Buyer beware in a changing marketplace

When dying and death were normal, that is when it was accepted that death was to be expected if we became seriously ill or very frail as a result of aging, there was no talk of pre-booking a funeral.  The prepaid, not unlike a fully paid up lay-buy, was unheard of.

But with the medicalisation of health, we’ve become distanced from death and adopted death denial as a so called means of managing the inevitable, such that fear has become a ploy of the funeral industry to pay forward the  anticipated financial outlay. That wasn’t there when we took care of business ‘in-house’ – as households – as a matter of family responsibility.

Fast forward to 2020 and we have a new funeral landscape where large gatherings are off limits and remote attendance using online streaming services is gaining in popularity.

The other change has been the increase in direct cremations. To use the funeral industry jargon, an NSNA (No-service, No-attendance) arrangement, has doubled in some areas and the trend may well continue to increase.

What does this mean for those who have paid for a funeral, where it would have been expected that perhaps 50-100 people would turn up?  On such an occasion it is most likely that the coffin would be present, there would be a floral wreath, visitors book and the associated costs of having staff taking care of mourners, a hearse, a celebrant or minister of religion and of course the venue and its associated costs.  Most of these are unnecessary when no one is required to show up.

You would think that would equal a marked reduction in costs and therefore charges to the family.  But this might not be the case if the prepaid agreement doesn’t contain some clauses stating there will be waivers of costs and reimbursement of money should the original plan not be required.  For example, why pay over a thousand dollars for a coffin that no one will see, when a coffin costing a couple of hundred dollars would do the same job?

Saimi Jeong, writing in: New Mourning, Social distancing measures have spurred innovative ways of thinking about funerals (CHOICE, June 2020), reports that consumer laws differ across Australia and there might not be as much wriggle room as we would like when it comes to getting refunds for services not delivered.

Online video conferencing is just one way mourning families are learning to cope and connect at a time when large funeral gatherings are strongly discouraged because of social distancing guidelines.

If ever there was a time for caution this is it. Buyer beware doesn’t only apply to the purchase of a fridge, washing machine or big ticket item like a vehicle.  Funerals for some people end up being big ticket expenses, and a serious rethink would not be out of order in these changing times.   A memorial service at a later time may well be what is offered to keep the family happy without any obligation to refund part of the prepaid account.

But this can be organised for much less using a community hall not only for the memorial service but also for catering purposes.  Contact with those potentially attending can be arranged when there is no urgency to get it over and done with in a hurry.

We would suggest this is a good time to rethink the stories we tell ourselves about dying and death and what comes next in terms of funerals and grieving.  Not only the stories, but also the practical aspects of how we handle this most important aspect of living A Good Life To The End, to quote the title of the excellent book by Professor Ken Hillman.

The June issue of CHOICE may be at your local library, otherwise visit this link for a report about prepaid funerals from October 2019: Should you get a prepaid funeral?

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