When it comes to the best arrangements for after death, there are far more options than most people realise.
When we consider what to do at the time of a death, we often revert to what has been done in the past, rather than what might be best for us now. We know that it is a really difficult time for most people and that emotional turmoil can cloud our thinking. I call it ‘messy thinking’. It’s at a time when everything seems to be overwhelming and there is just so much to do.
Choices, rights, and laws
As a family death-care advocate, funeral celebrant and trainer of celebrants, I provide information on choices, rights, and the laws surrounding end-of-life, dying and death.
Because this topic is not widely discussed, generally speaking, people are often unaware that they do have choices. Perhaps there is also an element of the funeral industry not wanting people to know they have choices because they fear they will lose the business to a competitor, or they think what you are asking is too hard to facilitate, or perhaps it just doesn’t work within their business model.
I am a keen advocate of people’s right to choose their own way of living and dying. I want you to know about the choices you have, so that you are well informed to make educated decisions.
Let’s have a look at a sample of the end-of-life topics:
- palliative care
- advance care planning and other
- legal documents
- euthanasia and physician assisted dying
- dying at home and home vigils
- end-of-life care generally
- end-of-life decisions on treatment l funeral options
- burial, cremation, other
Choices regarding the above issues need to be considered from the perspective of both the dying person and family and friends. Everyone needs to concentrate on how they can get involved in a discussion, assist the dying person with making end-of-life decisions and ensuring that their wishes are followed through.
Location of death and home stay / vigils
In many situations, an option to die at home might be preferable. However, even if this is the wish of the dying person, it may not be preferred by their family, for various reasons. This discussion needs to take place so plans can be made. There are organisations that can assist with this option – including Palliative Care, Death Doulas etc. Of course, there are times where this is not possible due to the person’s particular illness, their need for ongoing advanced medical treatment or current state of health, but quite often taking the person home to die is possible, and can be a very therapeutic and beautiful experience for all those involved.
I had a family who came to me twelve months ago wanting assistance with getting their loved one home to die. Initially the hospice was a bit reluctant due to the fact that the gentleman was close to death – but the only risk to the person and his family was that he might die in the ambulance on the way home.
The family decided to make it happen and got him home
They made him comfortable, surrounded by familiar things and people. I visited them when they had settled and explained the likely process. Their intention was to keep him at home for 24 hours after death – and then he would be collected.
Two days later he died
The family expressed to me that they were grateful that they were able to facilitate his resting place being home, and that it was a good experience for everyone, as sad as it was.
I visited the family each day to ensure they were supported but also to check on the state of the deceased. We needed to ensure that the body was looked after and that the experience for all those concerned did not turn into a negative one. This was in January in Melbourne so the weather was hot, and it was something we needed to consider. When I arrived on that first day after death, the family asked could they extend that home stay. That was made possible with the procurement of a cooling bed (a cooling system used to preserve a body) – which was sourced for them quickly and installed to ensure the body stayed at a cool temperature. This time was so valued by the family that they kept him at home for 5 days post-death. What a wonderful experience for them to always look back on.
Many years ago it was quite natural to have a deceased at home for a few days. There is a resurgence of this happening in Australia. I have facilitated many people being taken home for a few hours or a few days. Yes, in some places you may need the assistance of someone with a cooling bed – but the benefits of this can far outweigh any negatives.
Parents whose child is still-born, or dies very soon after birth, experience a terrible loss. But this loss is often heightened because they are not offered the option of taking their baby home. They nurtured the growth of that baby for months only to leave the hospital empty handed.
Being able to facilitate a home visit with the deceased baby, for even just a few hours, can help with the parents’ grief. They will always be able to say that their baby did visit the nursery even just for a short time. I have facilitated many home visits for babies. Some of them for an hour or so prior to a funeral, others for a few days (with the assistance of a ‘cuddle cot’ – a child version of a cooling bed).
There is no law in place about having to engage a funeral company when a death occurs. Sadly this has become the norm for most families, regardless of whether it is in their interest or not. Many families engage a funeral company because they have no idea that they could choose to manage the process themselves.
What we do know is that many people are complaining that they are being pushed, and even bullied, into signing up for a funeral that may not meet their needs, and often leaves them with a huge debt.
Times are changing
What was done in the past may not be in everyone’s best interest. Options can be discussed and planned way ahead of a death occurring. Yes, death is often the very thing people don’t want to think about – but I believe it’s in your interest to think about it ahead of time.
When a death occurs, there is no hurry to arrange or to conduct a funeral. There is no law that defines when a funeral must take place, or that a funeral is required at all. Certain cultures, such as the Islamic community, bury their dead quite quickly, but most others have no such defining rituals. Even if the death was expected there is no hurry to make decisions and organise a funeral.
If a family is being encouraged to have a funeral shortly after a tragic accident I will always suggest they take their time and advise them that there is no hurry. In most instances it is in their interests to wait a few days before making any decisions. There is no law requiring a funeral to take place in the next week, or even the week after that. Families should know this, so they do not feel rushed into having a funeral sooner than they want.
I am concerned about a recent trend appearing where a funeral company representative often suggests and encourages a family to arrange a funeral quickly. I abhor this practice knowing that, in most instances, it may not be in the interests of the family and friends.
A state of extreme shock is usually the case in the event of a sudden death. Families often need time to recover from the initial blow/shockwave before any decisions are made.
Sadly, some funeral companies have their own agenda in these situations; they have quotas to meet. The funeral industry is a big industry with a bottom line that matters. A new emphasis has emerged in the funeral industry. Families are less often considered first. Now we tend to see that in most situations a business model takes precedence. Can the two goals work together simultaneously? Yes they can. When people work together within an atmosphere of trust and compassion, making the family the focus, it can still be profitable. Families always were the prime focus of a funeral and, thankfully some companies still maintain this approach.
Taking the time to research a funeral company is important for many reasons
It assists with a satisfying experience. The ownership of a company may not matter to some – but it will to many. Some families do want to know who actually owns the funeral company they are entrusting their loved one to. It is not always apparent or transparent – so make some enquiries. You might be shocked to learn that the once family-owned and run company is now owned by a much bigger conglomerate that may not appeal to you.
Putting your loved one in the care of a funeral company who do care about their clients I believe is important. Putting your funeral in the hands of an independent funeral celebrant can also be the best decision you may make.
In Australia, there are relatively few restrictions imposed by our regulations and laws as to what a family can do to honour a life. The system of using professional celebrants enables flexibility and that, coupled with a professional and caring funeral director whose focus is to facilitate the event, most often results in an authentic funeral that pleases the family.
Independent funeral celebrants
It is important to make the distinction between a celebrant appointed by the funeral company and an independent celebrant. Some funeral companies use a staff member to be the celebrant. While some funeral company staff may be well intentioned, this does not automatically mean they will make a good celebrant. Many funeral company staff are paid a very low salary and are then expected to act as celebrant, often working outside their normal daytime hours, for no extra remuneration. This scenario is fraught with danger and often leads to burnt out and frustrated staff who consequently end up leaving. Another little known fact is that some funeral companies then keep the money you have paid for a celebrant.
Training is important
Simply accepting the celebrant appointed by the funeral company may also not be ideal. One would like to think that they would consider matching you with a suitable celebrant from their list, but this is rarely done. Most funeral companies have a list of celebrants to choose from and just work down that list until it’s exhausted. In busy times this could mean you are allocated a novice celebrant who may never have conducted a funeral. Or, worse still, has no training or skills. There is no requirement for any celebrant to be trained to conduct a funeral.
The best option is to choose an independent celebrant not connected to the funeral company. They work independently and are therefore not so concerned about working within the funeral company model. They are autonomous and will not be under the direction of the funeral company but working in your best interests. You need a celebrant who can work with you on all the elements that are important. The independent funeral celebrant then works with you to ensure your needs are met. You pay that celebrant direct, just as you would if you had purchased your own flowers, or made your own coffin. Most independent celebrants work for an hourly rate and they are very transparent about the rate at the outset.
A funeral can take place anywhere. So think outside the square a little if the venue is important. If it is, try to find a location that is authentic to the deceased and family. Sitting in a nice bright room overlooking a forest, a lake, or the sea can be delightful compared to sitting in a dark, poorly lit chapel. I think the venue matters greatly. I see the difference between sitting in a space that is conducive to honouring that life and a space that actually makes people sadder than they need to be.
Coffins and the disposal of bodies
In many states there is little or no law around the way a person is transported or if a coffin is required. So people can be transported around in family cars if that is what ‘floats your boat’. Coffins are not actually required by law in most states, or the meaning of what constitutes a coffin varies greatly. We have ‘coffin clubs’ in many locations where people are getting together to create beautiful pieces of art, rather than spending thousands of dollars on coffins that most families can’t afford.
We are also seeing the rise of cemeteries and other organisations that are planning and preserving space for natural burials sites. These can take many forms – and might differ in the criteria for what is allowed and what is not – but it might be worth checking if this interests you.
You can be green in death!
Shrouded burials and shrouded cremations are available in some states. Many of my families are choosing this above everything else. Why waste the timber used to create a coffin that might cost $5000, when in other parts of your life you would consider the impact this might have on our environment?
Hopefully this has peaked your interest in understanding that you have choices and rights even in death. Learning more about your choices and rights is important so can make the right decisions for you as a family.
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