A memorial party? What will I wear?

My guest blogger is Ken Roberts, a retired nurse, artist, writer and renovator. A country town nurse for many decades, he’s seen his fair share of death and small town funerals. But a recent invitation to a ‘memorial party’ left him bemused. What is it? What do I wear?

This is Ken’s memorial party experience:

After the recent passing of a dear friend I was very grateful to be included in her farewell in these times of limited numbers of mourners. This was held in the city and was something that I had never experienced before: a memorial party.

Looking back, my experience with funerals was ordinary for me but maybe not for others. I attended a catholic primary school and hymn singing and going to Mass during the school week was common. It was usual that at the regular requiem masses for funerals, we would all march over, very orderly in double file, climb the stairs to the choir and merrily sing the hymns with a watchful Nun on guard to stop any shenanigans. Depending on where you were sitting you would glimpse the coffin and sometimes hear people crying. It was all very matter of fact.

Growing up in a small country town in those days, practices took a long time to change. As I grew, and coming from a large extended family, there were infrequent funerals to attend of relatives. They were always at a Church and usually followed by a boozy wake at some family member’s home.

Changing times: a non-church funeral

Nothing much changed until the local funeral director set up a new office which included a chapel. Some locals slowly began to use that option. It seemed very “modern” to be out of a church and in a building that had once housed the local video shop. I must be quite traditional because I wasn’t sure how I felt about this change. I think the fact that the funeral directors were locals and they understood people’s needs and they catered for what they wanted so very well made it an easier and more accepting transition.

When my mother died and I was helping to organise the funeral, we went the traditional route-church, cemetery and wake in the church hall. My parents were the only practising Catholics on either side of the family and so we honoured that but, keeping it in mind, we tried to make it as simple and less religious as possible. Unfortunately the local Priest had other ideas and he proceeded to include lots of scriptures, incense and holy water blessings! We were not happy.

The turning point: a short and sweet funeral for Dad, away from the church

As a result of this when a few years later my father passed away, we took a stand and bravely by-passed the church and held his service in the funeral director’s chapel with our much loved female funeral director celebrant reading the eulogy and running the no-nonsense down to earth service. Dad was a plain and simple man and wouldn’t have wanted a fuss. He had a plain raw pine coffin with rope handles. (It was good enough for the last Pope!) My sister, a former florist, made the flowers for the top of the coffin with natives from her garden intertwined with rusty barbed wire. (Dad used to make things from barbed wire.)

Somebody noted that it was one of the shortest funerals they had been to, 20 minutes tops. It was still a touching send-off but it was edited down to the essentials that we wanted. We went to another church hall for various reasons and had a simple traditional wake catered by the local church ladies.

I think that sparked a turning point for me in opening up my former conservative ideas about how to farewell people. I could see that as time progressed and people were less religious and less church-going, they wanted something more reflective of who they were in their former lives as an appropriate send off.

The Memorial Party

This was yet again another “new” step that I was interested to see. I wasn’t sure if you had to dress up or go casual, I didn’t know. I ended up doing nice casual, slacks rather than jeans with a jacket and coloured shirt. I needn’t have worried, it was a very casual no-fuss affair, which suited my friend’s former lifestyle. It was held in a function room at a suburban city hotel and, because of Covid restrictions, there were under 50 attending.

The family had farewelled her body at a private cremation a few days before. There was a guest book and a photo display and a brochure. I wondered if there would be speeches but apart from when a relative thanked everyone for attending and said some brief words, that was it.

I was glad that her adult children didn’t force themselves to speak because we all knew how upset they were. I was speaking to the three of them at one point and we all ended up both laughing and crying together. There was plenty of food and drink and time to reflect and chat.

I was amazed that three hours passed so very quickly. I thought it was a lovely, relaxed and genuine way to honour her life. It was loose, unstructured and free of any formality at all. She would have even said that was too much fuss. Her spirit was there in the words spoken between those who loved her.

It was a party, not a funeral

I think that this type of farewell was a very suitable “new” alternative and one that will be surely adapted in the future to suit each individual. It’s even gone beyond calling it a “funeral” because it actually was more of a party. I have no idea how traditions will develop but there is no closing of the floodgates and returning to days of yesteryear, times of mourning clothes and certain “standards” being kept.

Nowadays word of somebody’s passing is usually announced and spread via social media. As a child I remember mum used to listen to the wireless at 10 past 8 every morning when they would announce the local deaths and funerals. That was the social media of that day. Times and traditions will continue to change to suit the times we live in, there is no going back….

Ken Roberts (Central Gippsland artist, writer, renovator)

Some people plan themed funerals where there is a dress code, often bright colours. Illustration by Phil Judd for The Bottom Drawer Book.
Funerals are changing, often becoming a celebration of life. Illustration by Phil Judd for The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan.

Lisa Herbert is a death awareness advocate, a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. It is available in Australia for $29.95. The eBook version is available for AU$15.99 on Kobo, Apple book, Google Books and Booktopia.

The Bottom Drawer Book is now available as an eBook on Google Play, Kobo, Booktopia and Apple Books for $15.99
The Bottom Drawer Book is now available as an eBook on Google Play, Kobo, Booktopia and Apple Books for $15.99

People spent less on funerals during Covid: Invocare

Australia’s largest funeral provider says families chose simpler funerals and direct cremations for their loved ones during 2020.

Announcing its FY20 results to investors, Invocare reported the average cost of a funeral was down four per cent on the year before. That is, the average cost of a funeral was $7882.

“Funeral case volumes were 2.5% down for the year, with volumes in the second half down just 1.6% as restrictions eased. Funeral case average suffered the greatest impact from COVID, down 4.0% on the PCP (prior corresponding period).

Simpler arrangements and an increase in direct cremations during the height of lockdowns drove a decline in professional service fees and demand for catered funeral services.

In most markets the business was able to meet this change in demand through its Simplicity and Value Cremations branded locations. As restrictions eased, signs of a return in demand for the ‘gathering’ element of a funeral service to celebrate the life of a loved one have been observed.”

Invocare ASX Announcement, 24 Feb 2021

What are direct cremations?

Direct cremations are exactly what the name suggests. No funeral, no frills, just a cremation. The body is transported from the home or hospital to the funeral company’s mortuary where they are kept until a cremation can be organised. They are then transported directly to the crematorium. Direct cremations have been increasing in popularity over the past five or so years.

My mother was directly cremated a year ago this week. She had told me she didn’t want a funeral and we had discussed a direct cremation. There was no costly coffin, no hearse required (coffins are moved in a van), no funeral venue hire, no catering, no printed order of proceedings or hymn booklet etc. My family used an independent funeral director to collect mum from the hospice and within two days she had been cremated. I had made inquiries about witnessing the cremation. The crematorium was Invocare-owned and I was told that would cost an additional $600.

The nitty gritty $$$

Let’s talk dollar$ briefly.

Today InvoCare Limited reported a statutory net loss after tax attributed to shareholders of $9.2 million for the year ended 31 December 2020. The COVID pandemic and the associated government restrictions had a significant impact on both InvoCare’s ability to deliver full-service funeral arrangements and on the mortality rate in the countries in which its businesses operate. As disclosed to the market on 17 February 2021, this 2020 full year result includes the impact of net $26.5 million (pre-tax) of significant operating and non-operating item, mostly linked to the impact of COVID on the Funeral Services sector and the broader economy in Australia and New Zealand.
• Statutory Revenue down 4.5% to $477.7 million
• Operating Revenue down 4.7% to $476.2 million
• Operating EBITDA down 29% to $102.6 million
• Reported Loss After Tax attributable to shareholders of InvoCare Limited of $9.2 million

FY20 Results Investor Presentation

Families happy with their Invocare service

There’s no denying 2020 was a challenging year for all of us. It was particularly difficult for those who lost loved ones because funeral restrictions prevented gatherings and collective grieving. But funeral directors, whether they be independent or owned by big business, did every thing possible to help families as best they could. The live streaming of funerals is nothing new to the funeral industry – it’s been done for years – but Covid restrictions really upped the ante on this type of funeral technology and its use. And funeral directors had the responsibility of keeping people safe by implementing strict Covid plans. It must have been really difficult at times when people were feeling overwhelming grief and hugs could be few and far between.

The hard work, agility and dedication of InvoCare’s frontline workforce was clearly recognised by client families, with the Australian Funeral Services business maintaining a strong Net Promoter Score (NPS) of +79, an excellent result in a challenging year.
The business experienced difficult trading conditions in the middle of the year but the breadth of its brand portfolio and the geographical diversification of its network have assisted in limiting the decline in operating revenue to 7.3%, delivering $292.3 million in revenue for the year. The intentional focus on maintaining service capability, plus a $2.0 million increase in its provision for aged debtors contributed to a 27% decline in Operating EBITDA to $62.5 million.

Invocare ASX Announcement, 24 Feb 2021

So what’s a NPS, a net promoter score? It’s a feedback mechanism. Clients are surveyed and asked if they’re likely to recommend the business. The NPS rates their likelihood to recommend a company, a product, or a service to a friend or colleague. Invocare says its NPS is +79 which is very, very good. 

Pet cremations not affected by Covid

For the past few years InvoCare has been diversifying into pet cremations. Late last year it bought two large pet cremation businesses for just under $50 million. The acquisition gave InvoCare a national footprint when it comes to pet cremations. And it’s going to be a big earner. I’ve got the urns containing three dogs’ remains at my place.

The average cost of a pet cremation with InvoCare in 2020 was $316. Almost 15,000 pets were cremated. And InvoCare expects strong growth in the pet cremation sector. But there’s a new player in the pet ‘cremation’ market. We’re going to see an increase in the offerings of (non-InvoCare) water cremation of pets. But that’s a whole other blog which I’ll get to in coming weeks.

Funeral are big business so be prepared

So there you have it. Funerals are BIG business and they’re worth LOTS of money. InvoCare is the biggest funeral player here in Australia, by far. It owns 278 funeral director businesses, 25 crematoria and 17 cemeteries/memorial parks. Like all funeral businesses, they’ve been working in challenging conditions with Covid restrictions affecting funerals, mourners and the way they grieve. I say a big congratulations to all funeral workers for working so hard for families in difficult times. You play a very important part in the lives, and deaths, of people.

InvoCare’s average funeral cost last year was nearly $8,000. That doesn’t include the price of a cemetery burial plot. To reduce that cost, don’t be afraid to shop around and ask questions. You don’t have to let the funeral company print your order of proceedings or hymn book. Make your own. Organise your own flowers, provide your own catering. Tell your family you don’t want an expensive coffin so, when the time eventually comes, they won’t feel like they have to spend $3,000 on a coffin.

Perhaps invite your local funeral director to your local Lions or Rotary meeting where you ask them about the ins and outs of funerals. Or just call one for a chat. While researching my book, The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan, I found funeral directors to be very approachable. Being informed will help you make better and easier decisions at a time of great grief.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a death literacy advocate, a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. It is available in Australia for $24.95, including postage (Additional postage of AU$9 is payable for overseas orders). 

Lisa Herbert, blogger and author.