.”

Finder analysed Funeral Planner’s survey of some 2,000 adults, which showed that 60% of Australians either haven’t thought about their funeral costs or are expecting relatives to foot the bill. The other 40% have probably gone the whole hog and pre-paid for their funeral, and/or the cost is covered under a life insurance policy.

Invocare, a listed company, owns major funeral businesses in Australia including Simplicity Funerals, Guardian Funerals and White Lady Funerals. Invocare’s 2015 annual report shows it has $422 million in funds under management, derived from pre-paid funeral contracts.

Trends are emerging that show a growing number of Australians are seeking out practical and affordable funeral offerings. Invocare found that more clients were choosing direct ‘committals’ without requiring a traditional funeral service. The other popular choice was to combine a church service with a committal service at a cemetery or crematorium.

There is growing demand too for “Green Funerals” which shun embalming and use biodegradable coffins or shrouds. This seemingly morbid topic reminded me of the darkly comic TV drama, Six Feet Under (2001-2005). SFU explored the dysfunctional lives of a family of undertakers. Every episode would start (spoiler alert) with someone dying (the essential plot element, in that it supplied the necessary corpse). After a season or two, the writers got better at building suspense so the by-now predictable death would still come as a shock, as the person who would soon pop his clogs succumbed to unlikely events including a lightning strike.

I’ve been to a few unconventional funerals/memorial services in recent years. There were a few where the body was cremated in a private family service then the ashes scattered later in a more public forum. A couple of memorial services have been held in locations loved by the dearly departed. So no coffin or wreaths, not even an urn with ashes. People whose loved one had gone to meet their maker spoke passionately and fondly of them. On one or two of these occasions, God never got a mention, nor did Buddha or Allah.

This trend may have something to do with the 30% of Australian who profess to be irreligious. In the 2016 Census (6.93 million people) described themselves as having “no religion”.

My old Scots Dad was fond of saying (apropos of dying) “Och, just roll me up in a carpet and put me oot with the rubbish.”  You probably have friends who say similar things, often bracketed with “if I get dementia just put me out of my misery.”

In practice this rarely happens. When the time came (1991), there was a wee church service and a piper played Over the Sea to Skye. Dad’s ashes were inserted into a memorial wall at the local crematorium, next to “Winnie” who died in 1966.

Don’t ask me what it cost because (typical family experience), everyone is so distressed at the passing that they surrender to the blandishments of the dark-suited undertaker.

The plot thickens

The argument against burial is increasingly to do with the finite supply of burial plots. Local governments are understandably reluctant to offer land to be locked up for perpetuity. Burial plot prices have increased dramatically in the past five years, as a result of pre-paid contracts. In Sydney a plot can cost between $4,000 and $52,000.

Nevertheless, She Who Has a Plan wants to be buried and has a burial site in mind. As always, she is more organised than me. I have a will but there is no fine print about what happens to my mortal remains. Whenever cremation is mentioned, I mentally replay that scene in the Coen Brothers cult movie, The Big Lebowski. John Goodman’s character Walter Lobchak, accompanied by The Dude (Jeff Bridges), climbs to a windy clifftop, ready to distribute his friend Donny’s ashes.

(video contains expletives)

More than 50% of Australians who die are cremated, with more people choosing direct cremation. This means you pay only for the body to be disposed of: there is no service and nobody in attendance when the mortal remains are set alight. Later, the family may hold a memorial service, usually in a place that held significance for the departed.

In Australia, a direct cremation starts at $1,500, though most pay around $2,900. That’s considerably cheaper than a burial organised by a funeral director. Just so you know I did some homework on this, it is legal to scatter ashes at sea or on land (with provisos). If you scatter ashes on private land you need the permission of a landowner. Ashes scattered at sea must be dispersed beyond the three-mile (4.82 kms) limit. If you are scattering in a state forest or national park, you need permission.

Some of the information in this essay was gleaned from this website which has a searchable tool on its website where you can shop around for the cheapest funeral option (if that is what you want).

A thorough investigation last year by Choice magazine left few coffin lids closed. This article by Allison Potter is available online

Choice answers the most obvious question; do you have to engage a funeral director? Choice could not find a law that says you have to, although you will find advice to the contrary. Laws differ from one jurisdiction to another, but it’s best to disbelieve those who say it is legal to bury Aunt Bridget near her favourite peach tree. In theory, a DIY back yard planting is possible, but only if the private land is larger than 5ha and the local Council agrees. In any event, burying a body changes the zoning to cemetery. Your neighbours may not be impressed.

This is an ex-parrot

Monty Python’s euphemism-laden sketch aside, Six Feet Under remains the benchmark for kick the bucket humour. From the opening episode to the ‘we’ll all go together when we go’ finale six series’ later, SFU set out to test the boundaries of many taboos. It is full of dark one-liners about the different ways individuals manage grief.

One fine example (from a list compiled by www.pastemagazine.com) comes from episode one. Ruth, matriarch of the Fisher family, flings Christmas dinner to the floor on hearing the news of her husband’s abrupt demise.

She tells her son Nate: “There’s been an accident. The new hearse is totalled. Your father is dead. Your father is dead, and my pot roast is ruined.”

You will note that, despite the show’s title, Ruth does not employ any of Wikipedia’s 128 euphemisms for death (obscure ones include Ride the Pale Horse, Tango Uniform, Hand in One’s Dinner Pail, Wear a Pine Overcoat and Assume Room Temperature).

 

Homeless for a rainy night

homeless-for-night
The Hope Centre for the homeless, Logan. Photo used by permission

For some, today is a reminder that anyone can become homeless, with various agencies (and reality TV) bringing this urgent issue to light. It also marks the end of the financial year, a kind of witching hour for those engaged in financial markets, investing in rental housing, or running Australia’s businesses, large and small.

For seventy-nine intrepid souls, our charity sleep-out on Maroochydore beach was thwarted by early morning drizzle turning into heavier rain.

Some abandoned their posts, leaving sheets of cardboard for others to make shelters with. Others took up the scarce positions under the eaves of the Maroochy Surf Club.

I took refuge in a nearby toilet block, mopping my wet hair with a sweatshirt. I decided I’d done enough, including raising $700+ and headed home in the wee hours. I briefly imagined a truly homeless mother in a similar situation. The two-year-old wants to be carried and the seven-year-old is saying “This is dumb, I wanna sleep.” So they walk 300m in the rain to the 1997 Ford wagon and do as best they can.

The St Vincent De Paul Society homelessness sleep-out raised more money this year ($125,577) with fewer people sleeping out. That’s an impressive result from a regional population of 300,000, (1,500 of whom are homeless).

The 2016 Census homeless tally (105,000 in 2011), won’t be known until 2018. But a 2014 Australian Bureau of Statistics survey found that 351,000 Australians had experienced homelessness in the previous 12 months.

There were a few speeches last night before we headed out to a balmy 17 degree Maroochydore evening. Mix FM’s Todd Widdicombe threw gentle barbs at local politicians and did a good job of generating competitive bidding for the charity auction (including a pillow sold to local politician Steve Dickson for $320).

St Vincent De Paul Society tells us most social housing on the Sunshine Coast was built more than 30 years ago. The Coast’s private rental vacancy rate is less than 2% and one-bedroom units are hard to find. A chart of social housing demand shows that 64% of people are looking for accommodation for one person. Developers on the coast tend to build three and four-bedroom homes and two or three-bedroom units. Many units are rented to holiday-makers.

Older people facing a tougher future

This is not a problem unique to the Coast. Pensioners and working parents have been priced out of the rental market in all metropolitan areas across Australia, according to National Shelter’s Rental Affordability Index (RAI), released on May 17.

Chief Executive of COTA Australia (Council on the Ageing) Ian Yate told a conference this week that older Australians were the forgotten faces of the housing crisis. He cited as examples the 70 year old divorcee facing homelessness, the 80 year old with a knee replacement who can’t find appropriate or affordable accommodation, the 68 year old couple retiring, still with a significant mortgage.

“Older Australians are increasingly falling through the cracks in the growing housing affordability and supply challenge,” he said. “A growing number of older Australians need to rent, rather than owning a home outright.

“We are already starting to see rates of home ownership by older Australians decline, and this is forecast to drop even further in the next 10-15 years.”

Anglicare’s annual report into housing affordability shows that welfare recipients and single-person households are the least likely to find appropriate accommodation. Queensland’s stock of social housing is just 3.6%, compared with a national average of 4.5%.

 

Rents are generally lower on the Sunshine Coast and the weather markedly warmer than the Southern States, even in winter. Little doubt this is why young people take their battered old wagons, surfboards and sleeping bags to the beach.

While many people in crisis use their cars as a refuge between one home and the next, others have developed an on-the-road lifestyle.

I once met a woman in her 50s whose camper van is her home and always on the road, unless she’s visiting family in one state or the other. Recently we met a couple who have a permanent caravan moored in a small town van park. They also have a bigger van for their grey nomad adventures. Safe to say most of their capital is tied up in these depreciating assets

For those who’d rather have a fixed abode, the Queensland Government recently made a ‘better-than-nowt’ commitment to provide 5,500 new social and affordable housing units over the next 10 years. Last year, the Government launched a Better Neighbourhoods initiative in fast-growing Logan City, with an affordable housing target of 3,000 by 2030.

Hoping for Hope Centre II

Family and Kids-Care Foundation established the Hope Centre in 2009, a complex of 19 self-contained units, designed for individuals and small family groups in crisis.

President Tass Augustakis told FOMM the charity is currently considering participating in the Better Neighbourhoods Logan initiative, seeking funding for a second Hope Centre which can accommodate larger family groups.

“The thing that got me going to start the Hope Centre was seeing women sleeping in cars with their kids. It just shouldn’t be happening, but it still is.”

Family and Kids-Care donated the land for the first Hope Centre and raised funding from the Federal Government to build it.

“After reading about the State Government’s affordable housing strategy, I’m organising a meeting to discuss Hope Centre II,” he said.

“We can provide the land, but we need the Government to contribute between $10 million and $12 million to build a four or five-level unit building.”

Cameron Parsell, a researcher with the University of Queensland, last year revealed that it costs governments more to provide services to the homeless than it costs to provide standard accommodation.

He produced ‘compelling and robust’ data in The Conversation which showed that chronically homeless people used state government funded services that cost approximately $48,217 each over a 12-month period. He compared this with another 12-month period in which the chronically homeless were tenants of permanent supportive housing.

“The same people used state government services that cost approximately $35,117 – $13,100 less when securely housed, compared to the services they used when they were chronically homeless.”

 

Urban studies researcher Emma Power, also writing in The Conversation, says single, older women are among the fastest-growing groups of homeless people in Australia. Yet most are unable to apply for community housing because the sole eligibility criterion is their low-income status.

Sadly, women who are not leaving a violent situation or who do not have a recognised disability will risk homelessness before they qualify for community housing.

The answer is for governments to provide more secure, low-cost social housing and/or increase rent-assistance payments across the board.

But as Power points out, the latter is not ideal. Although it assists renters in the short-term, it effectively subsidises private landlords.

This has been going on for a long time and it is getting worse, despite a lot of work by charitable organisations like St Vinnies. I tucked myself into my cosy bed (early) last night, feeling OK about raising the equivalent of a fortnight’s rent for someone.

But it is a band-aid at best.

Further reading:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/06/27/australias-homelessness-crisis-summed-up-in-four-news-events_a_23005274/

Everyone should have a home

 

Dog dogging my footsteps

dog-dogging-footsteps
Photo of Pomeranian dog enjoying harbour views on Hydra (Greece) by Laurel Wilson

It’s been a while since we had a dog underfoot and this one specialises in getting as underfoot as possible. If not that, he’ll be in someone’s lap – a 22.5 kg lap dog.

When I take Dog for a walk up the main street he gets sooked-over big time- “Aw what a cute Staffie – is he friendly?” Well, he does have a green harness and lead with “friendly” emblazoned upon it, so, yeh. We are just baby-sitting this one, and I use the word advisedly as he is an anxious dog who (a) does not like to be outside when all the humans are inside, and (b) dislikes being left alone for more than two or three hours. This makes a weekend trip to Brisbane for the ballet just a bit tricky.

He’ll lie doggo on the back seat of the car for a lengthy time but then starts whining and the whining turns into screaming. Oh, you know this behaviour? The other thing Staffies do is a supressed excitement grunt not unlike Marge Simpson’s hhmmnn (when Homer is being irritating).

On Wednesday night Dog was in his element – a choice of laps to sit in with the ritual watching of the State of Origin. He got excited and confused with all the yelling and cheering in the 78th minute. Last time (when Queensland was beaten), we made him wear a maroon beanie and put photos on Facebook.

If you inhabit Facebook you will see a lot of dog photos (and videos) including one that had 17 million views.

The obvious question is who watched these videos and why? Other dog owners, I’m guessing.

The RSPCA says there are 4.5 million dogs in Australia, with 39% of households having one.

Dogs in Australia experience lifestyles ranging from the cossetted fur babies who have the run of the house, their own beds (usually at the foot of the humans’ bed), pet insurance, gourmet pet food and the vet on speed-dial. In the middle are working dogs; guiding disabled people, sniffing out drugs or explosives, guarding junk yards, tracking bad guys, herding sheep, baling up pigs or hunting down rabbits. At the other end of the scale are the neglected dogs, chained up all day while the owners are away and often abandoned once their owners realise how much work is involved.

Many ‘rescue’ organisations have been formed to take neglected dogs away from bad circumstances, to rehabilitate them and foster them to caring families. One such foster-Dad was telling me his rescue dog flinches whenever someone nearby swears loudly. So dogs get PTSD too.

We could have a lengthy debate about dogs and their respective levels of intelligence. German Shepherds are said to have the intellect of a seven-year-old child. One night we were watching Inspector Rex (remember Rex?) on our big screen TV, positioned against a lounge room wall with our bedroom on the other side. Previously we had thought our female Alsatian was uninterested in TV. But then Rex appeared and went ‘woof’. Our dog scampered behind the TV, then into our bedroom and came out a few seconds later with a perplexed look.

Smart dogs come when called

The difference between the German shepherd and the Staffie is the latter will come when called. Our Shepherd would spot some other dog on the other side of the park and off she’d go (at pace), coming back when she felt like it. She was too smart to try crossing Annerley Road on her own, but too dumb to open the side gate once she did come home.

She Who Takes Dog Photos has, among her many interests, a knack for identifying dog breeds. She did this repeatedly on our travels, in the US, Canada, the UK and various parts of Europe. (One time, after a few moments of disbelief, I said “Get away, there’s no such dog as a Dandie Dinmont”)

I had to bow to her encyclopaedic knowledge of dog breeds. On the surface, this is a fairly useless skill. But you can start conversations with complete strangers and some of them may end up giving you directions or sharing lunch on a train (Italians take their dogs on trains).

Unfortunately, dogs go in and out of fashion. Teenagers (‘I want a puppy’), will pick whatever type of dog their peer group likes at the time – (Rottweilers r cool!) Older people, perhaps influenced by popular media, want a dog like the one Madonna has, or Prince Harry. Back in the 60s and 70s, Afghan hounds were popular, then Irish setters, breeds known for shedding and for not having much between their ears.

Many people buy or adopt a dog on a whim and quickly come to the conclusion that they are too much work. For the 61% of households who don’t own a dog, here’s what can happen if you give in to requests for a puppy.

According to the BankWest Family Pooch Index, it can cost $25,000 to look after a dog over its lifetime. Some dogs die young, through accidents, ticks, genetic flaws or terminal illness. Most, however, will soldier on to reach the life expectancy of the relevant breed. An old poodle, part of our extended family, turned 18 the other day. He has a few ailments we humans share like cataracts, hearing loss, spinal degeneration and hip problems. But he knows what he wants. Yarp means he wants to go out. Yipe means he wants to come back in. Warf means “I want to come up the back steps but I can’t so could you please carry me?”

If you’ve never owned a dog, remember these important points:

  • Dogs lack opposable thumbs, so you need to do everything for them that humans use their hands to accomplish;
  • Female dogs which are not desexed can have up to 15 puppies at a time; said puppies at three months’ old will be consuming two to three kilograms of meat per day; finding good homes for them will be problematic
  • Dogs left alone while you are at work commonly bark and give your neighbours the shits; if you buy a companion for the first dog, you could end up with two dogs barking all day;
  • Teenagers say they want a puppy but then, when they get a boy or girl friend, will leave said puppy in your tender care;
  • If you want to travel, there are only three options: a dog and/or house sitter, a kennel or the dog goes with you.

When we travelled around Australia in 2015, it seemed every second caravanner had at least one dog. These people frequently use free camps because so many caravan parks have a ‘no dogs’ rule. We said hello to a couple travelling in a Toyota Hiace pop-top motor home. They showed us their set-up – two single beds and a dog bed in between for their Labrador!

Once at a free camp (there was only one other van when we arrived) I approached a dog. The owner, who was sitting in a camp chair reading a caravan magazine, said “Don’t pat him when he’s chained up. He’s on guard duty.

Nice doggy – sit, stay.

I’m joining in a St Vinnies fundraiser for homelessness next Thursday (29th). There are some 1500 homeless men, women and children on the Sunshine Coast, including some in our small town. I hope you can help meet my target of $500 (the regional target is $100k). Think of me and 80+ others next Thursday, with our sheets of cardboard, soup and rolls and (hopefully adequate) sleeping bags.

Here are links to articles I have written previously on this topic

 

http://bobwords.com.au/homeless-for-a-week/

http://bobwords.com.au/everyone-should-have-a-home/

http://bobwords.com.au/goodwill-housing/

http://bobwords.com.au/little-bit-compassion/

Thanks for your support.

 

A dog-doo afternoon

dog-doo-afternoon
Amsterdam dog doo sidewalk photo Laura K Gibb https://flic.kr/p/3sbQLJ

So I’m walking the dog in unfamiliar territory – Brisbane bayside suburbs. I have my little black plastic dog doo bag tucked into the hip pocket of my jeans, as one should. But it seems many people in this particular suburb don’t give a shit about dog shit, if you’ll pardon my Flemish. If you’d taken a plastic supermarket bag and a trowel on this walk and could be bothered, you’d end up with a good five kilos of dog doo just from this one suburban street and a small park.

The words (above) on an Amsterdam sidewalk translate to ‘dog in the gutter,’ but the city’s tolerance has been stretched. Dog owners must now carry a plastic bag or a trowel and inspectors can issue a €50 fine. There was also a suggestion that owners be traced (and fined) through DNA tests on dog doo, according to the English language NL Times.

Some responsible Australian dog owners have somehow trained their pets to back their arses under a tree or shrub to do their number twos. If you don’t have a bag you can just throw a bit of mowed grass over it.

In one of the episodes of the Stan series Billions, Public Prosecutor Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), bullies and shames a guy into picking up after his dog. It’s a gratuitous and outlandish scene in a series known for gratuitousness and outlandishness.

My favourite line is (guy) “Why don’t you mind your business?” Chuck replies “This is my business.”

(Actually it’s the dog’s business, if you want to be pedantic).

If you are a dog owner, this YouTube video of the dog doo scene will hopefully remind you to ‘do the right thing’.

There are many other examples of TV writers (Family Guy) and others taking up the dog doo theme.

Songwriter Loudon Wainwright III works the dilemma into a song (Man and Dog from his 2014 album Ain’t Got the Blues (Yet).

Here’s the appropriate verse:

“When a man has to carry a plastic bag
on his person at all times
when a dog dumps on a side walk
walking away is a crime, living in the city…

(this will lift your mood, maybe)

Loudon sings about walking your dog as being a good way to meet a woman, although one would suggest that carrying a (full) plastic bag on your person would not be alluring.

Walking a dog in a strange neighbourhood means people don’t call out hello to the dog by name (even if they don’t know yours). Also, you don’t know which yard has a dog that will bark and snarl or if the gate is open or shut. Some people, on seeing a large dog with jaws approach, will pick up their little squealing ball of fluff, which, while seemingly prudent, is apparently not the best way to socialise animals.

On my walk last Saturday I did meet a woman who came out of her driveway to sook over the normally sooky dog but he was too intent upon, as my friend Mr Loophole calls it, “reading the P-mail”.

I told She Who Sometimes Scoffs I was thinking about writing a column with the dog as narrator, which she said had probably been done. She was right.

Here’s a reading list which is probably by no means exhaustive:

So after flirting with that idea: “Why do you want me to come? There are so many far more interesting things over here.” Or “Why do you want me to put my lipstick away? Call a spade a spade, you stupid human.”

So I decided on a different approach, and that was to use the failure of dog owners to clean up after their animals as a clumsy yet probably accurate political analogy.

Let’s use the current Queensland Labor government as an example. The party has been in a tenuous state of power since January 2015 and will contest an election sometime in the next 12 months.

In the interim, the government is supporting Indian company Adani’s controversial plan to develop a new coal mine near Alpha in western Queensland. This would require the building of a railway line to the Abbot Point coal terminal north of Bowen to export coal from the (expanded) port. This proposal has sparked a broad protest movement with former Greens leader Bob Brown weighing in.

“In 40 years’ time people will be talking about the campaign to stop Adani like they now talk about the Franklin (Dam). “Where were you and what did you do?” they will ask.

“This is the environmental issue of our times and, for one, the Great Barrier Reef is at stake,” Brown wrote in the Guardian Weekly on March 24.

The Queensland Labor government wants this project to happen. Promised employment, it seems, is the government’s main reason for risking environmental damage to the Great Barrier Reef and incurring the wrath of many loyal Labor voters.

My point, if clumsily made, is that if and when the Queensland government is toppled, it will be a replaced by another regime. When protestors make their valid points about the risks of environmental damage, the next government can always say, “It’s not our mess”.

One could make the same case for offshore detention centres, the proposal to drug test welfare recipients or the cashless welfare debit card being trialled in South Australia and the Northern Territory.

The potential for the latter to become a big mess is that a cashless welfare card system could be extended to all welfare recipients, even pensioners. Now that’s not a mess I’d want to clean up.

Returning to the original rant, people should pick up their dog doos. If you forgot a plastic bag (and we have all done this), as Chuck Rhoades suggests, “pick it up with your hands”.

Paul Giamatti’s character says to the shamed guy as he’s walking away:

“Sir, still some over here.”

“That’s not (dog’s name), man!

“It is now,” says Chuck, while talking on his mobile about his nemesis, the crafty funds manager, Bobby Axelrod (Damien Lewis).

The scene ends with Chuck thanking the guy for doing his civic duty. “Feels good, doesn’t it.”

One could extend this analogy to the real estate development company which mistakenly sent an email to its entire database thanking recipients for supporting their Sunshine Coast development. Mine was addressed, ‘Dear Bob’ and thanked me for supporting Sekisui’s development application for Yaroomba Beach. At some point I must have signed a petition against the proposal so I was one of unknown numbers of people who got the email from the developer thanking them for supporting the project. We got an apologetic email from Sekisui about the same time we read the story in the Sunshine Coast Daily.

To me, the second email was like the guy who walks his dog without a plastic bag and has a citizen shame him into picking up dog doo with his hands.

It’s called doing the right thing.