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Ingeborg van Teeseling spoke to Tender Funerals, a local NFP who allows people to choose their own farewell, within their own means.
Not so long ago, I was at the funeral of a friend. He had cancer, but because he didn’t want to believe he was dying, he also didn’t want to talk about his farewell. So the arrangements had to be made by his family, and the outcome was very uncomfortable for most of his friends. Our friend had not been religious, but his family was, so there was a priest talking about hell and damnation. Then there were hymns, the wrong speeches and even photographs that made us cringe. All in all, it was a disturbing event and made us want to drown our sorrows – and not in a good way.
While we were sitting at the pub, my mind went back to another funeral, a few years before. The girl who died was a friend of my sister and she had been brave enough to not only talk about her death, but organise the ceremony as well. She wanted to stay at home, where people could come, view the body if they wanted, eat, drink and talk. She had arranged some friends to wash and dress her, picked out the casket and even paid the catering bill beforehand. For me, it was an exemplary affair: people sat around, laughed, cried, supported each other, toasted our now deceased host and told lots of stories. We felt, how can I say that…together, somehow. And not just during, but also after the funeral. Because we had shared something, the grieving was easier. Lighter, less lonely.
For most of us, death and dying are complicated topics. Because we don’t live in a country anymore where people die all the time, we’ve become separated from the process and the emotions surrounding it scare us. We know we are all going to die, but it doesn’t feel like it, so we ignore it until it happens. Then we realise a couple of things at the same time. That we are not comfortable with death. That we don’t know how our nearest and dearest want their funerals to be. And that the whole process costs an arm and a leg. In Australia, an average, no-frills burial, with a regular casket and some flowers, can set you back more than $10,000; a basic cremation about $4,000.
This is why I was incredibly enthused and excited by an initiative driven by Jenny Briscoe-Hough, who is a project manager at the Our Community Project Network in Port Kembla, just south of Wollongong. Eight years ago, Briscoe-Hough worked at the Ronald McDonald house, where she was confronted with bereft parents having to bury their children. It brought her closer to death and dying, and when her mother passed away not long after, she thought she knew what to do. The family took the lead in the proceedings: they washed and clothed the body, organised the flowers and, apart from the hearse, the funeral company did not supply any cars. Still, the bill came to more than $10,000 and that was even with the name of the business on the invitations, so Briscoe-Hough’s family was inadvertently doing their advertising as well. It made her think: if this could happen to people like her, well versed in death and dying, where did that leave others who weren’t? And how could they possibly afford that kind of money?
A few days later, she went back to her new job at the Community Centre in Port Kembla, an area much impoverished after the shrinking-down of the local steelworks. Many people who live in Port Kembla are working class, most of them migrants. She started asking around, then doing some research. She found two things: first of all, that plenty of people were still paying off funerals that had happened years before. And second, that they were unhappy with the service, especially after they realised what the alternatives could have been. Briscoe-Hough also did a bit of investigating into the funeral industry itself and found that because many companies use one centralised mortuary, it is the storing and moving of the body that takes up much of the money. Slowly, an idea started to ripen in her head: what if we do it ourselves? Set up a company, give people back the power to arrange their own type of farewell and see to it that they can actually afford the bill?
This became Tender Funerals, and Briscoe-Hough was recently handed the key to a disused Port Kembla fire station, which will start a new life as a not-for-profit funeral home around May this year. It will employ an experienced funeral director, but will use the administrative and organisational services of the Community Centre. Excluding burial plots, an average funeral will cost between $2,500 and $3,500 – about a quarter to a third of the normal price. Family and friends will be encouraged to play a larger role in the arrangements if they want and a lot is possible. You can have your Latin Mass, if that is where you feel comfortable, or you can do the proceedings in a tent in the backyard, with the casket as a bar, serving tequila.
Most importantly, where Briscoe-Hough is concerned, is that the whole process will be demystified. “Before the end of WWI, everybody did their funerals themselves. Because death was a normal occurrence, we all knew what to do when it happened. The women washed and clothed the body, the men made the casket and, for a few days, it stood in the front parlour, where everybody came to view it and keep the family company. From around the 1920s, that all changed. It became a specialised business, in the hands of so-called experts. Soon dying, death and funerals were out of normal view, handled by undertakers. But the result has been that we are now all afraid of anything to do with this part of life. That is a pity, because it is so much better if you do get involved. Sure, it is scary at first, but I think it has to become normal again. We’ve done it for thousands of years; it is still in our DNA. We have to be brave and build up that muscle again, go through the fear and see that it isn’t that bad. And once you take control, the pay-off is enormous. I always tell people that we know how to organise events. We do it all the time. It starts with a list and delegating jobs. This is exactly the same. And if you do it together, what you end up with is a community that feels connected and can help each other out with the grieving. It is a win-win.”
Seven years has passed since Jenny Briscoe-Hough first came up with the idea. It took time to bring the community with her, and to Briscoe-Hough, that is important. “Change is not a revolution, but an evolution. It is all about culture: if you want to be successful in something like this, it has to be done from the ground up. Then people feel responsible for it and will drive it themselves. That is what has happened with Tender.” The non-for-profit funeral home attracted more than $125,000 in community donations in 2015, after a documentary about the project was aired on the ABC. With proof that it was supported by the community, Tender has been able to get a $300,000 loan from Social Enterprise Finance Australia, a $285,000 grant from the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation and some money from banks and the state government. After the renovation of the fire station, the company will start, and people in the area will be able to buy themselves a low-cost funeral and be involved in the process if they want. Briscoe-Hough hopes that the Port Kembla Tender will only be the first of many, run by communities themselves. “My aim is to become redundant. To set something in motion that will empower people to believe they can do it themselves. There is a lack of knowledge now and a lot of fear, but that will change. And once it does, it will be normal for us to take the lead ourselves when there is a death. Change has got weight once it is carried by many. We can do so much more than we give ourselves credit for.”