Rick White is a former funeral director from Tamworth in north west New South Wales. He retired after decades in the funeral business but still dabbles in funerals occasionally, lending a shoulder and his expertise to family and long-time friends when needed.
I sat down with him and asked him basic questions about what we should do when someone dies.
Who should we call when someone dies in the home?
Call the police or your local doctor.
“You can be with your loved one for a few hours if that’s what you’d like. If you’re not sure about what to do, the police are very good and very understanding and they’ll ring the doctor and the funeral director.
“The first thing we need, as a funeral director, is a death certificate.” If the deceased is known to the local doctor and the doctor knows there’s a illness that has likely caused death then it’s likely they’ll supply the death certificate.
However, if the cause of death isn’t obvious, the deceased will go to the coroner.
What does the coroner do?
The coroner identifies the cause of death and if often done at the mortuary at the local hospital.
“Let them know if you have money problems or you can’t afford anything over the top. They’re very understanding. One of the biggest costs is the coffin. The next biggest cost is the funeral director’s service fee.
“Included in that fee is the hearse, looking after the deceased person, certificate costs such as death certificates and cremation certificates if they’re going to be cremated.”
Certifying a cremation: two certificates needed
“You need a doctor to say that the person is not still alive and you need one from a general practitioner or the coroner (giving permission to cremate). And you need the closest person to the deceased or spouse to sign that (permit to cremate).” The reason for needing two certificates is because there’s obviously no going back.
Dealing with a death in the family is hard. Trying to make sense of Queensland’s death-care and funeral rules and regulations is pretty difficult too because it’s all a bit of a confusing mess.
Ahead of Dying to Know Day on August 8, a day to bring to life conversations about death, dying and bereavement, I’ve spent days trawling through Queensland Government legislation, calling councils, chatting with cemetery operators and funeral directors, contacting hospitals and even visiting my local cop shop.
Here’s what you need to know about funerals and burying dear ol’ dead Aunty Joan*.
(*Joan is a made-up person; a little feisty grandmother who always wore floral dresses, swore a lot, enjoyed gardening, drove an old Corolla and drank cheap whiskey.)
1. Qld’s legislation regarding death care, funerals and cemeteries is a confusing mess.
Queensland doesn’t even have stand-alone legislation governing burials, cemeteries or funerals. There are more than a dozen Acts that make small mentions of them here and there but even combined they don’t provide a lot of guidance. Unlike most of the other states, Queensland has a confusing web of rules, regulations and blaring omissions. The Law Reform Commission attempted to work through some of those in its Review of the Law in Relation to the Disposal of a Dead Body in 2011 and recommended lots of changes to Queensland laws and regulations but none of that has come to fruition.
There used to be a Cemeteries Act but that was repealed in the mid-1990s with the intention of introducing fabulous and thorough legislation soon after. But it all got too hard and cemetery and burial responsibilities were hand-balled to Local Government. While local councils have done a good job initiating their own local laws and managing this stuff, inconsistencies remain between local government areas.
2. Signing up to Queensland’s Funeral Industry Code of Conduct is voluntary.
Funeral directors around the country are working hard to redeem themselves after some pretty damning reports and inquiries in which the industry was accused of a lack of transparency and taking advantage of vulnerable people. These days there is a Queensland Funeral Industry Code of Conduct which aims to protect customers and ensure they are not pressured into buying products and services. This voluntary Code also endeavours to “ensure clients fully understand what is and is not included in the funeral plan or package they purchase” and “provide clients with accurate and timely information about the range and price of their services and products, including low-cost options”.
Not all funeral directors have signed up to this Code of conduct. And unlike states like New South Wales, funeral directors in Queensland don’t even have to be licensed.
So how is the quality of care afforded to dear ol’ Aunty Joan and her family regulated?
Um… It’s not.
3. Funeral services are bloody expensive and so are burials.
An increasing number of funeral directors now display funeral packages and their costs on their websites which makes shopping around when you’re grieving much less challenging. As well as funeral brokers, there are also some funeral comparison websites that can help find the type of service and price you’re after. Some of those websites are run by industry, others are not.
One of those independent ones is GatheredHere which has a database of costings for about 700 funeral options and companies around the country. Website founder Colin Wong said the site had 8,000 visits in June, proving the internet generation now expects online product comparisons and reviews.
“They’re accustomed to it and the demographic now demands it. ”
Colin said he established the website because he wanted to protect vulnerable consumers.
“I want them to know there’s a range of options, cost-effective options. And a funeral service is different and separate to the disposal of the body.”
Country funerals and interments are much cheaper than in the city, mainly because real estate is much cheaper. Mark McGowan oversees 12 cemeteries for Southern Downs Regional Council. He tells me the average cost of a full funeral service and burial in Warwick Cemetery is between $10,000 and $13,000.
4. Now that I know how expensive funerals and burials are, do I have to have a funeral?
Finally, some good news! No, you do not have to have a funeral and you’ll be surprised by the growing number of people taking that option. To cater for that there are now lots of funeral directors happy to provide a very simple body disposal service.
After 15 years in the funeral business, and disillusioned by the huge cost grieving families had to pay to farewell their loved ones, Tim Button and mortician wife Casey started Just Cremate Me.
“It pissed me off watching so many funeral companies make so much money. It was wrong to charge grieving people like that,” he said.
Just Cremate Me is a small south-east Queensland business set up to offer a cremation service, including transport and a family viewing. Families can also help wash and dress their loved one in Tim’s parlour (which looks like a comfy lounge room) before Aunty Joan is driven to a crematorium in a cheap, cardboard coffin. The family later picks up the ashes from the crematorium and then quite possibly takes a trip around the world with the money they’ve saved by not having a funeral. (Thanks Aunty Joan!) One of Tim’s unattended cremations costs $1,250 – about a quarter of the price of a really basic funeral service.
The popularity of an inexpensive, simple cremation has even surprised Tim. After just one year in operation, Just Cremate Me cremates 40 people per month, and Tim says the reasons behind his service’s popularity isn’t necessarily financial.
“Some people just don’t see the need for an expensive funeral. Sometimes families are overseas or interstate and only get together once a year so it’s at that time when they will hold a memorial for the person.”
“I’ve cremated multi-millionaires,” said Tim Button.
Watching the rise in demand for the direct cremation model is David Molloy from the Queensland Cemeteries and Crematoria Association. After nearly 30 years in the funeral business, he believes the importance of a funeral should not be underestimated.
“Without one, the grieving process isn’t able to start. A funeral doesn’t bring closure. It brings opening,” said David.
But he’s quick to point out that a funeral needn’t be a formal event held in a chapel or cemetery.
“It could be held at someone’s house. It’s a ritual, a memorial, a chance to simply talk, tell stories, laugh and cry. It’s for friends as well as family,” he said.
5. Do I have to use a funeral director?
No, but with so much confusion around Queensland’s rules and regulations it sure makes it easier. Do It Yourself death-care and funerals are not unheard of and there is certainly an increased interest in taking care of dear ol’ Aunty Joan home for a vigil instead of sending her away with a stranger.
The paperwork is pretty straight forward. You need to register a death and apply for the death certificate with the Department of Justice and Attorney General.
HOWEVER, the problem you might encounter is that some cemeteries will only liaise with a funeral director, not Aunty Joan’s daughter. For example, the 12 cemeteries managed by Brisbane City Council will only deal with funeral directors. It’s a different story on the Southern Downs where the Brethren religious community organise their own funerals.
6. Can I put dear ol’ dead Aunty Joan in the back of my ute?
Yes, you can.
Weekend at Bernie’s is a 1989 black comedy in which one of the main characters is dead.
While it might seem like a scene from “Weekend At Bernie’s“, you can transport dear ol’ dead Aunty Joan in the back of your ute (or the Corolla) in Queensland. While the New South Wales legislation clearly outlines its rules for the private transport of the dead, Queensland rules and regulations are a bit of a debacle in this space.
It’s cut and dry in NSW — you can transport a body as long as the journey is less than eight hours and Aunty Joan isn’t infectious. I’ve had coffee with one lady in NSW who moved a man’s body from an unhelpful funeral director’s premises to a house for a home vigil using an old van, four blokes and a door.
Yes, a door.
In Queensland, the Coroners Act makes no mention of private body transport; neither does the Cremations Act. The Public Health Act briefly makes mention of not spreading an infectious disease. Section 236b of the Criminal Code makes it “an offence for a person, without lawful justification, to improperly or indecently interfere with, or offer any indignity to a dead human body”. That seems to leave itself wide open for interpretation and that’s why I sought clarification at my local police station.
“That’s revolting,” was the response from the woman at the counter when I asked about the private transport of Aunty Joan. So I made a more official inquiry to the Queensland Police Service and received this response:
“The QPS is not in a position to answer these questions – this depends on individual circumstance and it is not something that QPS has come across at this time and as such is a hypothetical.”
The consensus among the industry folk I’ve chatted with is that the private transport of bodies is allowed, though one did admit that funeral directors are probably better equipped and therefore are able to do it in a more dignified manner. But, in another example of the confusion and ignorance in Queensland’s rules and regulations, some hospitals will not release a body to anyone other than a funeral director. That’s despite it being “legal for any person that has the authority to control the body to take physical possession of the body as long as the death was not from an infectious disease”. (Section 3.2.2 It’s Your Funeral Report, Sandra van der Laan, Sydney Business School).
7. Bodies at home and home vigils.
The subject of death, dying and funerals was only until recently very taboo. Of late there has been a noticeable shift in thinking and people are looking to take more control. But there’s still a long way to go. Mackay funeral director Belinda Hassan said, “As a society we’ve been conditioned not to deal with death. We become immune to it.”
She told me many people want their loved one taken to a funeral home soon after they die in the home.
“They want them out of sight as soon as possible,” said Belinda.
But not everyone wants to shift dear ol’ Aunty Joan off to a funeral home as soon as she dies in front of the telly. Home vigils can offer families a personal and private opportunity to say goodbye and connect with family members and friends during a time of grief.
A body can be kept in the home for a few days, often laid out in the bedroom or lounge room while life goes on around them and loved ones come and go. Obviously the body may undergo some changes during that time and the air con will have to be turned on, but people who do take part in home vigils report it to be a very positive experience.
Shop around and prepare.
But home vigils aren’t for everyone, and that’s okay. Dealing with death and grief is a personal journey and there are people who can help guide you through the process. For most, it starts with a funeral director. Don’t be afraid to shop around and ask questions. Ask for an itemised quote and check out if they funeral director you’ve called has signed up to Queensland’s Code of conduct. And remember, just because you decide not to spend $15,000 on dear ol’ Aunty Joan doesn’t mean you didn’t think she was the best aunt ever.
An even better way to make the funeral decision process easier is to discuss your wishes before you or a family member dies. It needn’t be a long or morbid discussion and it will help clear up any confusion when the time comes. I wrote a book called The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan that’s practical, colourful and filled with dad jokes to help make that happen. Your ideas, funeral plans, and life’s reflections will sit quietly in its pages until they’re needed, which most likely won’t be anytime soon.