National Day of Student Protest

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 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.

“So, what do you think?” he prods.

“Any chance you could leave out the part about Jesus? And maybe God too, you know, 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 here 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. This figure can change dramatically depending on the services required: for example, burial is often over three times the cost of cremation. 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.

Funerals, unlike the disposal of corpses, are not essential. They have become so ubiquitous in Australia, however, that they may as well be. The culture is such that following a death, the question is not ‘should was have a funeral?’ but ‘when’. In many cases, the alternatives are not considered and the first funeral director consulted will be the one contracted for the job. A funeral will often be one of the most expensive events we organise in a 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 $1 billion industry, which is based on a sure bet: people die.

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

Neil and Giovanni are a defacto couple and the 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,” 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 — possibly 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.

“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 man’s face, his grey hair long and weathered by his time spent confined to a hospital bed, waiting to be cured by Giovanni, the mortuary’s resident hairdresser and cosmetics expert. It was actually Giovanni’s career in the beauty industry that made them start the business. Neil says the presentation of deceased people and the living is remarkably similar. The cadavers have their hair cut, faces shaved and ears cleaned. They are washed and spritzed with cologne. Make-up is specially mixed to work on cold skin and the application is mostly a lot heavier than usual. Turns out you can go harder on the blush when you are no longer pumping blood. The comparisons end when I discover Giovanni is also responsible for reconstructing the missing parts of accident victims’ faces using latex and wax.

“It’s pretty close too,” 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.

Six bodies lie in the mortuary. When Neil opens the fridge the first thing I see are two sock-covered feet. A member of Tongan royalty, already-embalmed, lays uncovered. 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, 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 chance of getting a look at InvoCare’s operating premises, which are shared between the different brands, is low. They do not respond to my request for an interview.

Independent companies like Men in Black make up approximately sixty per cent of the funeral industry. The other forty per cent is InvoCare-owned. 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, three sizable processing centers handle the inflow of cadavers from all of these locations. It is here that the storing, cleaning, embalming, dressing and coffining take place. It is estimated that the Lidcombe centre alone processes over 10,000 services a year.

Art: Jess Zlotnick
Art: Jess Zlotnick

Operations like this allow InvoCare to continue increasing its share of the market. We believe we have choice in the funeral industry. Looking at the major brands, this is not the case.

In lieu of a response from the InvoCare head office, I turn to Robert James, a director at Guardian Funerals Bondi Junction and an industry veteran with over forty years’ experience.

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

“No one has come to us and said ‘I don’t like the fact that my father is not with you physically.’ … The big central mortuary is staffed twenty-four-seven, the bodies are never left alone. They can draw comfort from that.”

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.

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 feels like corflute plastic, but Robert assures me 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. They’re even “suitable to decorate with crayons and paints”.

Despite being made of a glorified cardboard, one of the fully customised coffins is priced at over $4000. I later find out that LifeArt is owned by InvoCare.

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. 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 this, but we were going over prices. As a nineteen-year-old my experience with funerals, like many other things, was limited. 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, 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 think it went as perfect as a funeral can go,” Justine says when asked about the experience of planning her mother’s funeral.

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.

“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,”  she says, proving 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? Probably.

Obvious or not it must be questioned whether this is achievable for everyone. Particularly when research commissioned by the Australian Funeral Directors Association in 2014 found cost was the most important factor when deciding on a funeral, with two in three Australians saying it trumped religion and family traditions. 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. During the fifteen-minute walk from the station I encounter only one person. 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.

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 provide a backdrop for abstract art and colorful throw pillows. Incense burns on the fireplace and there is a crocheted cactus in a tea cup on the dining table.

According to Amy, this departure from the norm is intentional like most things at Tender Funerals.

“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? The cooling plate is also portable, so people can take their loved one home.”

Amy, 24, is young when it comes to funeral directors, having entered the industry at only 16. The importance of having younger generations in the industry is obvious when you look at the progressive work Tender Funerals is doing. They operate under a social enterprise model, meaning each funeral costs the customer only what it cost Tender Funerals in 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 about what is essential.

As a not-for-profit, 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 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. Tender funerals sell the same one for $500.

About three weeks after my mother’s funeral, an email appeared in my inbox.

“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 and he is only tangentially involved in my life. There was once a time where his was presence was heightened: when he suffered a life-threatening Brain Aneurysm.

“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 who 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. 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.

Additional reporting by Izabella Antoniou

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