Not embalmed, body bathed by his son and dressed in a favourite outfit. Coffin made of simple cardboard and not lined with plastic. It had rope handles — all materials that were biodegradable.
The funeral procession followed the hearse on foot from the family home to the nearby Mullumbimby cemetery as music bellowed from the car.
And, when it was time, his body was placed into the earth just 1 metre deep — 3.3 feet — while the service was held by the Hart’s family friend: their neighbour.
In: Why Diane honoured her husband Michael’s death with a natural burial, Dinah Lewis Boucher (ABC News, 09 August 2022) reports on a death and a funeral that was about as green as you can get in Australia these days.
A few points to get us in the mindset for doing death more naturally include: • Only one body per burial plot • No embalming chemicals • What the body is dressed in needs to be biodegradable • Compost and other green matter are added to the grave • Ideally, natural burial is also a shroud burial. You don’t need to have a coffin to be buried in a grave (although in some states it will be required for transport to the grave) • A natural burial site would look like any park or bushland, with no statues or tombstones
But here’s the take home line: “It’s good to start the conversation around death and dying before it happens,” says Diane Hart.
A recent story in a daily newspaper reported that the adult parents in a family of four had determined not to write up their wills, saying: “Making a will makes us feel very old.”
Haven’t got around to it is another reason, people offer up, when asked this important question. These are hardly legitimate justifications – more on the use of this word as we attempt to unpack what’s going on in the minds of the modern Aussie.
About 45 percent of Australians don’t have a legal will. These same time poor families are not so time poor that they can’t spend hours ferrying children to sport and both parents travelling to and from a paid job, sometimes hours away from home. If travelling on public transport they could jot down the basics on the train or bus on their digital devices. If in the car, they could use the record function on the phone as easily as chat to someone about the latest movie or other social event.
These same people can find the time to go for coffee, to plan and go on holidays – many overseas at great expense.
We hear the reasoning – better known as excuses – but we don’t accept or buy the rationale as being reasonable. We think it’s selfish and hard to justify.
We can insure the car and house, go to the movies, pay for regular attendance at sporting events such as the football or tennis, buy wine, take lotto tickets, have expensive mobile phone plans, subscribe to Netflix – all the things the modern family can find the time for and spend the money on.
But, really in this day and age, with all the time saving devices at our finger tips, to be able to justify hours on social media, but not plan for the inevitable, cannot be justified from our perspective.
Toast to life
Darkness and light, ending and beginning. The setting of the sun each day marks another ending, and the rising of the sun each day marks a new beginning.
The time when we publicly, collectively gather to celebrate in large numbers is New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. A classic case of an ending and beginning.
In the larger symbolic sense, this could be likened to a dying and a birthing – the dead and the living.
For any given day of the year, for some family unit somewhere in our midst, there will be a passing parade where the ranks of the departed will grow by one, with a death, while on the other side of the ledger, the ranks of the living will grow by one, with a birth.
In a nod of the head and tipping of the hat we acknowledge or at last we should acknowledge the reality of life that includes death as a norm.
The stories of our ancestors need to be passed down across the generations – “Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?” from the poem Auld Lang Syne by Robert Burns in 1788.
Death need not be a stranger. With each day, no matter our age, we draw a little closer to the closing curtain times than the opening bars of the symphony. This is not a morbid mode of thinking. It is a realisation of how frailty and co-morbidities will most probably take us out at the ending of days if we are fortunate enough to live past the three score and ten years of days long ago.
Invite death literacy into our daily practice and weekly conversations. Normalise the passing of time and bigger picture that we are each a part of. Toast with honey or strawberry jam, or maybe a savoury spread, a cuppa and a meaningful conversation with content of substance such as writing a will. By doing this we can pave the way for healthier futures that include setting aside the time for reviewing and updating our said will and preparing advance health care plans, appointing an enduring guardian and power of attorney.
ABC television broadcasts across the country with many programs of immense community interest. One of these is Australian Story.
In a program broadcast under the title: A community undertaking (ABC TV, June 20, 2022) it highlighted that choice is lacking in the funeral landscape, especially when it comes to community involvement and pricing of this essential service.
Introduced by filmmaker Phillip Crawford, the viewer is invited to ‘step inside the funeral provider that’s transforming the way we do death.
Six years ago, with a group of community volunteers, Jenny Briscoe-Hough founded Tender Funerals, a not-for-profit funeral service in Port Kembla.
Tender has a mission to provide personalised and affordable funerals, and to demystify the funeral process and put it back in the hands of the grieving.
Filmed over 10 months, this episode follows the experiences of people who used Tender to look after their deceased loved one, providing an extraordinarily intimate view of a process we rarely get to see.’
Two of the people featured on the program were Jenny Briscoe-Hough, Port Kemble Community Centre coordinator and Zenith Virago, a private end-of-life worker who has been campaigning for greater family participation in the funeral space for decades. Zenith is the founder of the Natural Death Care Centre, on the north coast of NSW, which is modelled on the Natural Death Centre, based in the UK.
JENNY B-H: Have you ever heard of Zenith Virago?
ZENITH: I’ve spent 25 years living in the northern rivers (NSW) working with people who are dying, being with their bodies when they are dead and working with families. We really need to reclaim the death process.
JENNY: Zenith was one of the first people to look at doing death differently in Australia. She came to the community, she trained the community
ZENITH: Before there was a funeral industry there were all these families taking care of their own.washing them, cleaning them, caring for them.
Most people don’t know that they can do it themselves. You can go from the bed to the cremator, the bed to the grave, without a professional person being involved – there’ll be a medical person but that’s it.
None of it is rocket science. It’s just not what the funeral industry is doing. Their first agenda is how to make a profit. The funeral industry is a corporate business and they are owning links in the chain which people don’t understand. Like the coffin manufacturer, the funeral director, the cemetery, the crematorium, that’s a monopoly. And it’s a huge industry with a turnover of $1.6 billion a year.
As noted in previous posts, there are many examples of families – and communities – directing their own funeral events with dignity and panache. We have the skills. What we are lacking is a familiarity, lost over the last couple of generations by outsourcing the funeral to professionals, and this by extension leads to a loss of confidence. But let’s not be deterred, or be brushed aside as incompetent or lacking in capacity.
Let’s take hear and follow in the foot steps of those who have done and are doing it today. The Lightning Ridge Funeral Advisory Service, for example, is a not for profit volunteer organisation providing the town with funeral services for local residents who would otherwise have to access the professional funeral operator located at Walgett – the nearest centre with a funeral undertaker.
The service is headed by Ormie and others who are dedicated co-op members, with administration service provided by Maxine O’Brien. It’s a wonderful community program that was featured on an episode of Back Roads (ABC TV, December 10, 2018)
As Zenith Virago points out, it’s not rocket science.
If the content of this story by Matt Wade is any indicator of a broader attitude to stick with the status quo and not search out alternatives, then it’s little wonder that the mainstream funeral industry has most Australians convinced that what they have to offer is all there is on offer, and that to do things any other way is a step too far outside the established comfort zone.
In: Sad case of ‘till debt do us part, Matt Wade (The Sun Herald, July 8, 2014) writes about the stories we tell ourselves that determine the course we move along, often in spite of the realities taking place around us.
“Consumers can be a compliant lot. Just look at our banking habits. Surveys have shown more than 5 percent of Australians have been with their main bank for more than 10 years. That’s longer than the median duration of Australian marriages that end in divorce – 8.7 years from wedding day to separation, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies.”
“But consumers aren’t just creatures of habit, they’re also prone to suffering in silence. A 2011 survey conducted for the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) found that 76 percent of those who contacted their communications provider with a grievance did nothing about it. Complain and note it with the ACMA, but then didn’t bother to follow through.”
For all those who do complain, millions say nothing. They just put up with bad service.
So why are so many consumers so passive? One reason is what behavioral economists call “loss aversion” – the tendency for consumers to care more about preventing a loss than making a gain. The fear that a new unknown supplier will be even worse or at least no better than the one they’ve got.
Consumers also have a tendency to overestimate the short-term costs of switching and to underestimate the longer term benefits of switching. This is linked to what researchers have found to be a strong “status quo bias” in consumer behavior. People are surprisingly reluctant to change their circumstances even in the face of an obvious long term benefit.
We Aussies face another dynamic writes Wade, that might sap our motivation to switch – an economy marked by oligopolies. A host of important consumer markets, including banking, airlines, supermarkets, petrol and telecommunications, that are all dominated by a very small number of very big players. Why change when the few alternatives don’t seem very different.
NOTE: And this is increasingly the case with the instance of the funeral industry, one of the subjects of these posts, as the smaller family businesses are gobbled up by the largest investment based corporates.
Things are never as simple as they seem writes Waleed Aly: Inequality in death reigns as it does in life (SMH July 25, 2014). While this story is now 8 years old, the content, nevertheless, rings true. Write Aly:
“I have been thinking a lot lately about the value of human life. About the lives so cheaply lost on MH17. About the anger and grief this tragedy has unleashed.”
But I’ve also been thinking a lot about why it is these lives particularly that have earned such a response. The more I heard journalists and politicians talk about how 37 Australians were no longer with us, the stranger it began to sound. Something of that magnitude happens just about every week on our roads, for instance. In the last week for which we have official data, 29 people were killed this way. The youngest was aged two. We held no ceremonies and we had no public mourning of the fact that they too, were no longer with us.
Why? I don’t ask critically, because I’m as unmoved by the road toll as anyone. But it’s surely worth understanding how it is we decide which deaths matter, and which don’t; which ones are galling and tragic, and which ones are mere statistics. We tell ourselves we care about the loss of innocent life as though it’s a cardinal, unwavering principle, but the truth is we rationalise the overwhelming majority of it. What does that tell us about ourselves?
Waleed then goes on to discuss the terrible death and destruction in Gaza, where over 600 people were killed. He writes: “There’s grief, there’s anger, and there’s some international hand-wringing, but nothing that compared with the urgency and rage surrounding MH17, even if there is twice the human cost.”
He goes on to note that what plays out in each of the circumstances we select to focus on, “a universal principle” is at work. “It is not not merely the death of innocents that moves us, even in very large numbers. It is the circumstances of it that matter. We decide which deaths to mourn, which to ignore, which to celebrate and which to rationalise on the basis of what story we want them to tell.”
“Palestinian deaths matter more than Sudanese ones if you want to tell a story of Israeli aggression. Israeli deaths matter more than Palestinian ones if you want to tell a story of Hamas terrorism. Asylum seeker deaths at sea matter more than those on land if you want to tell a story about people smuggling. But a death in detention trumps all if your story is about government brutality. And a death from starvation matters if you want to tell a story about global inequality – which so few people do. Everyone will insist they’re merely giving innocent human lives their due. And that’s true, but only in the most partial sense. These are political stories driven by political commitments.”
Thought provoking and worth us reflecting on as we ponder the news events of the day and weigh up what to pay attention to and where to focus our energies as we go about each day, listen to each news bulletin, watch each news program, since much of the news is about death and dying in tragic circumstances. As for the remainder of our lives, well that is simply a compilation of all the days making up the next week, month, year and so on. Which life will matter will be determined by our worldview and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and which lives matter to us and to the larger earth family of human and other than human beings,
“As the historic grounds host fewer funerals and some graves fall into decay, the Melbourne General Cemetery is reinventing itself a a tourist spot and picnic park,’ writes Robyn Dixon in Graveyard rises from the dead (Newcastle Herald, Weekender, February 14, 2015).
The most popular night tour is on Halloween, when visitors in ghoulish costumes troop between the graves. But the Friday the 13th, Midsommer and Full Moon tours always sell out, often turning dozens away.’
The people here are not mourners, ghost hunters, vandals or fans of Baker. Rather, they’re tourists, participating in one of the Melbourne General Cemetery’s popular night tours.
Celestina Sagazio, the Historical and Cultural Director of the Melbourne cemeteries trust, believes graveyards are for the living as much as for the dead, recently announced plans to cater for a range of social functions, including pre-death wakes (for people who want to be at their own wakes), philosophical lectures and weddings (a sure way to reinforce the message: “Til death do us part”)
That said the night tours started some years back “almost as part of a dare,” Sagazio says. Someone suggested the idea, half joking, but it was decided to give it a try.
“Some people thought it was unusual. But it’s got to be respectful.” The tours took off.
“It’s demystifying death, because we have this great fear of death and cemeteries. By visiting them, our fear diminishes. Exposure decreases fear. At one of the trusts newer cemeteries, Springvale Botanical, there is a restaurant with a French chef, regular jazz bands, a theatre and children’s playgrounds.
With fear and taboo surrounding death, cemetery management the world over faces a problem: How to maintain historically important monuments when no one wants to walk through the front gate?
We could try a little creativity and bring nature into the mix. The UNESCO World Heritage Skogskyrkogården, is a case in point. The Woodland Cemetery, in Stockholm Sweden, is a beautiful forested parkland that attracts thousands of visitors every year, including many from overseas.
When the topic turns to where to go when we die, the answers can range from terror of dying to an opportunity for dealing with the corpse in a similar fashion to animals in nature, which includes leave me under the nearest tree or in the case of the city dweller, dig a hole next to the lemon tree and bury me there, as one of many examples.
In reality the choices are very limited – burial in a grave at a cemetery or incineration at a cremation facility and then depositing the cremains – ashes – at a favourite spot frequented by the deceased or kept on the mantle piece for years, or shared with family members – the list goes on.
But rarely does anyone mention a body farm as a half way stop off before cremation. That’s because it is not a widely available options and many frown at the thought.
Shari Forbes is the forensic chemist in charge of Australia’s first body farm, operated by the University of Technology, Sydney, writes Julie Power in: The woman with a nose for death (SMH April 11, 2015).
Forbes is endlessly fascinated by death and how we decay, says Julie Forbes.
“It is not because it smells like decomposition but I have no problems with bad odours,” said Forbes, a forensic chemist and professor at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS ). She is also lead researcher and the coordinator of Australia’s first body farm, the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research with the convenient acronym of AFTER, which starts next year . (A body farm studies the five stages of human decompositon.)
At 37, Professor Forbes has spent her life trying to capture the smell of death. A much-published researcher on the science of forensic taphonomy or the rate of human decay and decomposition, she specialises in how to develop the best chemical representations of these odours so sniffer dogs can find the dead as quickly as possible.
She explains with practised ease what will happen at the site.
“The body will be placed on the soil or in a shallow grave, and we will allow nature to take its course.”
A mesh cover will stop animals from disturbing or distributing the remains. The bones are required by legislation to be returned to UTS where final wishes of the family will be carried out.
Perhaps a clue as to why she is so comfortable around death and dead bodies, is the fact that: She started life on a farm near Brewarrina, where her father was a grazier. Times were hard, and there were no euphemisms. Animals were killed or put down. Things died.
It was while she was finishing her honours at UTS that she saw human remains for the first time. She was asked to research why corpses in some waterlogged parts of some Sydney cemeteries were deteriorating much slower than in other parts of the same cemetery.
By the time she saw the remains for the first time, they were mostly bones.
Back then, she found the bleating stage of death the most confronting. Now she can deal with even the worst cases, such as extremely pungent waterlogged corpses.
Apparently that’s normal. It is the insects, the liquids and the biological waste that makes most people squeamish. These days Professor Forbes is unfazed, but remains fascinated by the intellectual puzzle.
She is also motivated by the memory of the victim and the needs of the family left behind. “Someone has to speak for the dead,” she said.
In an associated story: Thirty offer their corpses for a kind of AFTER life, Julie Power (SMH April 12, 2015), continues writing about the work of Shari Forbes: The facility is:
To be called the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (or AFTER for short), the facility to study the decomposition of human corpses will operate within a 48-hectare bush site owned by the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) in the lower Blue Mountains.
The facility – the first in the southern hemisphere – will use only recently deceased corpses because it has been designed to study human decomposition in an Australian environment.
Professor Forbes said the ethical use of donated human cadavers for scientific studies was vital for the success of human death investigations here and overseas, including neighbouring countries where Australia sent emergency response teams in times of disaster.
“The scientists and police involved in this research are confronted by death on a regular basis and understand the moral and ethical significance of working with human cadavers, just like doctors and medical students,” she said.
For those who find this a rather distasteful ending, it is no more confronting than the sky burial practices of the Tibetans, where the corpse is placed on a rocky exposed site with the unspoken invitation of vultures to come and have their fill as part of the cycle of life and nature in the wider context.
Social media is encroaching on more and more of our daily lives – but only because we allow it to. Whether it be by conscious decision or by default because we choose to pay no attention, the pushers of social media for commercial purposes are continually looking for new ways to ‘convince’ us that buying their services is worth the money.
And so this story by Simon McCarthy: In the 21st Century, data is the world’s most valuable resource – what happens to it after we die? (Port Macquarie News, July 28 2019) reports on how the funeral industry is offering streaming services as an adjunct to the conventional funeral service. An add-on now but will it end up being a replacement, where no one turns up in person, but rather ‘participating’ in a virtual ceremony by watching on a phone, tablet or smart tv? Perhaps even while driving down the freeway or communting on the bus or train.
There are many aspects to this story and we don’t intend to cover them all in this brief post. Simon McCarthy is simply reporting on the changes taking place as technology makes inroads into our daily lives. How it all plays out over the coming centuries is anyones guess. Live streaming is not some new fangled invention, it is simply broadcasting using the internet. Says McCarthy in the case of a NZ company:
The video is streamed live to an invite-only cloud service provided by the New Zealand-based funeral streaming company OneRoom.
“The market found us,” OneRoom chief executive David Lutterman says. “It was such a good idea and such a good market to be in that we ended up just focussing exclusively on that. The only thing we do now is stream and record funeral services.”
The business had been registered in 2008 to service the New Zealand corporate sector, webcasting annual general meetings on demand, but in 2012 it was approached by a private crematorium.
OneRoom hosts more than 1000 password-protected funeral broadcasts each month. New Zealand had become a validation market, Lutterman says. Within a few years, the company had expanded into Australia and the United States. It doubled its output between 2017 and 2018 and is on track to grow at the same rate in 2019.
A word of caution comes from Psychologist Michael Bazaley, who says, the way we think about our lives and mortality has remained the same for centuries.
We grieve in groups, “we’re social beings. There is a lot of research about how we don’t do very well in isolation.
“We live in a time where there’s a lot of influences to get our attention, but I think we are still struggling with the same things: what happens when I die? Where am I going? What am I doing?’
“In this new process of grieving online, there is a chance we could become detached from that group mourning experience.”
Bazaley wonders if live streaming death rites could lead to a detachment from grief.
In summing up, McCarthy notes that:
The first generation of digital natives are approaching middle age, literate in a unique kind of relationship with the non-physical, creating terabytes of digital estates that will broach a new cultural dilemma around death and dying. In the 21st Century, data is the world’s most valuable resource, and the new currency of inheritance.
We are creatures of nature – the earth – with a lineage dating back centuries. It would be wise not to turn our backs on where we came from. Internet speed is one thing, but faster is not necessarily better and placing all our eggs in the baskets of the data providers needs to be done with extreme caution. These are strangers after all. Not our friends or family. Their job is one business transaction after another – selling products in exchange for money. The content is what counts. Who owns and controls the content is up for grabs when we go online.
In: WA’s voluntary assisted dying laws have been in place for a year. Have they served their purpose? by Keane Bourke (ABC News 1 July 2022) a story about WA’s voluntary assisted dying laws and the doctors who look back at the year since they came into effect.
For the last year, Angela Cooney has been doing the opposite of what doctors are normally trained to do – she has been helping people end their lives.
Dr Cooney is often their first step in accessing Western Australia’s voluntary assisted dying scheme, and in many instances, also the last.
People who accessed the scheme had an average age of 73, with slightly more men than women following it through to the end.
Of those, 65 per cent had been diagnosed with cancer-related conditions, 15 per cent were neurological-related and 8 per cent had respiratory issues.
The vast majority, 79 per cent, were in the metropolitan area, with the remaining 21 per cent spread across the rest of WA.
Those figures are roughly in line with how WA’s population is divided between the city and the country.
From opponent to advocate
About 20 years ago, Simon Towler was the state president of the Australian Medical Association, arguing on radio against euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke.
Now he is one of the state’s leading VAD providers, having seen both the public’s demand for voluntary euthanasia but also the distress of families who were left without a choice at the end of loved one’s life.
“There was a lot of conversation around VAD — that it’s going to be wealthy, western suburbs, ageing males who will access VAD,” he said.
“That has not been the experience in this state.
“We’ve had everything from very wealthy people through to very poor people, we’ve even had Aboriginal people who’ve accessed VAD when there were comments [saying] that would not happen.”
And while he admitted it could be “terrifying” to be involved in, he described the “absolute privilege” to be part of the process.
In: When the end is nigh, it’s best to avoid hospital, Ken Hillman (SMH October 31, 2009) is speaking from years of experience and first hand knowledge.
Many of us will spend the last few days of life in an intensive care unit. For many, it will be a painful and futile experience, causing unnecessary suffering for the patient and loved ones.
Once death was treated as a relatively normal and inevitable experience. It is now a highly medicalised ritual. Now, when someone who is old and near the end of their life suddenly or even gradually deteriorates, the ambulance is called. The paramedics cannot be discretionary, even when it is against the wishes of the patient. The role of emergency rooms is to resuscitate and save lives, and package the patient for admission to hospital, whether active treatment is appropriate or not.
It is difficult to get off this conveyor belt. The reasons why are many and complex. Unreal expectations of what modern medicine can offer, reinforced by everyday stories of the latest medical miracle; the inability of politicians and funding bodies to rationally limit resources for end-of-life care without accusations of neglect or even murder; the difficulty of progressing this discussion in a society with such diverse opinions; the increasing specialisation of medicine; the practical fact that it is easier for busy clinicians to continue active treatment than to undertake the difficult and time-consuming business of talking to relatives and patients about dying.
All of this is exacerbated by a health system driven by fees for services, with little incentive to embark on the difficult business of managing dying. There are the ethical issues and the fear of litigation from a predatory legal system.
All these factors mean it is increasingly likely that a patient will not be plucked off the conveyer belt until everything medical has been administered and the last few minutes of life squeezed out.
There are limited provisions for rescuing these people and providing more appropriate care. My specialty of intensive care often acts as a surrogate end-of-life service at unsustainable cost to society.
NOTE: Ken Hillman is professor of intensive care at the University of NSW. This is an extract from his book, Vital Signs. His more recent book is titled: A Good Life To The End.