Catering over coffins: new report shows what we really value when it comes to funerals

Have you ever been called ‘morbid’ because you like to visit old cemeteries or because you’ve mentioned that you want a particular song played at your funeral?

Chances are you have. I certainly have. Western society isn’t good at addressing its mortality. We tend to put our heads in the sand, and only address it when we have to – usually when we or someone we love is dying or has died.

My funeral planning workbook, a space to write your plans and life’s reflections, had only just been released when it was made very clear to me that there are two types of people in this world:

1. those who are practical and understand that they’re not immortal and are open to being a little prepared, and

2. those who don’t want a bar of death or any such discussion.

Not everyone wants to face their mortality

The year was 2014. There was a weekend street market along Peel St, Tamworth. Having just received local media coverage for the just-released first edition of The Bottom Drawer Book, I’d set up a table to sell my book. This is what followed when two friends approached the stall:

Woman 1: “Oh! I saw this is in the paper. What a wonderful idea! Yes, I’ll have one copy please.”

Woman 2: “What’s this all about?”

Me, excited by woman 1’s very positive response: “The book will become your after death action plan. Inside, you can write your wishes, your life’s reflections, what you’d like for your funeral. There’s lots of information in the book that will help you make your decisions…”

Woman 2, interrupting and looking me in the eye: “What a STUPID idea!” She promptly turned and walked away to the next stall.

And just like that, like a slap in the face with a wet fish, I realised what I was up against in my work to encourage people to talk to their families about what they want for their funeral and to be a little prepared for the inevitable.

Times are changing

Thankfully, in the subsequent eight years, I’ve noticed a change in the way people approach the conversation about death and funerals. We’re slowly, very slowly, getting better at it, funeral directors are becoming more transparent, and there are more resources available to help us make our decisions.

The Australian funeral sector is generally very conservative but a noticeable shift in recent years has seen the emergence of alternative funeral businesses that are thumbing their noses at the traditional way of doing things. They’re targetting younger people with quirky and individual offerings and they’re using untraditional ways to connect with the consumer. And Australian companies like Keepar and Modurn have brought digital funeral and cemetery technology into the 21st century, allowing mourners to grieve in the digital space.

An interesting report

Consumer expectations are evolving too. And this is why a just-released survey by a no-frills cremation provider is very interesting reading. Bare Cremation has done some homework on what the Australian consumer wants when it comes to funerals.

Bare calls its Australian Funeral Industry State of the Nation 2021 report ‘a nationally representative report on end-of-life and funeral planning’. The report surveyed almost 3,500 people 35 years and over. Let’s take a look at the bits I found particularly interesting…

The report’s findings

Catering is more important than the coffin

This is the bit that traditional funeral directors won’t like because a fair bit of their income is made on coffins and facility hire.  The report reveals that “Australians aren’t playing much importance on religious ceremonies and coffins”.

Elements that were once the mainstay of a traditional funeral have slipped in popularity, with the focus on the mourner’s experience rather than the deceased themselves. Sixty-one percent of survey participants think that catering is an important component of a funeral, while just 42% believe that a coffin is. When it comes to religion and culture, only 38% of people value the presence of religious objects or items such as crosses or totems at a funeral.

Here’s what percentage of people agreed each component was important to include in a funeral ceremony.
Source: Australian Funeral Industry State of the Nation 2021

Just over a third of respondents said that an obituary in the newspaper remains an important part of the process. I’m assuming the older demographic of those surveyed has skewed this result. I find it hard to believe that people in their 30s and 40s would turn to a newspaper these days.

Something unique for the deceased

More than a third of people surveyed for the report think that a funeral should offer something unique for the deceased, thus stepping away from the traditional funeral model. It’s something I’ve noticed in my work too. Once people know that they have options and that it is ok to do something different, they are more like to step away from the traditional funeral.

A quote from the ‘Mourning death or celebrating life’ section of my book:

“There is no one-size-fits-all funeral or memorial service. And there’s no rulebook that says your funeral must be held in a place of worship, a funeral home, or a cemetery. You can have it almost anywhere – the RSL, the local hall, the backyard, the bowling club. Traditional, religious funerals remain the norm and tend to be conservative, solemn affairs. However, farewells celebrating life are more accepted these days. Lots of people want funerals to be as individual as the person they are honouring.

“As well as giving your family and friends peace of mind, a clear outline of how you’d like to be farewelled will help prevent any confusion or family squabbling.”

The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan

Making decisions

Do you know where to find your parent’s will? What about your sister or brother’s? And does it include their funeral wishes?

Bare’s market research found that 9% of people who had arranged a funeral for a loved one didn’t know where the will was.

Sixty-six percent of people said that their loved one’s will didn’t contain clear directions about their funeral wishes. And 48% of wills didn’t include clear instructions about body disposition either (cremation, burial, alkaline hydrolysis, etc).

And most people rushed to make funeral arrangements …

Australian Funeral Industry State of the Nation 2021

Emotion$ affect funeral $pending

Bare, the company that compiled this report, did three studies last year and the results now form what they call the Australian Funeral Industry State of the Nation 2021 report. One of those $tudies found that:

Two in three (63%) of 602 respondents said they didn’t get a quote before agreeing to a funeral service. Of those who did ask for a cost beforehand, most accepted the first quote they were given.

Source: Bare’s Funeral Opinions and Industry Study, n=602

63% didn’t get a quote before agreeing to a funeral service.

Bare’s Funeral Opinions and Industry Study

Emotion was a motivating factor in respondents not getting more quotes, if any. A third (36%) said they felt too overcome with emotion to look elsewhere, while 27% said they felt it wasn’t right to price-match for a funeral. Twelve percent felt pressured by the funeral director to proceed right away, however, two thirds (62%) said they were happy to accept the service promised.

Source: Bare’s Funeral Beliefs and Values Study, n= 567

It’s ok to shop around

I always encourage people to make their wishes known, and the above findings is one of the reasons why. Making decisions while shocked and grieving isn’t ideal, especially when thousands of dollars are involved. Funerals can be very expensive, but they don’t have to be. You are welcome to shop around. If you have previously discussed your end-of-life wishes and funerals, perhaps even filled in The Bottom Drawer Book, then your loved ones will know what you want and won’t feel uncomfortable when questioning a funeral director to ensure your wishes are followed.

Funeral directors provide a very important service at a really difficult time. In my experience, they are very open to meeting with you at any time to discuss what a funeral entails and show you their facilities. It’s much easier to confidently chat with funeral staff in ‘peacetime’ than after someone has died. If you’re a member of a community group, perhaps organise an outing to meet some local providers, or invite one to your next meeting to run an information session. Funeral directors should have clear pricing on their website so spend some time perusing online. The more information you gather now, the better your decisions will be later on.

Making a complaint

Last year, the New South Wales Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) released its second and final review of costs and pricing in the NSW Funeral Industry. It too found that “people can be reluctant or unwilling to obtain quotes, compare funeral providers or request discounts as they might with other occasional high-value purchases”.

The IPART review also found that “most people are satisfied with the funerals they purchase, and formal complaints are few”.

The Australian Funeral Industry State of the Nation 2021 has some really interesting findings about complaints. It also found that very few people complained. One of the reasons was because they didn’t know who to complain to. And 70% of people dissatisfied with their funeral provider thought they’d be wasting their time making a complaint.

Source: Aust Funeral Industry State of the Nation 2021

FYI – The complaint process is something that’s on the radar in South Australia this year. As part of the Fair Trading (Funeral Costs) Amendment Bill 2021, a proposed compulsory Code of Practice will include a clear contact and process for dealing with complaints. I hope Australia’s many funeral associations take note of this particular report finding.

The report’s methodology and conclusions

I want to be clear: I have no affiliation with Bare. As a cynical journo with science qualifications, the first thing I look at when a survey comes across my desk is the methodology used when collecting the data. I have met with two Bare representatives and asked about the way their surveys were conducted, who conducted them and how, sample size, and even asked to see the survey questions because I wanted to make sure that leading questions weren’t used to encourage a certain type of answer. I’m satisfied that this report offers a legitimate insight into perceptions and current-day thinking, and experiences of funerals. I also encourage you to read the Australian Funeral Industry State of the Nation 2021 report for yourself as I’ve only scratched the surface of its contents in this blog.

The report’s insights that I found particularly relevant to my work as a death literacy advocate and author of a funeral planning guide and workbook are:

We want to honour our loved one’s wishes, but individually we don’t make detailed plans for the people we leave behind.

We want personalised, unique ceremonies and memorials for our loved ones, but we don’t know what our options are.

Australian Funeral Industry State of the Nation 2021

So now it’s your turn. Have the conversation with your family and friends, even if it’s just finding out whether they want to be buried or fire cremated, water cremated or composted. While you’re at it, ask them if they’ve got any special songs that they’d like played at their funeral. And even if they want a funeral.

Planning for the inevitable needn’t be grim. When I wrote ‘The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan‘, I made sure it was non-confrontational and colourful, quirky and informative. People have even called it “cheery” and “not doomy and gloomy at all”. Its aim is to start the conversation.

About the author

Author Lisa Herbert

Lisa Herbert is a death awareness advocate, a cemetery wanderer, journalist and audio producer, and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan – an informative, modern, and quirky workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The third edition is available in Australia for $29.95.  For international buyers, The Bottom Drawer eBook is AU$11.99 on Amazon, Apple Books, Kobo, Booktopia and Google Books. To purchase, click HERE.

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