Dedicated funeral director Michelle shares her insights and experience around death and funerals.
I can’t say ‘funeral director’ was at the top of my list of things I wanted to be when I grew up. I can say I thought about being a vet or a hairdresser, but funeral director never even entered my mind. Yet here I now am, helping people organise final farewells for the loved ones in their lives. Done badly, it can contribute to family conflict, overwhelm and extended grief. Done well, it can provide an important opportunity for expression and acceptance and will actually assist in the grieving process.
I guess some things you are drawn towards because of an innate passion… and some things are drawn towards you because it is exactly what you need on a soul level.
Death as a part of life
Throughout my life, my family didn’t talk much about death. You could say they avoided ‘death’ as much as possible. My family thoroughly feared death and in their fear attempted to keep it hidden. However, as we all know, you can only hide death for so long. Children are curious and clever little critters, often not acknowledged for the wisdom and understanding that they possess. It doesn’t take much time for them to notice the ‘elephant in the room’. Perhaps it’s the whispers behind closed doors that make them suspicious. Or the fact that children experience the world through more than just words and are greatly influenced by the emotional tones that they feel all around them. Sooner or later, the truth is going to be revealed.
As I’ve grown and experienced more death and grief in my own life, I see that death is something to be faced, not feared. Like any strong emotion or experience, the more you resist it, the greater it tugs away at you until you finally deal with it. Our fear of anything will usually cause avoidant behaviour. Unfortunately death cannot be avoided. Accepting that part of being human is dealing with death and loss, we can actually live our lives more fully while we are here.
A profound moment
I remember seeing my first dead body after my grandfather died. I was seven years old. Attending the funeral, everyone else was entering the chapel before the service for the viewing. I told my parents I wanted to see him too. They told me it would be best not to. I’ve always been grateful for putting my foot down and declaring adamantly that I go see him. It feels like one of the significant turning points in my life. When I saw him laying there in the coffin, I saw the place where he used to live. His physical body was lifeless, but in a way that made me realise we all have something profoundly beautiful and infinitely eternal that animates us when we’re alive.
At seven, I didn’t really have the language to understand what a soul was, but I got it on an experiential level. It gave me an incredible sense of peace to know that he didn’t live there anymore. He lived in someplace intangible. He lived on, forever in our hearts. I suddenly had great acceptance in the process of death… and life.
Funerals as daily experience
Nearly 30 years later I ‘fell’ into the funeral industry. In a perfectly random sequence of events, I was offered the opportunity to work for Australia’s longest running, independently owned funeral service. Having now been involved in the industry for the last seven years, it is with great gratitude that I get to work so closely with death and all the myriad of things that go with it. And it is such an honour to be a part of the final celebration of someone’s life.
I’m not your typical funeral director by any means! A nose piercing, an asymmetric haircut, and less than traditional dress sense, I’ve surprised a few families who expected someone a bit more ‘conventional’! But at a time when the funeral industry is evolving to better suit the needs of the consumer, rather than the commercial-led enterprise it became over recent decades, it needs a refreshing approach to help empower families in their choices during a vulnerable time.
Our approach to death
These days it’s not uncommon for families to want to be more involved in the whole process of death and dying. Death used to be a community event. It’s a process that became somewhat lost due to the commercialisation of the industry. Like so many other processes in our lives (such as childbirth), we have been outsourcing to commercial and other sources for decades. However, many people are wanting to go back to the ‘old ways’, where we cared for the dying and dead at home. Usually once a person died, the family would take the time and care to wash and clothe the deceased’s body and then the body remained at home to allow friends and family to come by and pay their respects.
This is still common practice is some parts of the world. While it is not part of our regular practice here in Australia, it is certainly possible. However, your final choices will be greatly impacted by the funeral company you use and certain health and legal regulations.
Making the right choice
In Australia, the funeral industry is dominated by one partially US-owned company comprising of some of the big name funeral homes you would probably be familiar with. You can compare it to the big supermarket brands we now see on every corner. While I don’t want to criticise the mainstream funeral industry, my concerns lie with their service model which doesn’t always cater to the family’s true needs at a vulnerable time. They operate a production line system and actively promote up-selling of products.
Often families receive a fairly impersonal service at a very emotional time – you may have to speak to a different person each time you call. Plus they usually offer little flexibility in their service delivery, which doesn’t enable much opportunity for making empowering choices.
Generally, a small, independently owned funeral company will have a lot more flexibility in the way they handle the whole process. You’re more likely to receive a personalised service and have the same contact person for all of your arrangements and questions. Plus, they can usually adapt the funeral service to better suit your wishes, rather than a ‘one size fits all’ model. Part of this comes from having staff trained to undertake all aspects of the job and also not being attached to filling their own in-house chapels. Supporting an independent, you support a 100% Australian owned operator. Also an independent company will generally cost much less than a service with one of the corporates, as they don’t have the same overheads for things like marketing.
Options and legal requirements
Regulations vary from state to state, but there are probably many more options than you have been led to believe. I recommend asking around if it feels important for you to have a bit more flexibility in your choices.
While there is no legislation that states it is a legal requirement to use a funeral home, many regulations at hospitals, cemeteries, and crematoriums make it virtually impossible to do without. Most hospitals and nursing homes do not have procedures in place to release the deceased directly to the family upon death. Then you have the problem of efficient transport of the body. And efficient storage. The reality is that bodies can leak and purge and start to break down. Depending on the cause of death, there may be some basic preparations you can do to keep fluids in. Because of the quantities of preservatives in our food these days, our bodies don’t decompose as quickly as they used to, but it is still a reality.
Be aware that embalming is not a requirement unless you need to repatriate the body or if it is to be placed in an above-ground vault. In the USA, embalming is common practice, so you may find it is recommended if you use one of the corporate services. It usually isn’t necessary and best to be avoided if possible, as you are literally injecting toxic chemicals, such as formaldehyde, into your loved one.
While places like Costco are now offering their coffins for sale direct to the public, there are certain potential problems that limit them as an actual possibility. Again, transport can be tricky. Having a vehicle large enough is the first obstacle. Also, the quality of materials and workmanship can present a problem – particularly for cremations, where the coffin needs to be ‘thrust’ swiftly into a cremator. Disruptions to their entry can be dangerous, difficult, and costly. Some crematoriums are requiring families to sign waivers that render them liable should any damage occur.
As for ‘natural burials’, there are some natural burial sites being established around the country, usually run by existing cemeteries who have a plot of land that is virtually untouched. The appeal of these sites is to keep them in their most natural site. While it sounds idyllic, some people are avoiding this option as once the burial has occurred they are unable to place a memorial to mark the burial site and must rely purely on GPS co-ordinates to locate it.
More and more developments are happening throughout the world and opening up our disposal options – from aquamation (known as a ‘water cremation’) to promession (freezing the body with liquid nitrogen and then shattering it into tiny particles). I guess it’s about finding the method that feels right for you.
As for registering a death – it is a legal requirement for all deaths in Australia to be recorded with the Births, Deaths and Marriages (BDM) office in the state the death occurred. While it is possible for the family to take care of the registration themselves, it involves collecting the death certificate from the doctor, plus collecting, completing and returning paperwork to BDM, which can be a lengthy process. All funeral directors use an online system to enter details and usually have a direct contact they can call to follow up on any outstanding certificates, which can simplify the process.
Planning a funeral
There is a great deal to consider when planning a funeral, especially if it was an unexpected death. This is a heightened time of emotion so you want to ensure you are supported in the way that feels right for you.
What’s important to remember is that this is a time when your choices really matter. Your choices can impact your grieving process positively or negatively. Don’t let yourself be talked into something you don’t want to do (unless of course there is no other legal, practical or sensible option!). Don’t allow the body to be picked up before you’ve agreed on costs and details. Don’t be afraid to take your time calling a number of funeral directors to find out their prices or to get a feel for the right person. Be aware that some of the ‘big names’ are owned by the same parent company so you may end up with a similar price for the three different brands. It can be useful to explore some independent funeral operators also.
I encourage you to discuss your options with your family and loved ones before the time comes and before you’re feeling overwhelmed with the myriad of decisions you need to make while processing your grief. It’s never too early to make plans about what you want. In some cases it may be worth organising a pre-paid funeral now so that it’s all paid for and organised before the day comes. All the details needed to complete the legal paperwork are recorded and the funeral can be paid for at today’s rates. The money is safely invested in a third party to ensure your funds are available even if the funeral company folds.
Another option is to simply pre-arrange your funeral, where the funeral director records the information but no money is exchanged until the time of the funeral. If pre-paying or pre-arranging your own funeral, it is also important to remember that a funeral is not just to ‘dispose’ of your body, but is also an opportunity for friends and family to be able to grieve, share their memories and say their farewells. Finding a way to do this that suits everyone’s needs and reflects your life appropriately can make it a less stressful process.
Death is a reality of life
Of all the things in life, death is the one thing we can all be certain of. The reality is we are all going to die. That doesn’t mean we won’t be sad when we lose someone we love. But hopefully embracing the reality of losing our loved ones will encourage us to connect with and appreciate them so much more while we are here.
I invite you to talk about death with your families. While some people find it difficult to talk about their mortality, unfortunately it won’t stop the inevitable. Discussing important factors such as your choices around end-of-life care enables you to share your wishes about your future health and care plans, should you become too ill to convey them yourself.
Talking about how you would like your life to be celebrated can also be a beneficial process. Conveying your preference for some of the details before the time comes can create much less stress for those who are doing the funeral planning. A funeral doesn’t have to be a miserable or boring event. I’ve witnessed some beautiful funerals that truly reflect the person whose life we are honouring. It can be a sacred journey of transformation and commemoration, celebrating a life that was lived. It can offer an important turning point for children to gain a deeper understanding of the process of death and develop their capacity to deal with grief. Ultimately it can be a ceremony that allows you to acknowledge your gratitude and love for the presence of the special people in your life.
We are all going to die. We will all face death of people we love. It is a normal part of life. So live fully while you are here and as Rumi says: “Die happily and look forward to taking up a new and better form”.
Where to find out more:
National Funeral Directors Association – all members are 100% Australian owned, independent funeral directors www.nfda.org.au
Dying to know day – held annually in Australia during August, to encourage conversations and community actions around death, dying and bereavement www.dyingtoknowday.org
Natural Death Advocacy Network – offer information about holistic approaches to death and dying www.ndan.com.au
Advance Care Planning Australia – provides information and resources about planning for future health and personal care www.advancecareplanning.org.au
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