ABC Life: What a funeral costs and your options in Australia

Funerals are a lot like weddings — they can be beautiful, meaningful celebrations of love for someone to remember forever, or they can be day that everyone tries to forget.

And just like weddings, they can be really expensive.

A study published in 2017 found the average price of a basic funeral service to be $4,902. But when I went to a well-known price comparison website, I found the average cost of a burial funeral as $7,464 and the average cost of a cremation funeral as $7,442.

You can do them cheaper, or spend more — it comes down to what you want and can afford. But knowing your options ahead of time will help you make the right choices.

I spoke to Jenny Briscoe-Hough and Asha Dooley, two women with extensive experience in the funeral industry, about what options there are in Australia for farewelling a loved one.

But it is worth noting, costs for services and goods associated with funerals vary from state-to-state and between funeral homes, so it’s best to get a quote from a provider in your local area.

Do we have to have a funeral?

There are no laws to make you hold a ceremony to mark someone’s death.

But there are rules around what you do with their body. See the Australian Department of Human Services’ What to do following a death website for details on what has to happen when someone dies.

A group of people at sunset standing on the edge of a woods illustrating an informal funeral service
The ceremonial part of a funeral can be whatever you want it to be. A simple, informal gathering if you wish.(Pexels: Helena Lopes)

There are also legal documents that have to be filled in and filed — death certificates, for example — and this is where a funeral director can be very handy as they will know exactly what forms need to be filed, by whom and where in your state.

If you don’t want a service, you can have a direct committal — when your body is taken straight from the mortuary or place you died and cremated or buried without any service.

If this option appeals to you, then you can call crematoriums and burial grounds directly yourself for quotes, but some places have a policy they will only accept a body from a funeral director.

“You don’t have to get a funeral director involved. However, there is a lot of paperwork and legalities,” Ms Dooley says.

“If you don’t have any experience in the area, it would be very difficult and distressing to look after a loved one without a professional involved”.

Prices for direct committals vary across the country and between funeral homes. The final cost depends on what services and goods are included in the committal.

Some fees are not optional, such as the professional fees for the funeral director’s time, the costs of the death certificate and other legal documentation and fees charged by the crematorium or burial ground hire.

Ms Dooley recommends asking for an itemised quote so you know what’s included. And if money’s a concern, tell the funeral home and ask for their cheapest options.

You can shop around for funeral homes to find the right fit and cost for you. You don’t have to go with the nearest one or the first one you call.

A loved one’s body can be brought home

A posy of white daisies on a wooden table to illustrate bringing you own flowers to a funeral to save money
You can make a funeral cheaper by providing your own flowers, or not having them at all.(Unsplash: Ornella Binni)

Yes. Even if your loved one has died in a hospital or other facility, you can have them brought back to your home and kept there for a few days.

Some funeral homes can help by renting you a cool plate, which is a metal plate that keeps the torso cool, but you don’t have to have one of those by law.

If you’ve been caring for your mum at home and she’s died from a known cause, you don’t need to call anyone right away. You can take your time.

But if the death is sudden you must call the police and an ambulance immediately.

There are plenty of options when it comes to the service

When it comes to the service or ceremony side of a funeral, there are no rules other than what you and your loved one want.

You can hold a home funeral, have a service on a beach, in an office, at a church or just about anywhere. And it can be as formal and traditional or as ad lib and modern as you like.

You don’t need a priest or celebrant unless you want one. You can have everyone speak at the service, or no-one.

How much you do and how much a funeral home does for you is up to you. You could have the funeral home do all the harder stuff, like moving the body, storing it in a mortuary and organising with the crematorium or burial ground, while you do all the ceremonial elements.

Or you can get a funeral home to handle everything for you, from flowers and programs to funeral notices in the paper. That type of funeral will cost much more.

A good funeral home will talk with you about each step of the process and offer as much or as little as you want and need.

“Really what people want is to not be ripped off,” Ms Briscoe-Hough says.

“They don’t want someone taking advantage of them.”

What are the rules around coffins?

A man standing in a wooden coffin showing a do-it-yourself-coffin to reduce funeral costs
You can make your own coffin. Just read up on the rules of what you should use for the funeral you want and get crafty.(ABC News: Daniel Blades)

Coffins, or caskets, can cost between $300 for a simple cremation capsule through to $10,000 and more for a top-of-the-line casket.

You can make your own coffin, and some natural or green burial grounds will let you be buried in just a shroud.

There are some rules around what type of coffin you require for above-ground burials in crypts. And coffins do need to meet certain standards to be accepted at crematoria and burial grounds.

You don’t have to pick a coffin from the funeral home you’re working with. You can buy a coffin online and have it delivered in a couple of days, for example.

You can even rent a casket in some funeral homes. This is to allow you to use a higher-end casket for the service or viewing, and the body is then cremated in a simple cardboard or plywood casket.

Not all burials are in cemeteries

There are a few options for burials.

If your family has a large enough property, you can apply to your local council to have someone buried on your property. This can involve council fees and isn’t an option for smaller properties or inner-city locations.

You can be buried at sea, but you will need a permit. And the burial can only be done in certain locations and by approved sea burial service providers. This option is usually only granted to someone with a strong connection to the sea and it will costs you thousands of dollars.

Most states have natural, or green, burial grounds, where the aim is to keep your carbon footprint as small as possible by being buried in a way that allows the body to decompose faster than mainstream burials.

Natural burials might be cheaper because you can avoid having a coffin and there are no artificial headstones or burial ground upkeep. But you do still have burial fees and those can be more expensive than cremation or other burial options. And there are still relatively few natural burial grounds around Australia, so it might not be the most convenient or practical option for your family.

You can also be buried above ground in a vault or crypt. This is the most expensive option as not only do vaults cost a lot, but you will also have to buy a heavy-duty casket that meet requirements and have the body embalmed.

Each state has different rules regarding how long you have ownership over a burial plot. You might pay a lot in cemetery fees for granddad to be buried in a plot which will have to be paid again in 25 years, or granddad could share the lot.

Are there rules about what can be done with ashes?

Cremation can be cheaper than burial as you avoid the more expensive burial ground fees.

There aren’t really any rules about what you can do with a person’s ashes.

You can put them in a beautiful urn, scatter them at sea, bury them in your backyard, have them turned into diamonds — just about anything.

Can I just donate my body to science and not have to think about it?

Not quite.

If your body is donated to a university for research and teaching purposes, the university will collect your body, and normally cover the costs of cremation or burial once they’re finished with it (often they keep a body for two to four years, and may keep some parts or samples indefinitely).

But if your family change their minds, or they didn’t know that’s what you want, they can stop it from happening.

However, even if you’re all signed up to donate and the family are on board, the uni might not want or need your body when you die. And then all costs and responsibilities fall back on the family.

There are plenty of excellent reasons to donate your body to science. But it’s not necessarily a get-out-funeral-duty-free card.

What if even the cheapest funeral option is too expensive?

There are government-assistance payments that can help cover expenses when someone dies, and some clubs and organisations might be able to help, depending on your circumstances.

Each state has different schemes to help families that are not able to cover funeral costs as well, so it’s worth calling around if you need help.

ASIC has a section on their MoneySmart website outlining different options for paying for a funeral, including the pros and cons of pre-paid funerals and funerals bonds and a whole section on funeral insurance.

Start planning and discussing funeral options

Ms Dooley says it’s best to start researching your options before you need them, if you can.

The best place to start is by searching online for funeral homes in your location and checking out their websites to see what they offer.

“I’d then give them a call and have a chat to them. And I’d probably call more than once,” Ms Dooley says.

“When picking a funeral director, my advice is to always go with your gut, and always to go with the people who make you feel the most comfortable and that you’re the most confident with.

“It’s a very personal decision and one funeral director might be perfect for one family but not with another family.”

This article contains general information only. It should not be relied on as advice in relation to your particular circumstances and issues, for which you should obtain specific, independent professional advice.

Discover more about our funeral services: speak to our funeral directors in Penrith, Springwood and in the North Shore on (02) 4735 6900.