Less choice as funeral group gobbles up small regional providers

Book, 10 things funeral business doesnt

Note: This is a US publication, but the same principles apply.  By the way, it’s not a home – no one lives there.

The funeral industry is a massive for profit commercial activity with a 100% assured customer base. We all die. We all rely on someone, usually family, to dispose of our bodily remains.

In rural and regional Australia this end-of-life service has for many many years been delivered by local family operated funeral providers.  This is all about to change.  And no-one will know about it unless they have the curiosity to look behind the label.

Branding has become an important part of business these days.  Maintaining a well known and respected name can be worth millions.  This is not lost on the giant corporate funeral undertaker, Invocare.

With business slowing in the larger cities and with older people moving to large regional centres, Invocare has made the strategic business decision to buy up funeral providers in the ‘bush’.

Don’t be surprised if some old names get rebadged as Simplicity or White Lady. Equally don’t be surprised if existing business names remain – with the Invocare name shunted off into small print at the bottom of the page.

Invocare already has a multiplicity of brands across Australia.  The big bloke in the funeral industry is simply widening its net of shop fronts, under the guise of giving customers more choice, to include your locally owned and operated family company.

This change in the ownership make up of Australia’s funeral industry is highlighted by Nick Bonyhady (With deaths slowing down, funeral group targets tree and sea changers, Business, SMH. February 22, 2019)

InvoCare reported a challenging year in its 2018 earnings report, issued on Friday. Revenue was roughly flat and profit was down as the company grappled with a mild flu season and effective vaccination program, writes Bonyhady.

Chief Executive Martin Earp said: “We’ve always said the market can fluctuate by plus or minus 5 per cent and we saw a downturn by about 3 per cent last year and that had an impact on our performance.”

“Generally speaking, the number of deaths does revert back to the long-term trend and the long-term trend is very positive for the industry with the number of deaths forecast to increase from 160,000 last year to 240,000 in 2034,” he said.

Nick Bonyhady reports that:  ‘InvoCare has bought funeral homes in Grafton and Port Macquarie in NSW, Ballarat in Victoria, Bunbury in Western Australia and Launceston in Tasmania, all of which have a large cohort of retirees.  … According to the company, three of the areas it is targeting for more acquisitions are projected to have much older populations than the rest of the country by 2036.’

Die-alogue Cafe has always been a strong advocate for doing your own research – get at least three quotes (make sure they don’t all have the same corporate investor behind the name), get a basics only quote and check what different providers include for the basic price – some include what others class as extras (and these can add up).

A bit of shopping around for what after all is an essential ‘service’ containing ‘products’ like coffins and flowers, makes good sense. Not only does it minimise costs, by being involved it helps us deal with the reality of the death and the need to get on with life, just as our forebears have done over the centuries before they could outsource this most normal of events within the human life cycle.

Price breakdown

This turning away from caring for our own by outsourcing funeral services to strangers, is not lost on the profit driven world of big business: Nick Bonyhady again: ‘A report by the government’s Institute of Health and Welfare found people in regional areas were more likely to smoke, less likely to get enough exercise and more likely to be overweight or obese than those who live in major cities.’

It would be rare to find a funeral company that has an interest in healthy lifestyles or minimising end-of-life medical and funeral bills or being hands on carers of the bodies of loved ones as was the norm in times past.

This is not about giving people what they want, it’s about creating a narrative that we can only get what we want by outsourcing it to a third party who supposedly has our best interests at heart – because it’s “oh so stressful and complicated.”  There is a big but here. It is this. When we peel back the veil another reality comes into focus – that we are creatures of the earth and that we go the same way as all other mammals.  The only difference is the way we dress it up.

Dignity and respect are not price dependent, but that’s not what a lot of people want to hear, and the Invocares of this world are more than happy to oblige.

For the full story click on the link:  Fewer people die in the cities

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Possession takes on a new meaning if we’re only passing through

Earth does not belong to us

We live at a time, as we’ve noted before, when we pride ourselves as having outlived myths.  We’ve grown out of believing in fairytales, we’re big people, grownups and don’t believe in the Santa Claus stuff anymore.  At least that’s the story we tell ourselves. Which of course is a myth.  If it were true, we wouldn’t fall for the story that the economy can grow – money grows on trees?  You must be dreaming.  But that’s what we believe if we subscribe to economic growth not being at the expense of nature’s capital contribution to our way of life. As Herman Daly reminds us: “You can’t grow a finite planet.”

If you can’t get something for nothing (the law of thermodynamics), but we act as if we can, then we believe in pixies at the bottom of the garden.

By extension we have also been fed the myth of possession.  It has never been fact, but we live as if it is.  All we can ever do is have in our ‘possession’ for supposedly safe keeping, a product or idea for a period of time within our lifetimes, before we have to relinquish this ‘possession’ and pass it on to the next baton carrier.  It is for this reason that some people think that intergeneration equity is compromised when one generation of ‘possessors’ mistreats ‘their possession’ such that it is not fit for purpose come the next generation.

It becomes more complicated when we attach emotional, sentimental value to items that are manufactured and in some ways non-essentials. These are – in the great scheme of things – not commons.  The commons include air, water, soil, forests, native birds and mammals. There are no substitutes for these. They are beyond pricing and yet when we give them no value we consider them up for grabs – especially in the case of mammals and the habitat they depend on for survival.

This notion of possession hit home in an article by David Astle: Yours to use, not own, individual ownership is the new luxury, or the old norm (SMH 29 Dec 2019).  “Ownership is a different animal in this digital age,” says Astle.  So much of what we think we own we in fact lease or buy time on or buy units of – take phone calls and data downloads as an example, we don’t own the telecommunications infrastructure, we buy time or megabytes to enable us to have a conversation or read a report.

“Buying therefore is not the same as buying in bygone days. The verb derives from Old English, bycgan – to acquire the possession of, in exchange for something of equivalent value. Sounds almost quaint, doesn’t it? Economists dub the traditional sense of buying as pre-purchasing future usage, gaining control over an item in perpetuity. Before the web intervened, owning an item meant you could lend the item out. That’s less the case anymore.”

We have to ask ourselves if we are happy about what we are creating. Is the society in service to the economy or the other way around?

“Call them purchases, if that lends solace, but the majority of things we own, we use by arrangement. We tick the box to play the song, the episode, operate the firmware, take the ride, the holiday. Ten years back, this truth was underlined when Amazon deleted copies of 1984, the e-version download, alarming customers under the delusion they’d owned Orwell’s nightmare for multiple visits. While remunerations were enacted, the sense of evanescence (a) was retained.”

Take the case of grave sites.  Once upon a time (how romantic it sounds) we would buy a plot of land in perpetuity.  These days we lease or rent a plot for 25 years and if the relatives don’t want to fork out the price of buying it again, well it goes back into the pool so to speak to get on-sold to the next family looking for a plot to bury their beloved.  Of course when we stop and think about it, the perpetuity was never forever.  If forever is for 10,000 years (or in the case of indigenous culture 65,000 years) then it was never going to be for that long.

So let’s talk about forever with our eyes wide open.  Forever in terms of possession and ownership is a myth. When we start to consider deep time and deep history we need to start thinking as our Aboriginal cousins think – not as being separate and apart from the rivers and the trees and the millions of non-human species we share this amazing earth with, but one of them.  I am not in possession of my life separate from those plants and animals that nourish and enrich my life.

It should come as a great relief to not have to work ourselves into the ground (no pun intended) so that we can be in possession of all this stuff that in the grand scheme of things we can’t possibly possess for longer than our fleeting life-times.

Philosophers have grappled with this over the centuries, cautioning against placing too much emphasis on the material aspects of our lives – acquiring stuff at the expense of building social and community connections and having a deep appreciation of the natural world. It was Einstein who said: “Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.” Inspiration for his writings, came from his long regular walks in the forest – these were his thinking walks.

People, Albert Einstein

I guess the take home lesson from this story is that the best and most profound discoveries such as those made by Einstein were not for possessing.  He didn’t keep them to himself but shared them with us all.  They were not intellectual property as we know it today.  They existed well before Einstein came along. They were universal truths that became known to us as a result of thinking walks.

Most able bodied people possess the ability to take one of these thinking walks.  Who knows what might come of this time walking in the footsteps of those who have walked this way before.

(a) After you lose a loved one, often you’re gripped with a fear of evanescence, or the rapid fading from sight or memory of that person.  Evanescence comes from the  Latin  evanescere  meaning “disappear, vanish.” Something that possesses qualities of evanescence, has a quality of disappearing or vanishing. The evanescence of a shooting star makes it hard to catch — it’s there one moment and gone the next. Evanescence is a word typically used to describe an event that fades from sight or memory, or sometimes the fleeting quality of worldly success.
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What to do when there is nothing more you can do

People, Troy Thornton

It’s all very well to say let nature takes its course.  It’s all very well to take what some see as the high moral ground, but when this impacts on another persons right to die with dignity, then we say it’s another matter.  There needs to be choice.

This story appeared on the ABC News website: ‘We should be able to choose’: Australian firefighter Troy Thornton dies in Swiss euthanasia clinic  (23.02.2019 – see link at the end of this post).   We quote: The Victorian man – Troy Thornton, 54 – said he wanted the nation to think deeply about the concept of dying well, and to challenge the notion that choosing death is somehow wrong.

He wanted to legally end his life at home in Australia, with all those he loved around him. But despite Victoria becoming the first state to legalise voluntary assisted dying, he did not qualify.

His disease — multiple system atrophy — is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder. There are no treatments and there is no prospect of recovery, but death can take years.

That’s where the Victorian laws fall down, Mr Thornton said. He could not find two doctors willing to say with absolute certainty that he would die within 12 months, which in his case is a condition to access the legislation.

To read the full story go to: Troy Thornton dies in Swiss clinic

In a similar vein comes the story by Anna Kelsey-Sugg and Joanna Crothers  (How Guy Kennaway came around to the idea of helping his mother die, ABC RN program Life Matters 24.02.2019) in which they report:  “Kennaway, an English author in his 60s, has been thinking more about death since his elderly mother, Susie, (aged 88) asked him to one day help her die.”

People, Guy Kennaway

“Guy Kennaway envisages a future where people preparing to die will hire ‘departure party’ planners for a literal last hurrah.

“As there will be forthcoming marriages and christenings in the newspapers, there will be forthcoming deaths, and we can have any ceremony we want, just like with weddings,” he says.

Susie had watched her husband Stanley — Kennaway’s stepfather — die in exactly the way she didn’t want to. Kennaway describes it as a “modern medical death”; protracted and “really painful”.

He says family surrounded Stanley in his last days, thinking, “Oh golly, I love him very much but it really is time now”. ….  “And then the door would fly open and the nurses and the doctor would fly in, and they were wonderful people [but] they would gee him up and keep him going for another few days,” he says.

AUDIO: Hear more of Guy Kennaway’s views on assisted dying.(Life Matters)

The process exhausted everyone, including Stanley.  “He was saying, ‘I want to die’, and there was no way of him dying,” Kennaway says.

Susie was “really sideswiped” by the experience, Kennaway says, and resolved that her own death would be different.  “She took me aside and she said, ‘This is what I’m talking about. I don’t ever want this to happen to me. I don’t want to go through this’.”

To get the full story, click the following link: Guy Kennaway and the idea of helping his mother die

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The nightly annihilation before I wake


“When we prepare for sleep, we strip ourselves of the accoutrements of selfhood: our clothes, glasses, make-up and false teeth. We bid goodbye to the people around us, lie down in stillness and return to our original solitary nakedness. As Heraclitus, the Greek philosophy observed: ‘The waking have one common world, but the sleeping turn aside each unto a world of his own’. Once the lights are out, and our eyes are closed, even the world as we’ve known it vanishes and the familiar ‘I’ evaporates. It is the nightly annihilation of daytime awareness, what Shakespeare called ‘the death of each day’s life’.  ….  Thomas Edison called it ‘an absurdity, a bad habit’.”  …

In The Secret Life of Sleep, Kat Duff, delves into why it is so important to get a good nights sleep.  She also reveals how some of us are having a lot of trouble coming to terms with sleep in case we never wake up.

Perhaps if we can appreciate that life is part of a greater whole, that having a sense of deep history, that knowing we are but one of billions of life forms that all transition from one form to another, we can better appreciate the need for sleep and the tenuous hold we have on life – because for a small number of people a normal nights sleep metamorphs into death and the next stage of this earths life.

“Whether we welcome or resist sleep, there is no escaping it. The longer we go without sleep, the stronger its power to overcome us …. Brief episodes of what sleep scientists call microsleep which last anywhere from a fraction of a second to thirty seconds, begin to intrude upon our waking awareness …”

Kat Duff notes that: “There is an affinity between falling asleep and dying that cannot be ignored. In fact the word sleep is commonly used as a euphemism for ‘death’; we speak of putting a pet to sleep, rather than asking a veterinarian to (kindly) kill him or her. As the Spanish writer Cervantes noted: ‘There is very little difference between a man in his first sleep and a man in his last sleep.’ Both involve lying down and staying still.”

What started out as a fascination with sleep expressed in an online blog has been expanded into this book covering all aspects of the subject.

People, Kat D Sleep Hypnos, Thanatos

Duff continues: “Death and sleep have long been linked. In the ancient Greek cosmology, Hypnos, the god of Sleep, and Thanatos, the god of Death, are twin brothers.  …. In some Hindu and Buddhist traditions, sleep is viewed as a spiritual practice that prepares us for the shifts in consciousness required after death …”

“It comes as no surprise then,” says Duff, “that bedtime prayers address the mortal dangers of sleep, like the popular poems first recorded in 1160AD:

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep

If I should die before I wake

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

For those of us working in the end-of-life space we sometimes ask people to contemplate the reality of this piece of prose by taking it to heart, asking – If I should die before I wake ……  (write a short note to family and friends about whatever you think is important or words that you would like to have said but didn’t because of dying before waking).

To help us understand death it can sometimes be helpful to see it from a child’s perspective.


The Snoozeletter


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Resilience through ritual

resilience thru rituals, yes

There is a saying that goes: Failing to plan is like planning to fail.  That failure on our part has knock on effects that often results in ‘grief’ of some kind.

Grieving is a natural and to be expected emotion occurring after a death or loss of capacity.  How we do grieving, how we work through this time can greatly affect how we live going forward (to use the current jargon).

In times past it was taken as given that depending on family or cultural traditions particular rituals would be practiced to mark a death – the absence or non-presence of the person who has died.

These rituals are being shunned by families who are choosing to, as they put it, get on with life as if to suggest that this significant event never happened.  It’s a strange, somewhat odd approach when compared with the preparation and ritual (celebration) that takes place at the time of birth.   Considering that birth follows a 9 month preparation period it seems appropriate that after years – up to 80 or 90 in many cases – the extinguishing of a life is shrugged off as a non-event.  It seems disproportionate to the effort put into maintaining life over all this time.

While the reasoning for dismissing the opportunity for ritual boils down to ‘getting on with life’ the reality is that rituals actually build resilience and our capacity to cope with the stresses and strains of life. While rituals can be practised in a solitary way – sitting alone on a hill somewhere – it has its greatest benefit when practiced in community.  And part of the benefit of rituals is the act of planning and arranging such events.

people, ari honarvarThis story from Ari Honarvar Resilience Through Rituals, A grounding source for connection essential to our mental health, (Yes! No.88, Winter 2019) throws some light on why rituals still have meaning and are still  practiced across the world. “I don’t know if I could have survived seven years of my childhood without the soul-saving rituals of my Persian culture,” says Honarvar. “I grew up in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War, which ended up killing a million people. Besides the horrors of war, freedom of thought and expression were severely restricted in Iran after the Islamic revolution.”

So many rights were lost, but we .. “clung to 3,500-year-old Zoroastrian ceremonies that correspond to the seasons.”

“Rituals, which are a series of actions performed in a specific way, have been part of human existence for thousands of years. They are not habits.”  For one explanation about the difference, see: Three ways Rituals are Different from Habits.  http://www.asianefficiency.com/habits/rituals-vs-habits/

Cristine Legare, psychology professor at the University of Texas, Austin (USA), says, “Rituals signify transition points in the individual life span and provide psychologically meaningful ways to participate in the beliefs and practices of the community.”

Honarvar goes on to report that, “While it’s not clear exactly how they help, rituals reduce anxiety, improve performance and build confidence.”

“According to Andrew Newborg, associate director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health, rituals lower cortisol levels, which in turn lower heart rate and blood pressure and increase immune system function.”

“We live in the midst of a loneliness epidemic where the lack of belonging and community has been linked to high suicide rates and an increased sense of despair.  …  while more Americans (read Australians) have become disillusioned with organised religion, as a broad and rapidly rising demographic consider themselves spiritual but not religious … many shared cultural rituals are falling away and with them a grounding source for connection and mental health.”

Honarvar provides examples of rituals that have helped sustain her through good time and bad.  “In this age of isolation, we need nourishing and uplifting means of creating community by bringing together members of different generations as our ancestors did  …  rituals can help by offering opportunities for healing and support.”

We need to build some simple rituals into our daily lives.  Planning for them, as well as participating in them, can be enriching for all concerned.

To read the full story click on: https://issues.yesmagazine.org/issue/good-money/shift.html


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In a few words

book of grave humourWhat’s to be said following the death of a partner, friend, child, colleague; someone we hold dear who has died?

The job of wording a eulogy usually ends up resting on the shoulders of a close family member or friend or in some cases a faith leader or civil celebrant who is paid to write up a story to be read at the funeral.

It’s a similar story with the writing of an obituary and an epitaph. What we get in each case is a personalised reflection of a life now deceased. In each case they can take different forms:

  • A eulogy can be a spoken presentation delivered by one or more people, or it can be an audio-visual presentation from the basic slide show to movie clips and audio grabs;
  • An obituary can be a short article written by a family member or close friend, or it can be compiled by a specialist obituary journalist at a major daily newspaper – Timelines in the Sydney Morning Herald being a good example;
  • An epitaph is a different kettle of fish. In a very few words an impression is given about the person behind / underneath the plaque.  A visit to any cemetery reveals the range of aspects of a person’s life that becomes the focus for the chosen words.  We can assume that a bible quote suggests a person with religious associations, while a quotation referencing a well respected and widely known public figure suggests the person lived according to a certain principle or philosophy.  Then there is the more pointed reference to a particular event or behaviour – some of which can be cheeky or …

In The Small Book of Grave Humour, edited by Fritz Spiegl, reference is made to The Churchyards Handbook. There are some rather wise words contained within this tome ‘The object of an epitaph is to identify the resting place of the mortal remains of a dead person. It should therefore record only such information as is reasonably necessary for that purpose …’

The book includes many examples where these – shall we call them – instructions were not followed.  This one speaks of the dead man’s activities …John Jones Smith of Smoketown: He smoked his cigarette till from it came, That subtle venom spreading from its flame, Which poisoned every fibre of his frame, And laid him low, Yet whilst he smoked he languishingly sighed, It is but paper round tobacco plied, When like a flicker of a lamp he died, And rests below.’

Smokers have always been the subject of moral homilies in verse.  There is even a religious song by J.S.Bach entitled ‘Elevating Thoughts of a Tobacco Smoker.’

From The Churchyards Handbook again:  ‘All statements should be simple, eg.  “died”  rather than “at rest” or “fallen asleep”.

Here Lyeth ye body of Martn Hyde, He fell down a Midden and grievously Dy’d, James Hyde his Brother fell down another, They now lie interr’d side by side.

Speigly says: “The humour lies in the pun contained in the last line and has entered folklore with the limerick: There was an old fellow from Hyde …”  and so on.

There are some horror epitaphs in this book.  Be careful who you leave to write the last words.  Perhaps consider writing them yourself and leave them with your will or funeral papers.

Having said this epitaphs are becoming less common due to cremains being scattered in a garden or at sea.  There being no specific location there is nothing to have inscribed on a piece of bronze or stainless steel.

As a final parting observation, we would say it is unlikely that in years to come anyone will come to visit the said place. Experience tells us that future generations tend to forget rather quickly and without traditions to carry on visiting grave sites no-one will likely turn up, leaving the memorial to weather and deteriorate.  With cemeteries no longer permitting sites to be retained in perpetuity and the reuse of sites becoming standard practice due to lack of space, perhaps we ought to rethink the epitaph idea and be happy to leave the eulogy and obituary as the last words.

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New Year ritual not everyones cup of tea

Coffin, funeral_for_the_living_3_0In times past, before access to technologies like the internet, we tended to live in our somehwat isolated little bubbles believing that most other people were probably not all that much different for us.  This is no longer the case.  At the click of a ‘mouse’ a whole world of difference is revealed.  For each of these ‘different’ groups what we might consider odd or bizarre they consider to be not only normal but traditions and rituals to be cherished and practiced as if their lives depended on them.  Not unlike the traditions and rituals that we engage in. Such is the power of belief and the influence of groups to convince us to behave in certain ways, irrespective of whether or not these beliefs make sense to others.  This story demonstrates the strength of beliefs to influence our behaviour.

Thai people organise own funeral, lie inside coffins to ring in new year (Hindustan Times, New Delhi Jan 01, 2019)

“Even as the rest of the world rang in the new year with fireworks and countdowns, a suburban temple in Thailand’s Bangkok witnessed a peculiar ritual: worshippers lying inside coffins to participate in traditional funeral rituals. What may appear to be eerie to many is, in fact, a Thai Buddhist ritual held every new year.

The ceremony, worshippers believe, symbolises death and rebirth, which helps them get rid of bad luck and be reborn for a fresh start in the new year.

Participants held flowers and incense in their hands as monks covered them with pink sheets and chanted prayers for the dead.

Phitsanu Kiengpradouk, a 67-year-old retired policeman, was ready to welcome the new year with his own funeral.

“Laying in coffins means we are letting go of our suffering, from our body, and from our mind. We come here to lay in coffins, so we can have better luck and a better life,” said Phitsanu. Busaba Yookong, a 30-year-old who attended the ritual with her family said attending her own funeral was not as eerie an experience as one would presume.

The Takien Temple saw hundreds of worshippers flocking to it to take part in the Thai Buddhist ritual.

This is a ritual that has endured for years. Here we have a group of people within Thailand who believe that lying in a coffin is the right way to start off the new year.

In Thailand’s Coffin Ceremony for the Living, Roy Cavanagh (June 2, 2011) reports that: “Thailand is a country with many superstitions and beliefs and the coffin ceremony is just one example. There are some provincial temples in Thailand, such as this one at Nakhon Nayok that specialize in the coffin ceremony with Buddhist monks providing the blessings. For a fee of around 200 Baht (a merit-making donation to the temple) participants lay in the coffin holding flowers. The lid is then shut as the monks chant death rites.    Just over a minute later as the monks chant about new life, the coffin is opened and the participants are ‘reborn’ leaving behind their bad karma. If, in future years, the participant endures a spell of bad luck or misfortune, they may again opt for the coffin ceremony to bring about a reversal in their luck.     It should be pointed out that not all Thai people believe in the power of the coffin ceremony. There are plenty of Thai Buddhists who view it as a bad omen for a living person to lie down in a coffin.

Read this story at various places on the internet as well as this one from ABC News, scroll down to Thailand … Religious ceremony


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