Funeral costs a trap for the unprepared

Photo of Shetlands war cemetery by Joanna Penn

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 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).


Eulogies and celebrities

Guest writer, music trivia buff Lyn Nuttall (aka Franky’s Dad), ponders the outpourings of grief when celebrities die.

Amy Winehouse
(Photo by Fionn Kidney flickr creative commons).

Back in January, when Bob and I discussed how lavishly some musicians are eulogised, it was David Bowie’s death that was in the news. Then Prince died a couple of weeks ago and my Facebook timeline filled up with posts from shocked friends. Still trying to digest this, said one, I just… I just can’t believe it said another.

There were Prince videos, and mentions of purple rain, Paisley Park and raspberry berets. A few days later, a friend said he had been listening solidly to Prince’s music for the past few days. Even literary magazine The Paris Review posted twice about Prince to Facebook. When my digital copy of “The New Yorker” appeared during the week, its cover was given over to a simple depiction of… purple rain. At the weekend, somebody at our monthly book club meeting repeated the (unfounded) gossip about Prince having had AIDS.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Prince was soaring to the top of the album charts as mourning fans rush to remember the artist’s legacy through his music. This sounded like clumsy reporting. A fan doesn’t wait for the artist to die, they go ahead and access the music whenever it’s available, and in any case there didn’t seem to be a need for anyone to rush. A dignified saunter, perhaps.

As Bob said in his post following Bowie’s death, “some will grieve, others are just sad,” and on that occasion I was in the sad group, but I couldn’t say I was grieving. I remembered individual songs with affection, but the bottom didn’t fall out of my world.

In the case of Prince, I was on the footpath, watching the wild and colourful funeral procession of a stranger passing by. Many had urged Prince’s music on me over the years, and I had often followed their advice and listened, but I never became a fan. My response wasn’t callous, this was the death of a man of 57, too young in any walk of life, but I wasn’t shocked and I can’t say I was grieving.

The extent of the reaction took me by surprise, but as an outsider I’m not qualified to belittle it. No doubt there were outside observers who didn’t get it when we mourned the deaths of Buddy Holly and John Lennon, two examples when I was an insider and did get it.

Jack Shafer at Politico, wrote about the “mega-obituary” and suggested that Prince died when his prime fanbase, “Prince-loving Boomers and Gen-Xers”, are in a position to call the “editorial shots”. In The Guardian, Ian Jack commented tetchily on the voluminous David Bowie tributes, including 24 pages in The Guardian. He went to that paper’s archives and discovered its muted reporting of the deaths of Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, a contrast that seems to support Shafer’s point.

Regardless of generational bias, I’ve never understood the impulse to go out and buy – or stay in and download – the works of an artist who has just died. If anything, my impulse has been to give their works a rest for a while. Later, I get back to them with the old enthusiasm.

No doubt, there are a lot of people who discover the artist through the publicity around their death; they like what they hear, and go ahead and buy some of it.

It is remarkable how people can genuinely grieve for a celebrity they’ve never met (Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston or B.B King). We are routinely saddened, even depressed, about the deaths of unknown people we’ve never met, victims of violence or epidemics. But the grief some people show for celebrities goes beyond that natural empathy for another human. When Steve Irwin died, the circumstances were shocking, and it was a wrench to see such a positive, larger-than-life figure suddenly taken. A teaching colleague and her students made tributes which she delivered to Australia Zoo. They clearly felt that they knew Steve as if he had been present, in person, in their lives. I read an online comment from a woman who said her three-year-old already missed Steve, a sentiment you often see: they miss the celebrity.

I can think of times when I’ve missed a celebrity. I still miss Jon Stewart (still alive, I hasten to add) hosting “The Daily Show”, because I used to enjoy watching him every day, and now I can’t do that. When Phil Hartman died in violent circumstances it was shocking, and I missed him when he was no longer in the next season of “Newsradio”, but his absence was in the nature of a cast change, not in the sense that I was used to having him around the place and then he was gone. I was a little sad and reflective when Groucho Marx died, but I couldn’t really say I missed him. I didn’t come down to breakfast and think, “Gee I miss seeing old Groucho there every morning, cracking his egg open and making wise-ass comments over the morning newspaper.”

There is a persistent illusion that we “know” an artist through their work. Of course we know that important aspect of them, but we don’t know them as we know people we see every day. I’m not convinced that we can confidently claim to know a person through their works, in spite of attempts by some scholars of Shakespeare or J.S. Bach to extrapolate biographical details from the works. This is partly because a work of art has a life of its own that is beyond the control of its creator, especially after it’s published and every member of the audience puts their own construction on it.

Note the surprise when a well-loved celebrity disgraces themselves. Bill Cosby? Surely not! We know him so well, it’s not possible. Rolf Harris? Nooo, not Rolf! Please! tweeted the twitterers. We forget that we know only their published work, a little gossip and second-hand reportage, and a carefully crafted public persona that may tell us nothing about them out of the public gaze. Forgetting that, it’s a small step to grieving for them as if we’ve lost a family member or close friend.

I wondered why the cause of Prince’s death was so important to the fans. Then I thought of an example of my own. I’m a fan of British singer-songwriter Nick Drake who died in 1974 aged 26 without achieving much recognition. By the 1990s, when I discovered his albums, musicians were citing him as an influence, his songs were being heard in films, and he was being championed by MOJO magazine.

Even long after the events, I read everything I could, and hung out for the bio-doco “A Skin Too Few”, made by his sister Gabrielle who disagreed with the coroner’s suicide finding. I was interested in a theory that his depression was down to the grey English winters, a known syndrome. I was fascinated by a video snippet of a young man walking away from the camera at a music festival, in what might or might not be the only existing footage of Nick Drake.

See how they weave a spell on us, when we connect with their work?

All in all, though, a minimalist approach would suit me. Report the news succinctly and without gushing, write a well-researched obituary, and leave the rest to the reader. My ideals are those concise obits in the British press that manage to cover the life and achievements of an artist in one page. As a bonus, they usually get the details right and don’t demand any mass emotional response.