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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A long hard look at what it’s like when we’re getting on – getting older

At a time when we’re getting on, that is, getting older, are we also getting wiser about aged care?  According to this report we’re not. What needs to happen to change the direction we’re currently heading in? 

It’s a rather horrible reflection on the standards of aged care in Australia that a Royal Commission had to be called to examine why it has become such a nightmare for so many residents and their families.  It’s one thing to be in your sunset years, it’s another to think that the system doesn’t deliver on the message sprouted by many of the providers.

During recent isolation periods it has been even more distressing for those inside as residents, and those outside as family and friends, attempting to access their loved ones.

What the Aged Care Royal Commission has shown is that:

‘Neglect of the elderly is rife in Australia. An ageing population also means an increase in dementia, with many saying they would rather end their life than endure the disease. Our assisted dying laws, however, cannot accommodate this. In: Aged care, dementia and assisted dying, reporter Paul Barclay (Big Ideas, ABC Radio National, 1 July 2020) talks to a panel of writers about restoring dignity and empathy to aged care, and the limits of euthanasia.’

Speakers are: Andrew Stafford – freelance journalist, author, Associate Professor Sarah Holland-Batt – poet; editor, critic, witness at the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety and Melanie Cheng – writer and general practitioner. 

……..  Extract from the introduction to Getting On, Griffith Review, No 68.

‘In a world where seventy is the new fifty, old age isn’t what it used to be.

By 2060, the ratio of Australians aged over sixty-five will have passed one in four. This unprecedented demographic transformation marks a quiet revolution with far-reaching consequences for both individuals and wider society.

As the proportion of older people continues to rise, how will working patterns, leisure habits and modes of living be reshaped and refashioned to answer future needs? How will this shift in the balance of the population be addressed? Will our seniors be celebrated or marginalised, powerful or powerless? What approach will Australia take to the global phenomenon of long life? And how might listening to the wisdom of our elders change everyone’s world?’

……..  The ABC RN Big Ideas program is presented in conjunction with the Griffith Review. Recorded on May 28, 2020.  Duration: 54min.  Listen to the program here:   Aged care, dementia and assisted dying

For a link to the Griffith Review, click here.

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A return to the past for funerals of the future

As traditions lose their grip on many people within our society and as children move away from the ways of doing business practised by their parents, there are also changes in the way we do funerals.  The future looks very different from the past.  And yet for some it is a return to ancient practices that served many a family well as well as society in general, for eons.  As always some people never adopted the new commercial, leave it us we know best, approach.

In The future of funerals, Saimi Jeong (Choice, March 2020 – Funeral Investigation), the case for home vigils, which is one aspect of the change, building your own coffin is another, natural burial, price comparison websites and community-led services, are also in the mix.  One of these new kids on the street is Tender Funerals who ‘lay bare aspects of the funeral process that are usually concealed from us: the specific ways you can prepare a body, or the placing of the lid on the coffin,’ reports Jeong.  “There’s a trend towards more people coming into the mortuary, doing wash and dress, creating their own ceremony,” says Jenny Briscoe-Hough, CEO of Tender Funerals.

Also ordering a cremation online and how to cut out the funeral director from taking control of what is for many a most intimate and personal experience.

Those who are leading the push for change and who are not waiting but getting on with what they see as innovative and visionary, are viewed rather sceptically by the big end of town. Big funeral companies see all this as a threat to their lucrative profit margins.

Get the full story at this linkThe future of funerals, Choice

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The hardest speech of all is the eulogy

What makes a great speech great?  Is it the content, the delivery, a combination of the two?   Great art, so they say, is in the eye of the beholder.  Whatever the equivalent for speeches, the circumstances of the listener, might also play a part.

When it comes to speeches, they aren’t necessarily what they appear to be.  Behind the words there can be a great deal of preparation and research.  Also the subject about which the speech is written can be highly emotive.  This applies very much in the case of death and the eulogy delivered at the time when the deceased is remembered by family and friends.

Writer Tony Wilson is mad about great speeches, and not just the classic ‘we will fight them on the beaches’ kind.

Tony Wilson has taken it upon himself to collect great speeches and compile them into a digital library – Speakola, All speeches great and small.   The collection that is ongoing, is not limited to what he says are the stars that burn the brightest.  There are many great speech given by ordinary people, and some of these have made it into the list.

He began the project after he had to give the most devastatingly sad speech of his life.  The sudden death of a close friend who committed suicide.  Not unsurprisingly, one of the 13 categories is Eulogies.

Tony talks in detail about his love of speeches in this interview with Richard Fidler: The speech collector, (Conversations, ABC radio, Monday 4 May 2020)

When it comes to writing a eulogy for example: “There’s a certain pressure that descends on you, gee I need to get this right.”

“What I’ve learnt over curating the [Speakola] site is compiling anecdotes and collecting stories about the relationship (with the person who is the subject of the speech) are what ends up increasing the power of the speech …. it’s not unusual to lose it pretty much, when you’re in the preparatory stages of writing a eulogy,” says Wilson.  But that’s what goes to making it authentic and sincere.

Eulogy – to heap praise on somebody.  It’s different to an Obituary – a factual report or story of a persons life.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Prime Minister, knows how to prepare and deliver a great speech. “She speaks with an empathy for the moment and also with a certainty of purpose,” Wilson tells Fidler.  This speech would have been scripted.  Remember that scripted speeches can be just as genuine as unscripted off-the-cuff words delivered on the spur of the moment. 

In fact most great speeches are well prepared scripted works written by or for the person who will deliver them.  

Tony Wilson loves all the uplifting, tear-inducing, nation-building, heart-swelling words said during awards ceremonies, at funerals, at University graduations and to near-empty houses of Parliament around Australia and the world.

He doesn’t mind if the people giving the speeches are brilliant orators, or have never made a speech in their life.

One of the take home lessons for us is that as far as eulogies go, since we all know that we are going to die and those close to us are in the same boat, collecting some anecdotes and stories and compiling them into a coherent draft speech wouldn’t be a bad idea.  Just like preparing for the ending of days of the body, preparing for the funeral event of which the eulogy is an important ingredient, is best done well before the event. An added bonus, it could be a very cathartic process for all involved.

To listen to the full program click on this link: The speech collector on ABC local radio

Further information: Explore Speakola  :::  Tony also has a podcast about great speeches



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Death on a large scale and how to get our heads around it

What prompts us to think about what we normally don’t think about.  Well if the COVID-19 pandemic has done anything it has certainly made us sit up and take notice about death on a scale we haven’t seen for many many years.

Amanda Vanstone hosts Counterpoint on ABC Radio National and true to form since she is no shrinking violet she has not shied away from talking about death, as large numbers of people have been ‘carried off the field’ so to speak, as the virus has spread around the world.

Last year roughly 155, 732 people died around the world every day. As the saying goes: Death, just like tax, is normal.  In Death and home, Vanstone interviews Dr John Troyes, from the Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath, U.K. about how the scale of death as ‘a novel virus sweeps the world and produces a dead body count with life altering repercussions’.  

‘”A lot of the dying that goes on is largely invisible in our modern society  … [taking place as it does in institutions and not the family home as was the case in earlier times] … so we don’t see or hear about it.  We tend to ignore it.  It’s not in the consciousness of people,” says Troyes.

“Because of COVID-19 and death being a more imminent possibility, it’s brought the everydayness of dying to the forefront of people’s imagination in more ways than just a few months ago, when it just wasn’t.”


 Dr John Troyes explains that in order ‘to manage and cope with the millions of dead bodies produced every year, different countries create what I call a “national death infrastructure” or NDL’. Will this NDL help countries with the unexpected enormous amount of death and its consequences as a result of COVID-19 or were some countries not prepared for what has unfolded?

Amanada Vanstone asks about different ways to dispose of bodies – what new forms of formal disposition there are today.  To be buried vertically for example? Or put in a shroud and left to compost? Difference countries have different traditions.  What we call the final dignified disposition of the remains of a body. 

“As a species we will always be producing dead bodies and so there will always be a need for the handling of the human corpse and as technologies change it becomes possible to think again about what a dead body is,” John Troyes says.

Responding to a question about talking openly about death as a means of reducing fear, Troyes says it’s important that adults and parents become sufficiently familiar and comfortable to discuss dying and death as normal – especially at this time when death is so much in the news.

It has been proposed that news channels broadcast every day for a year how many people died around the world and in what circumstances these deaths took place.

“It is very beneficial to be brought up with death as an everyday fact of life. What we come away with is a better understanding of how we might live … “

To listen to the full 14 minute interview log on here and drag the program dot forward to 13 min. 30 sec. Death and home interview with John Troyes




and dying pro

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Rethinking rituals

There are lots of little things we engage in each day – call them rituals – that depending on your point of view are done as part of family tradition or the larger social culture.

Some rituals are handed down from generations past, others are connected to religious customs, others are associated with the changing seasons and so on.

The current coronavirus is, whether we like it or not, resetting some long standing rituals especially around greeting and social gatherings.  What was once acceptable is perhaps now out of line, and so it’s time to reflect on those rituals we can let go and those we want to maintain, albeit in a modified form.

This story by Jill Suttie: What Happens When We Lose Our Social Rituals, and How to Make New Ones, (Yes, May 5, 2020) points out that longstanding rituals such as weddings and funerals that have been a taken for granted part of what we do, are hard to forgo in the face of forced isolation – even though we know it’s for the greater good.

As we lose of face-to-face interaction with other people, can email, phone conversations, and Zoom meetings make up for that loss?   Yes and no.  There is no substitute for being in the physical presence of another person, but for a short time technology might provide sufficient solace to get us through.

We need to keep in mind that in times gone by, being separated for long periods was not uncommon.  Think of those who migrated from Europe to Australia in the 1700 and 1800’s.  It would be a very long time before they would be reunited with family.  In some cases this never happened.  And they were moving to a place that went about life in very different ways.  Calling on familiar rituals can help ease us into new realms until the rituals of the new country are integrated into our lives.

For now we’ll put these aside and share a few ideas from Jill Suttie …

“As parents, partners, family members, and friends, we need to allow people to talk about the things that they’re missing,” says Lori Gottlieb, author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.

How to Make New Rituals

Jan Stanley, who works as a celebrant—someone who designs rituals for weddings and funerals—says that it’s not hard to create rituals online, if you keep certain things in mind. She suggests that you:

• Ask people to bring to their online gathering something symbolic to share, such as a candle to light, a memory or story, a picture, or a poem. Getting people to contribute in that way can help create a sense of oneness.

• Mark the moment by having someone provide an opening statement that designates the beginning of any ritual and explains the purpose of being there. That sets the tone and makes people realise that this is a special moment in time and not just another online meeting.

• Create emotional highs, perhaps using music, dancing, poetry, moments of silence, or something else with high emotional resonance to augment the experience.

• Always have a distinct ending that includes an emotional peak, because people tend to remember an event better that way.

Though an online ritual may lack some of the power of an in-person ritual, says Stanley, it still has value. Even doing rituals alone can be useful, she adds, if it’s meaningful. Research suggests that creating rituals just for ourselves can help alleviate grief after loss and make us feel less out of control, which could help now, when the world seems so uncertain.

“If you can design a ritual to be meaningful—so that it actually touches your heart or brings someone to mind or gives you a sense of your own purpose—all the better,” she says.

Read the full story hereSocial rituals This associated story is worth noting as well:  Why rituals are good for your health


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Music for our passing of days

Music is a great leveller that speaks across many sectors of what has become a fractured society.  A quick search on the internet reveals the most popular songs sung or performed at this time.  It’s somewhat like the top 40 but in this case it is the top 10 or 20, funeral songs or ending of days songs.  Not only chosen by the one dying but also by family and friends as part of their memory stick to use an indigenous term.

Some songs that don’t make the list might be worth considering because they speak to the particular emotions that we feel or because they fit into a musical taste outside of the crowd vote. These are classics for many people. One of the songs that has touched a cord with many people regardless of their musical taste, is a cross-over piece titled: I’ll Fly Away, made popular by Johnny Cash.

I’ll Fly Away

Alan Jackson

Some glad mornin’ when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To a home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away, oh, glory
I’ll fly away
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by
I’ll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then
I’ll fly away
To a land where joy shall never end
I’ll fly away


Two YouTube selections here … Alan Jackson (2013)- I’ll Fly Away;

Johnny Cash (2010) – I’ll Fly Away

Cash’s daughter Rosanne Cash is also pictured here …


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Let’s talk about the prickly subject of our ending of days

Considering that we see it all around, hear about it on the daily if not hourly radio news bulletins, let alone watch events with deadly outcomes on the nightly news, you’d think we’d be across death as a part of life without any hesitation.  But no, this is not the case.  Denial in the face of it being in our face is the default for many many people.  

Now with the COVID-19 pandemic taking its toll on thousands of lives across the world, to take literally the “it won’t happen to me” approach, is looking more selfish than certain.  But is that notion changing?  Does the acceptance of the limitations of freedom that has brought our “global society to a screeching halt” indicate some doubt is creeping in? When people realise that what we are up against “is little more than a packet of genetic material surrounded by a spiky protein shell one-thousandth the width of an eyelash,” (Washington Post, March 23, 2020 – see story below), they perhaps know that people are succumbing to something much smaller than them – that is at the same time in some ways more powerful than them.  Fear of the unknown let alone the unseen is another factor.

Billions of years of evolution means these little ‘creatures’ have had plenty of time to work out how to survive regardless of what we humans think is a good idea or not.  Best we learn to live and coexist with them, rather than fight them, which seems to be the order of the day as we conduct a war on the virus as well as many other species within nature.

This backdrop provides us with the opportunity to listen and learn to a series of podcasts titled: Let’s Talk about Death, compiled by the Pineapple Project, an ABC Radio production. There are 8 in the series. Here’s what program One (1) is about.

S4 01 | There’s a body, what next?

Here’s what you need to know immediately after someone has died, because a tsunami of decisions is about to hit. How the heck do you get a death certificate? Will there be an autopsy? Um, literally, who are you supposed to call first?

That’s the quandary Emma Gray found herself in, when she woke one day to discover her husband had died and her entire world had changed.

Listen to one or more here at this link: Let’s talk about death

For background stories about COVID-19 these links might be helpfulThe science behind what makes coronavirus hard to deal with

    So what is a virus


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Not data. We need a narrative, a story for our time

History has messages for those prepared to listen.

On a program broadcast on The Drum (ABC-TV, Thursday 27 March 2020) one of the guests attempted to introduce some history and some big picture thining into the discussion. 

One of the subjects introduced by host Ellen Fanning was: What we value at this point in time (as governments and the community attempt appropriate responses to the COVID-19 situation).  What follows in a transcript of one of the panel guests: Adam Carrel, Ernst & Young, Perth.

Ellem Fanning  – What we value …

Adam Carrel – After the GFC we didn’t do a good job at learning our lessons and recalibrating our priorities.  We hoped that just everything would return to normal.  Household’s vulnerability was exposed.  Early signs of a philosophical recalibration evaporated.

People are realising they have spent their time on a treadmill this past few years and this professional FOMO – pursuing ends because everybody else is and have neglected some of the more important things in life.

The darkness of the plague in Europe brought the light of the renaissance ultimately.  We might have a community philosophical awakening after this.  That family and love and connectivity are far more important than a lot of things we have been prioritising for a long time.

Shane Wright – We would like to see the thoughts that Adam spoke about that this would  bring a new paradigm to how the world operates.  He’s right – nothing changed after the GFC and I suspect we won’t look back and we won’t change that quickly.

Adam C. – I don’t think we should be surprised by the failure of the public to heed the message, the information.  People have been writing books about post truth for years – truth has become a partisan commodity that people have selected on their own terms.  This is where we find ourselves.  We’ve been allergic to bad memory for a long time.  Bad news – you just don’t talk about these things – find a way for them to disappear of their own accord which is why we find ourselves being so caught by this crisis.  We obsess about data – data, data, data, will set us free – we’ve got plenty of data.  Plenty of curves shared about it.

Everyone has access to them, but, Churchill and Roosevelt brought their nations together not with data, but with a narrative and story.  We need to be emotionally mobilised toward a collective effort.  Data on its own never does it.

Shane W. – what’s the difference between a leg wax and a short back and sides.

Ellen Fanning– John Daley from the Gratton Institute said the other day – it’s public pressure that focus’s government to take stricter measures. – Is it going to be that business is going to lock us down  — to Adam C.

Adam C. – The citizens have to take responsibility for this – we are a well-educated, relatively well remunerated country. We should have been able to act with a degree of self-sufficiency on this.  I know you want me to do some more homework on my citizen purchase COVID recovery bond idea, so I won’t talk about it, but I want to mobilise community intellect and community wealth to tackle this problem.  The time will come if the situation doesn’t work when the community is going to have to come together. We are going have to have a redistribution of private wealth towards this problem just like we did in war time if runs for too much longer and household can’t cope.  We can do this.  We should be smart enough to figure this out on our own.  There’s a great meme – I’m sure you’ve seen this:

Our grandparents had to go to war to fight for our way of life and all you have to do is sit on the couch.  You can do this.


We’ve become complacent and we’ve become dependent on others to tell us what to do.  The notion of the common good and for the betterment of the group have taken a back seat. 

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Lockdown – The birds are singing

People, Lockdown poem 1

Here we are wondering what nature will confront us with next. Are we prepared?

In these times of uncertainty it’s nice to know that there are still some things we can fall back on when confusion seems to be all around.  One of them is the inspiration that nature is able to stir within the human spirit.  Here’s a contribution to keep us on an even keel, forwarded from our colleagues at Natural Transitions …

Listen, The Birds Are Singing!
  A Message of Love and Hope from Ireland
on Saint Patrick’s Day 
March 17, 2020
Shared from all of us at Natural Transitions,
during these times when we all need reminders of the good in our world.

Song bird     


by Br. Richard Hendrick,
priest-friar of the Irish branch of the Capuchin Franciscan Order.

Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.  
Yes there is panic buying.  
Yes there is sickness.  
Yes there is even death.  
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise  
You can hear the birds again.  
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet  
The sky is no longer thick with fumes  
But blue and grey and clear.  
They say that in the streets of Assisi  
People are singing to each other  
Across the empty squares,  
Keeping their windows open  
So that those who are alone  
May hear the sounds of family around them.  
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland  
Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.  
Today a young woman I know  
Is busy spreading fliers with her number  
Through the neighbourhood  
So that the elders may have someone to call on.  
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples  
Are preparing to welcome  
And shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary  
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting  
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a New way  
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality 
To how big we really are.  
To how little control we really have.  
To what really matters.  
To Love.  
So we pray and we remember that  
Yes there is fear.  
But there does not have to be hate.  
Yes there is isolation.  
But there does not have to be loneliness.  
Yes there is panic buying.  
But there does not have to be meanness.  
Yes there is sickness.  
But there does not have to be disease of the soul  
Yes there is even death.  
But there can always be a rebirth of love.  
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.  
Today, breathe.  
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic  
The birds are singing again  
The sky is clearing,  
Spring is coming,  
And we are always encompassed by Love.  
Open the windows of your soul  
And though you may not be able  
To touch across the empty square,  
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