‘Coffin swapping’ discussion highlights changing views on funerals.  

Meet Maree Bolding. She’s a funeral celebrant and a passionate volunteer at the Central Victoria crematorium. Yes,  while many of her friends may volunteer at the local hospital,  Maree spends her free time at the crematorium in Bendigo, doing her bit to give the deceased a respectful and loved farewell. 

Maree Bolding stands in front of Remembrance Parks Central Victoria's cremator.
Maree Bolding stands in front of one of two cremators at Central Victoria’s crematorium. A passionate volunteer at the Bendigo facility, she says it’s a privilege to be trusted with a loved one’s final journey.

I use the term ‘loved’ because, as Maree gave me a tour of the cremation facilities, it was obvious she loves what she does and is committed to treating the deceased like they would be treated if they were still alive.

“I call them by name. I talk to them.

“I’ve been given a big responsibility to care for these people on behalf of their families,” she said.

And care for them she does. Upon leaving the crematorium there was little doubt that I wanted someone like Maree to attend to someone I cared about. She offered great care to people who could no longer speak for themselves.

Unfortunately it seems not all in the funeral industry share the same ethics.

There’s a damning allegation that has thrust Queensland’s funeral industry and lack of regulation into the spotlight and has reaffirmed the general population’s scepticism about an industry often thought of, rightly or wrongly, as deceitful and manipulative.

The Courier Mail broke the story of a coffin swap by a Qld funeral director on Jan 11.

Rockhampton funeral director is accused of ‘coffin swapping’ – taking the deceased out of the $1,700 coffin her family purchased for the funeral and then putting her in a cheap coffin for the cremation. Let me be clear here: Not only is this appalling, it is also illegal. The funeral company involved has denied any wrong doing

The story of this alleged dodgy behaviour by a small funeral business has received widespread coverage and has seen thousands of people taking to social media to voice their disgust. I’ve been following those online conversations and this is where is gets interesting.

1.      People are appalled

Overwhelmingly, people are saying how atrocious allegations of coffin-swapping are. No surprise here.

Many are saying they had always suspected such a practice was common-place. I’m not convinced of that. However, my chats with funeral directors have made it obvious that some of them believe it does happen. Interestingly on ABC Radio today, Darren Eddy from the Australian Funeral Directors Association said he’d never heard of “coffin swapping”.

2.      Distrust of the industry

Without a doubt, Facebook comments reveal a widespread and deep distrust of the funeral industry. No real surprise there either. It’s unfortunate because the industry as a whole is trying harder than ever before to be more transparent. But it only takes the odd rogue operator to render those efforts null and void.

3.      People have NO idea about the price of coffins.

Much of the online discussion revolved around the price of the coffin and why anyone would want to burn such an expensive, $1,700  coffin.  Well,  $1,700 is actually not an expensive coffin. To be honest, it’s on the cheaper side.  Many people said they don’t want to be wasteful and they’re happy to be buried in a cheap pine box. Great! Let’s just hope they tell their families their wishes for a cheaper and more environmentally conscious option.  (I’ve written The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan for that very reason.)

Hardwood coffins can easily reach the $10,000 mark. Sure, they’re beautiful but is it practical to burn or bury such expensive bits of wood that took decades to grow? Many people think it is and that’s why funeral directors offer these high-end coffins as options.

4.    People are open to the idea of rental coffins. 

Not many funeral directors offer this option but rental coffins are actually a thing.  Tobin Brothers,  for example,  offer a “chipboard inner capsule encased in a solid timber outer shell,  which is removed prior to cremation”. You might think a rental coffin might be an inexpensive option.  Wrong.  Tobin Brothers offer the option for $1,700. 

5.      Would Government regulation stop “coffin swapping”?

No. I’ve written about the confusing state of the Qld funeral regulations in a recent blog. The legislation is a quagmire and the hands-on operations of funeral directors and crematorium operators are widely unseen. We simply don’t know what happens behind closed doors.

Cemetery and crematoria infrastructure in Qld is either run by Local Government or private enterprise. There’s no consistent or over-arching regulation that keeps an eye on these. In Victoria however, crematoria are run by Trusts, with the trustees appointed by the State Government. This means there’s no real incentive or opportunity to operative unscrupulously to make a quick buck.

Does the Qld community want more State Government regulation when it comes to cremations? In this case, the online response seems to indicate that the answer is YES.

Remembrance Parks Central Victoria.
Unlike Qld, Victorian cemeteries and crematoria, like this facility in Bendigo, are run by Trusts set up by the State Government.

6. The discussion: people are talking!!

If nothing else,  this claim of coffin swapping certainly has people talking, and that’s a good thing.  Thousands of people have taken to social media and given the issue measured thought and are openly taking about what they want for their funeral and sharing their own experiences of the funeral industry. It’s revealing that the discussion about the inevitable isn’t necessarily seen as morbid these days. Times are changing and people want to be better informed. 

Where to now?

With dark stories like coffin swapping around, how can you ensure your beloved family member gets the farewell you want for them?

Start by doing your homework. Meet your funeral directors. Ask for a tour of their facilities. Do this with some mates now, instead of at a time when you’ve lost a loved one, are grieving and not making clear decisions.

Just like you’d research a bathroom renovation and get quotes, do the same with several funeral directors.  I’ve not met a funeral director yet who wouldn’t welcome a potential client’s questions.

 In Queensland there’s a voluntary Code of Conduct that aims to ensure funeral directors are transparent and ethical. Ask if they’re signatories to that Code. Also, are they members of the Australian or their state Funeral Directors Association?

While this alleged “coffin swapping” incident is horrifying, don’t let it dictate your entire view of the funeral industry. There are passionate people like Maree Bolding who consider it a privilege to care for your loved one on their final journey. I’m positive she’s not the only one.

There are many coffin and casket options to suit a wide range of budgets. Discuss with your loved ones what type of coffin you want before the time comes. That way, they won’t feel like they have to spend 10K on your casket.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

Eddie Mason from Scone repairs broken headstones.

The volunteer headstone repairer: Eddie Mason’s cemetery passion

Spending days working hard and alone in a cemetery may not be everyone’s idea of fun but, for Eddie Mason, it’s a passion and a favourite past-time.

As I wandered through one of Scone’s many cemeteries I noticed Eddie tending a grave. He was wearing a tool belt and moved backwards and forwards around the broken headstone.

Eddie Mason from Scone repairs broken headstones.
While I usually visit cemeteries to learn about those buried there, every now and again I meet someone above ground who is just as interesting. Eddie Mason volunteers his time to repair headstones in Hunter Valley cemeteries.

Eddie Mason spends much of his spare time fixing headstones in the New South Wales Hunter Valley, particularly at Scone’s old Anglican cemetery. And a lot need fixing there.

Developed on black soil farming land in the mid-1800s, the cemetery regularly gets inundated with water and the earth moves considerably. That’s not ideal for a graveyard and the evidence lies in cracked headstones, crooked graves and toppled monuments. Visitors also have to be careful not to trip in one of the many dips on the cemetery grounds.

Wonky monuments and broken headstones at Scone Cemetery.
The black soil of Scone cracks and undulates depending on the season, leading to grave movements and damage. Irrigation from neighbouring farmland seeps into the cemetery and it floods when the rains come.

A Scone local and with ancestors arriving on the First Fleet, Eddie has found lots of his own family members in the cemetery. But he hasn’t been able to locate the grave of his great grandmother who, at age 92, was the ‘oldest lady in the town’.

“She used to live at the other end of Kelly St. It’s the Coles carpark now. She used to watch everyone. She knew everything about the town, they tell me. ”

Like so many of Australia’s older cemeteries, there are many unidentified or unmarked graves. I’ve visited several cemeteries that have been subject to ‘clean ups’ over the years and have had historic markers and headstones or footstones removed, usually to make mowing and cemetery maintenance easier.

Eddie’s search for Rebecca Eveleigh’s grave is not over though, even turning to satellite images of the cemetery to identify burial plots.

“I found seven Eveleighs I didn’t even know where buried here,” he said.

Little Elsie

Eddie’s current project is that of the grave of little Elsie Maud Ball. Next week it will have been 129 years since she died. She was one year and nine months when she died in 1888. Her headstone has broken off its base and has cracked in half.

Elsie Maud Ball's grave at Scone's old Anglican cemetery is 129 years old.
Elsie Ball’s headstone is being repaired by Eddie Mason, who volunteers his time to fix historic graves.

Eddie said it’s often the graves of children that are most neglected.

“There’s a lot of children’s graves everywhere I go and they’re the ones that get ignored the most, probably because it’s painful for the families at the time.”

His own family experienced that grief. Eddie’s great aunt buried her young son in the cemetery.

“When he died they left Scone all together and never came back. They went to Tamworth.”

Hard work but rewarding

Eddie said he gets a lot of enjoyment from piecing damaged headstones back together, but admits it can be hard work.

“I dig up the headstone’s sunken bases and if I can level it I can put the headstone back on then and it’ll hold it.”

He points to a big headstone about 10 metres away. He’d dug the base out in the rain which softened the ground.

“That took all day to get that out of the ground. I had a crowbar and everything. It was raining then. But Elsie’s, which I did last week, it’s (the ground) so hard.”

The repaired grave of Percy Nicholson and Louis Nicholson in Scone's Anglican cemetery.
When repairing a grave, Eddie Mason first digs sunken base out of the hard ground. He levels the base and is the able to fix the headstone. It took a day in the rain for Eddie to dig the base of this grave at Scone’s old Anglican cemetery out of the ground.

Like much of New South Wales, Scone hasn’t had good rain this year and it’s causing the black soil to dry out and crack. Having visited the cemetery many times over the years, Eddie’s able to gauge the season by looking at the cracks in the ground.

“Usually my great grandfather George Eveleigh gets cracks right out the front and they even opened up his grave last time. But once it rains the soils shuts up again.”

“So I say ‘how are you going, George?’” Eddie chuckles.

 

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

The century-old gravestone of Joshua and Clara Bowd has been repaired by Eddie Mason.
The century-old gravestone of Joshua and Clara Bowd has been repaired by Eddie Mason. The heavy marble headstone was broken into six parts after falling from its base.