Traditional & Non-traditional Funerals

Most of us won’t depart this earth in a Game of Thrones-style funeral pyre. Or have our cremated remains carried into space, to be vaporised like shooting stars. But a growing number of us might farewell this life at our favourite footy ground, have our ashes turned into diamonds or become part of a memorial fireworks display.

These are all real options available in Australia, as are eco-friendly funerals and coffins, and cremation alternatives using new technologies. More on that in a moment – but if you’re thinking you’d rather not think about your death, you’re not alone.  There are, though, good reasons for doing so.

Research into death and funerals in Australia by leading social researchers McCrindle for the Australian Funeral Directors Association (AFDA) shows that most of us don’t think about our funeral, or make pre-arrangements. (The research also showed that more deaths happen in July and August than any other month – so if you want to get your affairs in order, get onto it before winter arrives!).

While making your wishes known isn’t legally binding, letting your loved ones know what you might prefer to happen after you die can make things easier for them.

“Whilst some people may find it an uncomfortable subject to discuss we encourage people to think about what they want for their funeral,” Deanne McLeod, the chief executive officer of the AFDA, says.

The AFDA offers two free downloadable booklets to help people: A “Your Story” booklet to record things such as your earliest memories, pets, hobbies and things people don’t know about you, which you can fill out yourself or with others; and a “Your Goodbye” for noting funeral preferences. “Often funeral directors find that families are not aware of the person’s wishes and these tools help families to have conversations to not only capture that information, but capture life stories,” McLeod says.

Another option is the Bottom Drawer Book, by Australian journalist Lisa Herbert, which combines practical information (like “What happens to your Facebook account when you die?”) with spaces where you can detail your preferred after-death plan.

A second reason to have a think about this is cost. Funerals aren’t cheap – research by University of Sydney and University of Wollongong academics last year into the funeral industry concluded many grieving families are paying more than they need to.

The study, by Professor Sandra van der Laan and Associate Professor Lee Moerman, found that while an average simple funeral costs close to $6000, the basic requirements for disposal of a body can be met for less than a quarter of that.

Thinking about your funeral means you and your family can think about what you are happy to pay extra for, from handling newspaper notices to transport. (For more details, have a look at this examination of funeral costs and options by CHOICE.)

So if you want to have a say in what happens after you die, what are your options? They are a lot more personal – or quirky – than you might think, from ashes turned into diamonds to brightly decorated cardboard coffins.


Cremation and burial

The two  options that are most often used in Australia are burial and cremation (there’s also burial at sea, but permits for that are usually only granted for someone who has a clear connection to the sea, such as long-serving members of the Navy; however, permits are not required for scattering ashes at sea). Cremation is the most popular – the AFDA tells us that the cremation rate is about 68% nationally, although higher in cities and less popular in regional and country areas.

But even these traditional options are changing.

“Funeral directors are seeing a trend toward more personalised, individual funerals – often being held in places of significance to the person such as at the local footy club, or surf club, often with items like fishing rods or golf clubs on top or beside the coffin.  There is even the option to have the coffin wrapped/covered in images that are special to the family or a theme like the sea,” Deanne McLeod says.

Some of us really want our funerals to be a lively celebrations of our life: the McCrindle research found that 13 per cent of respondents wanted a “fun and irreverent” funeral, and that while sentimental songs, such as What a Wonderful World, or religious songs, such as  Amazing Grace, were the most popular categories, defiant songs (think ACDC’s Highway to Hell) came in as the third most popular option. Quirky songs such as Always Look on the Bright Side of Life from Monty Python and football club theme songs also made the list!


Eco-friendly funerals and coffins

If you’d like your memorial or burial to have less impact on the planet, there are quite a few options.

Aquamation, also known as water cremation, and a similar process known as resomation use a water and alkali-based solution to break down the body over period of 2-4 hours. Like a traditional cremation, the resulting ashes can be buried or scattered as the family chooses. The process, only available at a few funeral operators in Australia, produces less greenhouse gases. Likewise, promession – not yet available in Australia – involves freezing the body in liquid nitrogen, before burial or the creation of ashes.

But even with a traditional burial or funeral, there’s a simple way to make your funeral more eco-friendly. A wide range of environmentally friendly coffins are now available, made from materials such as seagrass, wicker and wool, that break down more easily than traditional wooden coffins with metal fittings (this summary of eco coffins by independent Sydney funeral company Natural Green Funerals shows the variety of beautiful coffin options available).

You can even choose a LifeArt coffin – made mostly from recycled cardboard and sugar cane waste, these come in a range of decorative designs, from designs representing a person’s favourite sport or NRL team to leopard prints, dolphins at sea, flowers or mock timbers; suitable for burial or cremation, they can also be made in a custom design, or supplied as a blank coffin for family or friends to decorate.


Natural burial

Another option with a lighter impact – or for those with an affinity with the bush – is a natural burial (sometimes also referred to as a green funeral), which involves bodies being buried in bushland areas, either without a coffin, or in a biodegradable coffin, allowing nature to take its course. There are usually no grave markers (body locations are recorded using GPS technology). Most states have at least one natural burial option – Sydney’s first natural burial ground, St Francis Field, opened in 2010.

It is usually illegal to bury a body outside of a cemetery or natural burial ground, although you can usually bury cremated remains on private property (and in some circumstances you can apply to  bury a body in existing religious or Indigenous burial grounds)

When we asked Professor van der Laan, who is from the University of Sydney Business School, about what new options she’s seen gaining traction in the funeral industry, she pointed to natural burial as the main change in recent years in terms of a body’s final resting place. But as she points out, the way death is commemorated is changing too.

“The main innovative solution for disposal is natural burial… Other solutions are for commemoration, such as innovative ways to convert ashes – for example, tattoo ink – rather than a fixed memorial such as a ‘place’ in a cemetery or mausoleum. Virtual memorials are becoming very popular.”


Tattoos and diamonds

The phrase “diamonds are forever” takes on new meaning when funeral ashes are turned into jewels. Companies such as Heart in Diamond and Phoenix Memorials create artificial diamonds from ashes (or even a departed pet’s hair).  Other companies design pendants and other jewellery for carrying a small portion of ashes.

There are also reports of some tattoo parlours mixing ashes into tattoo ink, although as Funeral Zone points out, the health implications are uncertain.


Fireworks, trees and reefs

If you’d like to go out with a bang, companies such as Ashes to Ashes, Mr Fireworks and Howard Fireworks can incorporate ashes into a spectacular fireworks display.

Another option is to live on as a tree. A Bios Urn is a fully biodegradable capsule; the bottom section holds ashes, the top space for a seed or seedling. When the urn is settled into soil, the seedling’s roots grow down, into the ashes. The tree becomes a living memorial.

If you love the sea, you could opt for Rest-in-Reef and help save marine animals and coral reefs by having your ashes incorporated in a Reef Ball, a dome structure used to help conserve and restore threatened coral reefs.

Whatever form you’d like your farewell to take, doing some planning now can make things easier for your family later.

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