The last goodbye: the economics of funerals (Radio National Interview)

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A funeral director explains how Australia’s death industry works


It starts with a phone call.

“That can be prior to someone’s passing, or it could be after they’ve died,” Asha Dooley, general manager at Grace Funerals, says.

The bereaved communicate their wishes during this first phone call, and sometimes also meet with the funeral director.

And then the nuanced logistical exercise of planning a funeral gets underway.

Different cultures and religions do, of course, mark funerals and the deaths of a loved ones in a variety of ways.

But most of us think of funeral directors in one of two ways: the stiff-suited mortician (solemn, overwhelmingly male) and the Atwoodian gleam of the White Lady set (mute, exclusively female).

Neither image quite fits Ms Dooley — a young, focused ex-hotelier, who previously trained as a team leader in Qatari resorts.

“Basically, running a funeral is like planning a wedding,” she says.

“Only you have three days to do it.”

Grace Funerals is a “full service” option, meaning it oversees every part of the funeral production process: from bodily transport to providing programs for a service.

Asha Dooley, manager of Grace Funerals and Emu Plains Funerals

Its offices reflect that jack-of-all-trades ethos — tucked between a day spa and a day care, they house a chapel, a mortuary, planning rooms and a hearse.

The need to provide a timely outlet for bereavement means that, for Ms Dooley and her colleagues, most planning is done prior to being contacted.

“We’ve got a lot of different venue options and different ideas already available,” she says.

“We work quickly … we can do whatever we need to in a short period of time.

“My motto is to never say never — unless it’s illegal.”

The misery business

Grace Funerals employs four full-time staff and a number of casuals. Ms Dooley won’t talk about the number of funerals she’s involved with.

“We’re a small to medium enterprise — probably more on the small side,” she says.

Grace Funerals used to be the norm for the Australian funeral industry: an independent, family-run funeral home.

Currently, 37 per cent of the Australian death care market is serviced by InvoCare, the conglomerate behind brands such as Simplicity, Guardian and White Lady Funerals.

A glance at InvoCare’s annual reports provides an idea of their scale: 1,566 equivalent employees, 225 funeral homes and 16 cemeteries and crematoria in 2016.

In metropolitan regions along Australia’s eastern seaboard, where burial space is at a premium, their business has been likened to the supermarket duopoly.

“If they don’t get you at the funeral, they’ll get you at the cemetery gates,” one funeral operator told The Australian in 2011.

All annual reports are necessarily written in some form of bureaucratese, but InvoCare’s strike an especially odd chord: that Australia experienced only a “modest” increase in annual deaths is greeted almost mournfully.

A “reduction in case volume” (i.e., dead human bodies processed by InvoCare) was offset by “targeting higher value memorialisation opportunities”.

Trends in the funeral industry

Coffin manufacturers joke that their industry is recession-proof. But it isn’t immune to fashion.

“The main trend we’re seeing in Australia is that there are far more cremations than burials,” Ms Dooley says.

It is perhaps unsurprising that as we run out of burial space, prohibitive real estate prices haunt Australians, even after death.

Australians are also personalising their funerals — which, to a society that grappled with the charge of being “death-denying” throughout the 1970s, is no small change.

“We’d prefer not to have a cookie-cutter approach. We’d rather do a funeral that’s individual for you,” Ms Dooley says.

Her clients are increasingly interested in specialised music, outdoor funerals and varied orders of service.

Ms Dooley works with caskets of imported mahogany, eco-friendly coffins lined with biodegradable plastic and even natural burials — where a coffin isn’t used.

“We haven’t done a lot of natural burials,” she says.

“But a burial site near us offer them, and we would be more happy to do that.”

Dealing with grief

Despite being in constant contact with death and the recently bereaved, Ms Dooley doesn’t find her work emotionally taxing.

“I find it quite rewarding. We get to meet families,” she says.

“I guess it is a challenge to make sure every family feels like they are the only family we’re looking after.”

There are, of course, certain occasions that are trying.

“When there are children involved, that can be difficult,” Ms Dooley says.

The Australian Funeral Directors Association has a Frequently Asked Questions section on its website concerned with grief.

According to it, grief is: normal, highly individual, able to cause physical sensations, and prone to last two to five years under normal circumstances.

Ms Dooley, who is a member of the AFDA, cites studies that show ritual is important in letting go.

“I’m a really big advocate for funerals — not because I run funerals but because I think it’s much better for our grief long term,” she says.

Does Ms Dooley plan her own funeral?

“Almost daily,” she admits.

Ideally, she says, it would be outdoors, in the evening, overlooking the water somewhere, with champagne on arrival.

“I don’t want anything stiff or boring … I want everyone to have a nice old time.”

Topics: deathsmall-businessbusiness-economics-and-financeaustralia

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