The two certainties of life

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Although the costs of dying are not strictly a FIRE topic, those of us on the FIRE path have an interest in saving money and ensuring that our families are taken care of. And let’s face it – sooner or later most of us will have to manage the process of organising a burial or cremation and, generally, a funeral service to go along with it.

Post-death arrangements don’t actually have to be expensive, but I promised in a recent post to share a couple of things that I discovered in the process of organising my father’s burial, so here goes, and you’re welcome.

One thing dad was always adamant about during his life was that he wanted to be buried, not cremated. Even though it wasn’t stipulated in his will, he’d said this often enough over the decades that his wishes were clear, so some time ago I started researching what I would need to do when dad passed away. As the executor of his estate I wanted to make sure I had a handle on things before the time came, and had a bit of a checklist to follow so that I could be sure I’d done everything that needed to be done. However, dad passed sooner than expected so I found myself, like most people in the same situation, having to wing it to a certain extent.

Part of my research led me to a 2017 report called It’s Your Funeral: An Investigation of Death Care and the Funeral Industry in Australia, the result of a University of Sydney Business School research project (find a copy via the Links list at the end of this post). I still haven’t finished a thorough reading of the report, but what I did read was quite the eye-opener – not least the remarkable concentration of funeral directors being part of only two parent companies (InvoCare and Propel) who have quite aggressively bought out smaller operators over the years. Many of these originally independent businesses have retained their names to make them appear independent and/or family-owned, but they’re not – nor do they make it clear on their websites that they’re owned by a parent company.

As an aside, if you’re someone for whom ethical investing is important and you’ve got InvoCare shares or shares in funds that include them, you might want to take a closer look at their practices – they’re quite predatory. They earned themselves a Choice “Shonky” award in early November last year. That said, they have made recent changes in accordance with changes to the law in NSW and are now listing itemised prices on their various brands’ websites, although apparently the links to the relevant pages are not prominent.

The Choice consumer website also has an excellent four-part series on funerals, as well as various other articles about funerals and funeral pricing, and also aged care (see the Links list below). I encourage you to consider it required reading as it is a quite in-depth series, and it contains plenty of links and references to other articles and information. Between these two sources and a few other random articles I’d found, I wanted to make sure I kept costs down and didn’t end up paying for things that weren’t strictly necessary, particularly as dad did not have a lot of money left after he passed (government-funded aged care takes 85% of your pension payment).

One thing that the It’s Your Funeral report highlights, and that I also found when getting quotes, was the lack of transparency around what exactly is covered by the funeral director’s fees and how they’re broken down. Only “added extras” are itemised on the account I received. After getting quotes (I only approached independent funeral directors and avoided the “big boys” companies), I asked my funeral director what these fees cover, and was advised that it includes things like:

  • Collection and storage of the deceased’s body from the place of death to the funeral parlour and cemetery/crematorium (fuel and vehicle running costs, refrigerated room running costs, etc)
  • Coverage of running costs (electricity and other operational costs)
  • Staff wages
  • Submission of all the required information to the state Registry of Births, Deaths & Marriages to enable the death to be recorded, and any other legal requirements
  • Arranging the funeral ceremony and cremation or burial
  • Preparation of the body for viewing and cremation or burial.

There’s probably more, but I can’t remember specifics at this point – in general, these fees cover the costs of all the “must have/do” items related to disposal of a body. Most other services (if wanted) are added extras, including the coffin or casket. Our family is not religious, nor did dad have many friends due to having spent the past five years in aged care with dementia, so we didn’t have a service or any other additional items, we just were present at the cemetery for the burial.

The “gotchas”

Gotcha #1 – Burial charges and GST

In Brisbane, where we live, there are twelve Brisbane City Council cemeteries as well as some independently owned cemeteries. Of the BCC cemeteries, only five have the capacity to do lawn burials, so we were restricted in our choice in that respect. (I did investigate the independent cemetery closest to us, but they were more expensive.) I left it to the funeral director to organise the burial plot with the cemetery, although I had looked up the costs on the BCC website, so I knew how much it would be. BCC charges for the plot itself, plus the digging of the grave, interment and refilling, and ongoing general maintenance, plus GST – the full cost as listed on their website is $4687. When I was invoiced by the funeral director, they’d listed the full BCC costs (including GST) in the body of the invoice, and that amount was then used in the calculation of the entire invoice’s GST – basically, a GST “double dip”.

When I queried this with the funeral director, he happily amended the account, but said he’d never actually thought about this, and apparently the council told him that as far as they’re aware all the funeral companies do this as well. But the thing with GST is, if you’re a business and you purchase something from another business that you’re on-selling as part of your business, there’s a process by which you account for the GST you paid on purchase, because you’re not supposed to charge GST on GST. I don’t for a second believe that they weren’t aware of this.

My advice: if you want to be buried, decide where you want to be laid to rest and buy your plot in advance directly from the cemetery yourself. BCC requires that you make an appointment with them when purchasing a gravesite, so be aware that you’ll need to make time for this, although at present they’re doing this over the phone due to the coronavirus pandemic. The other advantage to this is that you’re paying at today’s prices; there are no further costs from the cemetery.

Gotcha #2 – Certificate of Death

Most funeral directors will, as part of the registration of death, arrange for an official death certificate to be provided. On our invoice, this was listed as a “tax exempt” item (i.e. no GST charged) at a cost of $58. However, a standard death certificate from the Queensland Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages is $50.40. Presumably the remaining amount is for the costs of the postage and handling by the funeral director – they have the certificate sent to them and then they forward it to you.

However, ours never turned up. When I eventually chased it up (via the funeral director, as the Registry wouldn’t give me any information because I wasn’t the person who requested it) I was told it had been sent out a week or two after the burial (they didn’t seem to have any specific record of when it was sent, only that they’d received it and sent it out). I was quite gobsmacked when they told me it was sent by ordinary post (considering the amount of personal information on it, I thought this was highly irresponsible in a world where identity fraud is a growing industry), and that mine was only the second one in 22 years of business that had not arrived. I had to order and pay for another copy as I had to provide proof of dad’s passing to Centrelink and a couple of other government departments for the purposes of cancelling things.

FYI, when I went to the Registry to get the certificate, I was told that I wouldn’t have been allowed to register dad’s death myself. Their website, however, says that if you’re making funeral arrangements yourself instead of using a funeral director, to contact the Registry for further information on the death registration process.

My advice: ask your funeral director not to include a copy of the death certificate, but just to register the death with the relevant authority in your state and deduct the usual certificate charge from your invoice. Order the certificate yourself directly from your state Registry’s website and either collect it in person or have it sent out Express Post. This is the only postal service where the item is both tracked throughout it’s transit through the mail stream and bagged separately from all other mail. (Registered Post used to be bagged separately in a sealed bag, but Australia Post haven’t done this for years now, so a registered letter is no safer than ordinary post.)

Other gotchas

We were fortunate that dad passed away in a large hospital, as this meant there was no requirement for an autopsy given that his cause of death was already known. It also makes it easy for collection of the body as all funeral directors seem to have arrangements with the major hospitals and they have their processes down pat. Things can be more involved if someone passes away at home. We were also lucky in that the hospital was pretty relaxed about time frames for collection of the body – our funeral director said they won’t usually get insistent about it for at least the first couple of weeks, so that took a little bit of the urgency out of things.

Part 1 of Choice’s funeral series details some of the difficulties you can encounter if you want to DIY. Even though you can legally arrange almost everything you need for a funeral without using a funeral director, the industry itself acts to prevent this, not because you wouldn’t be capable, but because the organisations involved simply refuse to allow it. For some (e.g. local councils) these processes may be in place to minimise the workload on the organisation – no doubt it’s much easier for a cemetery/crematorium to deal with a funeral director who knows what they’re doing, rather than a distressed and grieving family member who has no clue where to start.

For example, BCC cemeteries won’t allow you to liaise directly with them for the actual burial; they will only deal with a funeral director. So if you wanted to handle the arrangements yourself, apparently that’s just too bad – you can’t. Our funeral director also advised me that I couldn’t use a cardboard (eco-friendly) coffin because they’re not strong enough for a burial; they’re more commonly used for cremation.

Making an independent purchase of coffins or caskets is another one where you can run into trouble. While it’s possible to buy one directly from a manufacturer or even from Costco, many funeral directors won’t allow you to BYO – they simply won’t deal with you or they charge you extra for the privilege. FYI, the mark-up on coffins and caskets can be astronomical. For the record, in the brochure provided by our funeral director, prices ranged from $800 for a basic MDF coffin to $6700 for a fancy, fully-lined job. Plus GST.

Included transport costs often only cover a certain number of kilometres (usually 30), so if the deceased needs to be transported over a greater distance you’ll get charged more. If any transport happens outside regular business hours, that will also incur after-hours fees.

Charges for viewing of the body can be outrageously high as well, and again, if the viewing is outside of hours you’ll be charged extra. Our funeral home didn’t charge for viewing, as it happens, but many do.

Alternatives

If you’re happy to forgo all the fuss and ceremony, or do as much as possible yourself, there are a couple of options available for cremation-only services that (at time of writing) cost around $1200-1300. One is Bare Cremation and the other is Just Cremate Me. There may also be others in other states, but I haven’t specifically searched for others. They collect the body (only from a limited range of hospitals, though), have it cremated, and the ashes are then sent to you or you can collect them. There’s no specific requirement to have a formal funeral; you can host a get-together at your home if you want. This is probably what we’ll do once international travel is possible again, as dad’s last remaining sibling is in New Zealand and wasn’t able to come over at the time he passed away.

There are also some low cost options in other states – see the Choice series of articles for the relevant companies. Natural and environmentally friendly burials are also becoming more popular, so will hopefully become more widely available. Australia is not really set up for these all that well at the moment as they’re too new a concept, so state and local laws haven’t caught up to what’s possible these days. There’s also a process called water cremation (alkaline hydrolysis), which is apparently even more eco-friendly than natural burial, avoiding the use of toxic chemicals and requiring much less electricity than traditional cremation. This involves liquefying the body for disposal (yes, I know that sounds a bit icky!). It’s currently available in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and the ACT; however, at a minimum of around $6000, it is not a particularly cheap option.

For myself, at the moment my will stipulates to bury me in a Capsula Mundi pod if they’re available and legally able to be used in Australia when my time comes (if not, they can do a cheap cremation). There is a company in Australia that is importing the pods for ashes but not as yet the pods for bodies. However, if it turns out to be really expensive I’d rather they stuck with the cremation and made good use of whatever money I leave behind, like good little FIREies!

I’ve written this post from a wholly secular point of view, and I hope you find this information helpful, but naturally you should do your own research and decide what is most appropriate for you and your family, depending on your beliefs.

Links

Browne, Kate. What to do when someone dies. Choice magazine online, last updated 10 November 2020.

Jeong, Saimi. InvoCare rolls out itemised funeral prices online nationally. Choice magazine online, last updated 15 December 2020.

Jeong, Saimi. Do you need a funeral director? (Part 1 of a 4-part investigation into the funeral industry). Choice magazine online, last updated 6 June 2019.

Jeong, Saimi. How much do funerals cost? (Part 2 of a 4-part investigation into the funeral industry). Choice magazine online, last updated 20 September 2019.

Jeong, Saimi. Should you get a prepaid funeral? (Part 3 of a 4-part investigation into the funeral industry). Choice magazine online, last updated 3 October 2019.

Jeong, Saimi. The future of funerals: natural burial, home vigils, DIY coffins and more. (Part 4 of a 4-part investigation into the funeral industry). Choice magazine online, last updated 6 December 2019.

Potter, Alison. Lifting the lid on funerals. Choice magazine online, last updated 30 September 2016.

Services Australia. Death and bereavement. Services Australia website, last updated 20 March 2020.

Van der Laan, Sandra and Moerman, Lee. It’s Your Funeral: An Investigation of Death Care and the Funeral Industry in Australia (PDF). University of Sydney Business School, May 2017.

4 thoughts on “The two certainties of life

    1. It’s worth doing your research beforehand, for sure. It’s an emotional time, so having what needs to be done straight in your head is really helpful.

      For example, in Qld you don’t necessarily need to put a will through probate, especially if there’s no real property involved, so that was one hassle I didn’t have.

      Like

  1. Interesting Read for sure.

    You’ve certainly done a lot of great research.

    Plus you’ve given me loads of food for thought for both myself and the wishes of various members of my family.

    Thank you

    Shaun

    Like

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