The economy of dying

There are two certainties in life: death and taxes. Increasingly, these two things are one and the same.

Art: Jess Zlotnick

“How about we launch with John 14:1-3?” says the man across the table. His fingers skim the wafer thin pages of the leather bound book in his hands. He pauses, and begins the recital in a booming voice. The same one he would use three days later, as he officiated the funeral.

As a non-religious person I find this situation uncomfortable. I don’t understand much of this Jesus business, but more than that, I am still digesting the news of my mother’s death two days ago.

He finishes up and locks his eyes with mine, slowly beginning “Aaaa…”, lifting his chin willing me to join. “…men,” I contribute, joining my hands together like I had seen on television.

“So, what do you think?” he prods.

“Any chance you could leave out the part about Jesus? And maybe God too, you know, only if that’s possible?” I ask a minister, in his full Catholic garb.

My mother wasn’t religious. As one of the kids who got to go to the computer room during scripture in primary school, I know she would have hated this. And yet here I am sitting across from a minister trying to decide on the least Jesus-heavy bible verses to be read at her funeral.

What the priest lacked in relevant subject matter he made up for by offering to do the gig for free thanks to a family favour somewhere down the bloodline. And free was what I needed more than anything. Funerals are big business. You have to cut costs where you can.

The average cost of a funeral in Australia is 7000 dollars. This figure can change dramatically in either direction depending on the services required: for example, burial is often over three times the cost of cremation due to diminishing unoccupied land. Even the most basic form of corpse disposal, known as a “direct cremation”, will set you back approximately two grand for the honour of receiving your loved one in a plastic box without ceremony.

Funerals, unlike the disposal of corpses, are not essential. They have become so ubiquitous in Australia, however, that they may as well be. We have created a culture where, following the death of a loved one, the question is not ‘should was have a funeral?’ but ‘when can we have a funeral?’. In many cases, the alternatives are not even considered and the first funeral director consulted will often be the one contracted for the job. For many, a funeral will be one of the most expensive events they organise in their lifetime and yet we are happy to hand over our cash without so much as a price comparison.

But can you blame us?

Periods of extreme grief are never a good time to make large financial decisions. Couple this with a largely opaque industry, complicated pricing structures and the fact that for many this will be their first experience of death and we end up with a one billion-dollar industry, one that is based on a sure bet: people die.

Currently, two out of three Australians favour cremation over burial; more people are forgoing a chapel in favour of personalised locations, called “destination” funerals; and footy jerseys or surf boards replace flowers atop caskets. The beginning of a shift towards a more personalised funeral culture is apparent.

Despite this, the full extent of this movement is yet to be realised. These personalised touches are often superficial and incorporated within the wider framework of a traditional funeral, as sold to us by the majority of funeral homes. It’s arguable that choices such as having balloons over flowers or choosing a leopard print casket delude us into thinking we are in control of the situation.

Yet we can’t ignore the practicalities of dying. Corpses require specific care in the days after a death and they require disposal, with few people keen to take on this responsibility. Because of this, the funeral industry is one of the oldest in Australia. Now, however, massive corporations have entered the scene and the stock market, often to the dismay of independent funeral homes who still represent sixty per cent of the industry.

In Sydney, most people who die will spend their final days above ground in a nondescript building in the outer suburbs. Like the one I am standing in front of now.

Neil and Giovanni are a defacto couple and joint owners of Men in Black Funerals. It is evident that they take great pride in their operation.

“From the first call to the last shovel of dirt into the ground, everything is done by us, the owners of the business,” says Neil.

To “do everything in-house” is a rarity in the Australian funeral industry. According to Neil they are one of the last remaining fully incorporated funeral homes in Sydney, and maybe even the last.

In the mortuary, the smell of disinfectant is suffocating. The space is a hybrid between a hospital room and my ex-boyfriend’s bathroom. A shelf holds David Beckham cologne, Lynx deodorant, Dove moisturizer and Tresemme shampoo: the same brand I washed my hair with this morning. To my right there is a plastic bag with a zipper, roughly the size of a man, laying atop a gurney.

I am suddenly very aware of my self-diagnosed ‘death phobia’.

“You see dead bodies day in and day out except they are vertical and they breathe” Neil says, quickly unzipping the body bag. If you had told me this morning that I would see my first dead body this afternoon I probably wouldn’t have come.

“I’m sorry, I’ve never seen a dead body before.”

Neil scoffs. “He’s just sleeping.”

When I move closer, that is exactly what I tell myself. I am surprised at the peaceful expression on the face of the handsome man in the bag, his grey hair long and weathered by his time spent confined to a hospital bed, awaiting to be cured by Giovanni, the mortuary’s resident hairdresser and cosmetics expert. It was actually Giovanni’s long career in the beauty industry that was the impetus for starting the business. Neil says that the presentation of deceased people is remarkably similar to doing the same for the living. The cadavers have their hair cut, faces shaved and ears cleaned. They are washed and spritzed with cologne. The make-up formulas are specially mixed to work on cold skin and the application is in most cases a lot heavier than usual. Turns out you can go harder on the blush when you are no longer pumping blood. Comparisons between the living and dead end when I find out that Giovanni is also responsible for reconstructing the missing parts of accident victims’ faces using latex and wax.

“It’s pretty close too. He works off photographs,” says Neil. “It’s a science and an art.”

It seems like a lot of effort considering that within a few days this ‘art’ will be either melted into oblivion or buried six feet under. It says a lot about our attitudes to death that even in cases of closed caskets the corpse will be wearing their Sunday best and a face full of makeup.

“That’s the thing about the funeral business, it’s multifaceted,” says Neil. “If you get your jollies off on paper work or if you like bereavement counselling or a psychiatry, there’s that. Then there’s the actual logistics of putting together a funeral and there’s the behind the scenes in the mortuary. All the multimedia presentations are done here as well.”

Six bodies lie in the mortuary. Four remain in body bags and I never see their faces. When Neil opens the fridge the first thing I see are two sock-covered feet hanging out of the plastic. They are blue and black and bought from Kmart. I know because my boyfriend wears the same ones. A member of Tongan royalty is uncovered and already embalmed. He looks like a wax statue, his moustache stubble a little too well placed and his skin slightly too warm-coloured. But he does not look dead; a tribute to Giovanni’s skill. Sensing my discomfort about taking notes on the corpse of someone’s father, son or brother, Neil assures me that they have the utmost respect for the privacy of their clients, but that an open door policy is important in an industry screaming out for regulation.

“It’s not smoke and mirrors here. If you go over to InvoCare or something it’s all ‘no you can’t go in there or there’, which immediately gives rise to suspicion.”

InvoCare is the largest funeral company and crematorium operator in the Asia Pacific region, managing over sixty brands in Australia. Guardian Funerals, White Lady Funerals, Simplicity Funerals, Tobin Brothers, WN Bull, Value Funerals; these are all InvoCare.

Neil is right, the chances of getting a look at InvoCare’s operating premises, which are shared between the different brands, are low. They do not respond to my request for an interview.

Independent companies like Men in Black make up approximately sixty percent of the funeral industry. The other forty percent is InvoCare owned and made-up of their various national and state brands. The market is even narrower when looking at cemeteries and crematoriums, with all major memorial parks in Sydney operated by InvoCare.

Economically, it makes sense for all InvoCare brands to share mortuary facilities. Each brand typically has multiple shop fronts around Sydney where customers are able to meet with directors. Behind the scenes large processing centers handle the inflow of cadavers from all of these locations, for example, the body of person having a White Lady funeral will be treated in the same mortuary as one organised through Guardian Funerals. It is here that the storing, cleaning, embalming, dressing and coffining take place.

InvoCare operates through three sizeable mortuaries across Sydney, the largest located in Lidcombe. The corpses are spread across these processing centers, based on the location of their death. It is estimated that the Lidcombe center alone processes over ten thousand services a year. I picture a colossal warehouse packed full of shelves holding thousands of numbered bodies.

Just as the public is cut off from these realities, so is the families of the deceased. The illusion that each company stands alone is problematic when people often have an emotional connection to a certain funeral brand. That is not to say that the directors of these homes are not acting in an individual capacity, however, bereaved families may be shocked to know that a competing business, isn’t actually so.

Operations like this make it possible for InvoCare to continue increasing their share of the market and to block smaller companies out of the industry when they cannot compete on price. We are under the illusion that we have choice in the market. When looking at the major brands, this is not the case.

In lieu of a response from the InvoCare head office, I turn to local InvoCare brands in the hopes of hearing their side of the story. Even at the lower level these brands are more hesitant to talk, inquiring what company I am working for and promising they will be in touch only to ignore my messages. I am finally directed to Robert James by the Australian Funeral Directors Association, an opt-in regulatory body. A director at Guardian Funerals Bondi Junction, Robert is a veteran of the industry with over forty years’ experience.

“It’s just a waste of money,” he says, referring to having an on-site mortuary.

“With the current system we can actually service the families and no one has come to us and said ‘I don’t like the fact that my father is not with you physically.’”

He puts any unease about offsite facilities down to memories of the days when the town funeral director lived and worked on site, meaning they were available twenty-four hours a day, a necessity before electric refrigeration.

“The big central mortuary is staffed twenty-four seven, the bodies are never left alone. They can draw comfort from that and that’s all we can offer,” says Robert.

Guardian Funerals cater to both the lower and higher ends of the budget, with Robert describing them as “the middle of the road” when it comes to pricing.

“That’s not to say we can’t tailor things to each customer. If someone comes in and they don’t have a lot of money or if they come in and want to rent the Opera House, it just depends on how they talk to you and how you can help them achieve what they need,” he adds.

“I guess generally we sit in the more traditional area, so like black vehicles and black suits.”

In the serene meeting room, a small cardboard display catches my eye. It is the most colorful thing in sight.

“Oh LifeArt, yes let me show you,” says Robert, passing me the board. “The coffins are actually made of the material you are holding.”

The sign seems to be made of corflute plastic, but I am assured it is eighty per cent recyclable. It shows a range of coffins covered in images. Everything from flowers to a golf ball to a West Tigers logo. Customers can also have their own photos printed on the ‘cardboard’ coffin.

“Ah ‘suitable to decorate with crayons and paints’. That’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah so it’s great for two reasons,” he says, “it’s ecofriendly and you get that sense of creativity.”

Despite being made of a glorified cardboard, one of the fully customised coffins is priced at over four thousand dollars. I later find out that LifeArt is owned by InvoCare.

“Some people choose to have the party before the person dies, rather than waiting until they can no longer celebrate their own life,” says Robert. Prepaid funerals are now a large and growing source of revenue for all funeral companies.

Despite my revulsion at imaging my own funeral, I see the sense in what he is saying.

“Yeah, I guess if you are paying all this money on a big party, it would be nice to be there,” I add.

“That’s absolutely right! Why have someone else drinking your booze and dancing on your grave. To me that’s a very sensible way of dealing. But not everyone can come to that conclusion.” Even Robert questions the rationality of traditional funerals.

During the interview with Robert I am acutely aware of my bias. Robert is a wonderful conversationalist and I find it hard to doubt his good intentions but this could be because he looks like a well-dressed Santa Claus. He is accommodating and says “sorry if I keep talking I am just really passionate about this” more than once during the hour.

My distrust lies with the system. Two years ago I had been sitting in a room very similar to where I am sitting now and speaking to a director from a company very similar to the company I was interviewing now, but instead we were going over prices. As a nineteen-year-old my experience with funerals, like many other things, was limited. Likewise, so were my funds.

Often throughout her life my mother said things like:

“I don’t care what happens to me when I die, just chuck me on the side of the road and have a party.” I believe she meant it, too.

I said as much in my eulogy to her, which I didn’t end up presenting. My Aunty took the stand in my place, reading this line from a piece of paper:

“Let’s not kid ourselves, she would have hated this. She is likely laughing at all the ritual and poetry, trying to tell us not to make such a fuss!”

So why were we in a chapel, my thighs numb on a pew, listening to a priest attempt to make tangential connections – “she often wore a cross necklace to symbolise that while she wasn’t always outspoken about her beliefs, she wore it close to her heart” – to justify his presence. In reality she wore the necklace because she was given it by a pastor who she thought was hot.

The desire for ‘closure’ cost me a lot. All the circumstances were aligned for me to make the radical decision to forgo a funeral: she wasn’t religious, she didn’t have a will in place, she had explicitly said she didn’t want one and yet I followed protocol and found myself in a meeting room discussing the benefits of lined over unlined caskets. Multiple small loans, a dropped university subject and a lot of unnecessary stress in the days following her death, was the price. In hindsight, I realise that honoring my deceased mother through putting myself in a poor financial situation is the antithesis of what she would have wanted as my parent.

I was sold the idea that a funeral would provide ‘closure’. Instead I was left frustrated and gaping open. It was a month later when the father of my close friend passed away and she chose to hold off on having a funeral until she was in a better financial state, that I realised there was a choice. And that I had made the wrong one.

“I think it went as perfect as a funeral can go,” Justine, another friend, says when asked about the experience of planning her mother’s funeral.

“I mean there are always going to be questions, like ‘what if blue wasn’t her favorite color’ or ‘what if we had bought a candle from home?’” When probed about the significance of the candle, she refers to a directive by the funeral director to bring one with her, something which she later forgot.

Despite coming from similar circumstances as myself, Justine views the experience in a more positive light. She describes the process of painting her mother’s coffin in the garage of her childhood friend as a life-affirming experience.

“My mother had once told me she wanted to have a gold coffin lined with velvet and decorated with jewels in the biggest church, you know, that level of celebration,” she explains. “When the reality struck that there was no way I could afford what she wanted, I felt really gross. Like she’s this incredible woman, she deserves that.

“The only one I could afford was the most basic model, plain, pine timber. But then I had this idea: what if I decorated it?

“From that moment on I was dedicated to this coffin. I painted it gold all over with these white painted birds, really big birds, all over the top.”

I can’t help but assume that individuals like Justine were the inspiration for InvoCare’s LifeArt coffins. Ironically, Justine’s creativity was spurned from financial necessity, while InvoCare benefits from its blatant commercialisation.

“I didn’t know what to expect, as you don’t; I don’t think anyone does, particularly at our age, but the funeral was incredible. Like it was really, really beautiful.” she says, proving that my experience is not universal. A conclusion that is not groundbreaking given the popularity of the ritual. Is satisfaction with the end result dependent on actively pursuing a course of action that would make it so? Again, I’m sure the answer to this is not groundbreaking.

Obvious or not it must be questioned whether this is achievable for all people in society. Particularly when research commissioned by the Australian Funeral Directors Association in 2014, found that cost was the most important factor when deciding on a funeral, with two in three Australians saying it trumped religion and family traditions. Unfortunately, the wishes of the deceased and their bank balance are not always in sync.

Walking off the platform at Port Kembla train station, near Wollongong, two policemen are posted are at the single exit to check the Opal cards of people alighting. Long considered an industrial town, the blue strip of ocean on the horizon is interrupted by tall chimneys spewing smoke and weathered corrugated iron buildings that look like aircraft hangers.

During the fifteen-minute walk from the station I encounter only one person. Mid-morning on a Wednesday and the small town is silent. After stepping over a rotting bag of bait tossed on the sidewalk and crossing what I believe is a main road but devoid of cars, I arrive at Tender Funerals, one of few not-for-profit funeral homes in Australia.

Housed in a heritage fire station and nestled amongst classic Australiana suburbia, you could easily mistake the business for any other house in the street. Inside the illusion continues with each room of the cottage fitted out just as a house would be: living room, dining room, kitchen and bathroom. To my left I peer into an office to see Amy Sagar, the funeral director, speaking on the phone but gesturing that she would only be a minute.

The atmosphere of funeral homes, or at least their public areas, is predictable across the board. A palate of beige and white. Clean, elegant furniture. Lots of mahogany. A seascape on the wall. Soft spa music in the background. A bowl of mints next to a box of tissues with a decorative cover. Sometimes there are fish tanks.

This funeral home is not that. White walls are the backdrop for abstract art and colorful throw pillows. Incense burns on the fire place and there is a crocheted cactus in a tea cup on the dining table.

According to Amy, like most things Tender Funerals do, this departure from the norm is intentional. In their aims to normalise death while making sure their clients are as comfortable as possible they figure a cozy lounge with a big Persian rug surrounded by candles, is a pretty suitable place to view your deceased loved one. I tend to agree. You can even bring the dog along.

“Our principle is we’re not here to tell you how to do your funeral, we’re here to provide you with every option and you can create what you want from that,” says Amy.

“We ask whether they would like to wash and dress them. Would you like them to be in a coffin or on a cooling plate [an electronic metal tray that keeps the corpse cold] on the ground? Then they can decide what suits them best. The cooling plate is also portable, so people can take their loved one home.”

“It’s not for everyone, but for some people it would work, for others if it was anything but a church service it wouldn’t be them. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure style.”

At twenty-four years of age Amy is young when it comes to funeral directors, entering the industry when she was sixteen years old.

“I was in high school and during food technology we watched a documentary that had cadavers in it, and I was like ‘oh my god they’re dead people and look how casual these morticians are,” she says. “I was like ‘that’s amazing, I reckon I could do that.’”

The importance of having younger generations in the industry can be seen when you look at the progressive work Tender Funerals are doing. Aside from offering services beyond that of the traditional homes, they operate under a social enterprise model. This means that each funeral costs the customer only what it costs the company through goods and wages. A stark contrast to the over 100 per cent mark-up on coffins elsewhere in the industry.

Their fees are listed item by item on the website, under the caveat: “we truly believe the amount spent on a funeral is not a reflection of the amount a person was loved.” Breaking down the prices into individual items and services allows the customer to make clear decisions on what is essential or otherwise.

“The prices for someone who used our mortuary services who didn’t want to be near the body at all and someone who provided for the deceased at home are very different. We don’t feel that those people should be charged the same rates to pay for our refrigerators to run if they we aren’t using them,” Amy explains.

“So we’ve tried to do our costing structure as honestly and transparently as possible, but in saying that, we will help you figure out what the fees mean and what services you have engaged.”

As a not-for-profit community organistion, it’s easier to believe Amy when she says she will try to talk the customer out of designing a funeral beyond their means.

“I don’t know if you have been to a funeral before,” she says. “But unless they’re something spectacular you probably don’t remember the flowers atop the coffin which probably cost like 600 dollars.

“For many families that is completely out of reach but they feel they have to do it because everyone else does. Sometimes it is just giving them the option that they don’t have to and they are like ‘thank god’.”

The result of a business model like this? Thousands of dollars’ difference in the price of a funeral. In her previous role in a commercial funeral home, Amy says that the bottom of the line, base model coffin would set you back 1,350 dollars. Tender funerals sell the same one for 500 dollars.

With the goal of accessibility, Tender Funerals have built a crowd-sourcing function directly into their website.

“So it’s a personalised link, that can be shared on the families’ social media and it allows people to donate say like ten bucks, until the cost of the funeral is covered,” says Amy.

“Sometimes it’s hard for people to get money when there is mistrust around where that money will go, but if it’s going directly to the funeral director and there are no questions.”

This goes to the understanding that even under a not-for-profit model some people will be unable to afford the base costs of a funeral service or body disposal. Even a few hundred dollars can be impossible for families or individuals who are struggling, creating significant stress in an already difficult time.

In the last few decades we have witnessed the revolution of both marriage and birthing practices. Is a revolution in funeral practices next?

The Baby Boomer generation was largely responsible for driving these changes and we are now approaching the time when this generation will find themselves in the beige offices of funeral directors. If history is anything to go by, we can expect to see some profound changes on a social level.

Weddings are increasingly bespoke events as we disregard antiquated traditions to suit our own needs. It’s arguable that funerals are heading the same way. Likewise, home births are increasingly common as mothers prefer to be within the familiar space of their living quarters while going through the life-changing experience. In this vein, people should have the option to care for their loved ones at home during and following death in a space that is comfortable and personalised to the individual.

If you have the capacity and the resources, there is no reason that the deceased must be immediately taken out of the care of the family following their death. To care for them at home seems like a logical continuation of a life-time together.

It was about three weeks after my mother’s funeral when an email appeared in my inbox. It was rare to receive correspondence from my Aunt, who lives permanently in France.

“I just had a thought and I think you should follow up on this,” it began.

I grew up in a single-mother home, my father leaving earlier than I can manage to remember. He is only tangentially involved in my life, with a dinner every two or so years at the local RSL. There was once a time where his was presence was heightened: I was eight years old and he suffered a life-threatening Brain Aneurysm. He has been tended to by full-time carers ever since and his health is in constant flux.

“You should check if he has a funeral plan in place. Because you know, if he passes away, you’ll be up for the funeral costs again,” the email reads.

The thought that I could end up financially responsible for someone that was the equivalent of a second-cousin in terms of their impact on my life stopped me in my tracks.

Even if, using my new found knowledge I made the call to forgo a funeral, I would still be financially implicated in the disposal of his body. And to send my father into the afterlife without so much as a wave or an acknowledgement seems wrong, even if we are talking about an almost stranger. I mean, I once had a funeral for a goldfish.

While companies like Tender Funerals are attempting to transform the commercial approach to the industry, they are still very much in the minority. And for a lot of Australians, still unaffordable.

And so the prospect of another loan sits waiting in the future. I can only hope to have the last one paid off by then.