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[00:01] Voiceover: This is an ABC podcast.
[00:07] Funeral Voice Over: Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to farewell..
[00:12] Grimmy (Rhys Nicholson): Boring! He can’t hear you. He dead.
[00:17] Jan Fran: Shhhhhh! Grimmy! You are the worst. We’re at a funeral.
[00:20] Grimmy: Well, it’s so impersonal. I mean, how much do they even pay for this spectacle? Who wants white roses in a velour lined coffin? Actually, the velour was a nice touch, but clearly no one asked him what he wanted.
[00:33] Jan Fran: Well, it’s not exactly dinner table conversation to ask people what they’d like their corpse to sit in, Grimmy.
[00:39] Grimmy: Yeah, but if you’d bothered to ask, you take out any guesswork and based on his Instagram, I’d say he wanted a closed casket with an ombre finish and several shirtless sailors doing the Nutbush.
[00:49] Jan Fran: Sure. But how do you plan for that? This episode comes with a massive spoiler alert. It’s that we’re all gonna die. You probably knew that already. The biggest spoiler alert is that you’ll likely have to arrange a funeral at least once in your life. Yeah, that’s simply organizing a poignant and meaningful celebration reflecting on someone’s existence. No pressure. And you know, what goes well with grief? Logistics. So here’s what you need to know when it comes to planning a funeral. The questions you’ll need to ask and what funeral directors don’t want you to know doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo doo-doo-doo-doo-doo I’m doing Twilight Zone music. Anyway, I’m Jan Fran. This is The Pineapple Project and this season we are taking a good look at death because if you don’t get your house in order now, someone else will probably botch it up after you’re gone. Our first stop is, well, a funeral home.
[01:54] Carly Dalton: Oh hello to you.
[01:55] Jan Fran: Hello.
[01:56] Carly Dalton: I have someone in here, in the prep room. He looks pretty good.
[02:00] Jan Fran: Okay.
[02:01] Carly Dalton: If you are happy to just come in and have a look or to have a look at the prep room. You don’t need to see him. I can put a sheet on him too if you want.
[02:07] Jan Fran: No, I’m, I’m cool.
[02:08] Carly Dalton: Are you cool?
[02:09] Jan Fran: I think I’m cool. Yeah, I haven’t really seen very many dead bodies before. I am, sort of, freaking out, actually, yeah, I’m mildly freaking out. Nah, nah, let’s go in.
[02:24] Carly Dalton: Okay.
[02:25] Jan Fran: Whoa. Okay, you. First deceased person. Okay, this is okay.
[02:33] Carly Dalton: There is a gentleman in a casket. And he’s in a cardboard casket. You can see just how the fingernail changes color. So it goes a bit darker.
[02:40] Jan Fran: Oh yeah.
[02:41] Carly Dalton: And I know, my nails are painted, but see how normal fingernails are pink and his is just a little bit darker.
[02:48] Jan Fran: That kind person walking me through this moment of deep personal trauma is Carly Dalton.
[02:54] Carly Dalton: In this line of work, I’m an event manager. I’m a counsellor, a mediator. Some days. I’m a nurse, I’m a beautician. Some days, I even do a bit of surgery. I’m also, you know, a heavy vehicle driver, but you probably know me better as a funeral director.
[03:11] Jan Fran: That’s pretty hectic Venn diagram to be sitting right in the middle of, right? Funeral directors are the people you’ll most likely release your loved one to after they’ve died. But before you do, you need to know this – across most of Australia, it’s not actually compulsory to use the services of a funeral director. Legally, you can arrange almost everything yourself from caring for the deceased at home to conducting a funeral service because you don’t need a qualification like a wedding celebrant does. Anyone can do it. Australians, we truly love DIY. There are a lot of options. So we have put together a handy little guide about how to do your own funeral. Check it out in the episode description. Now for a lot of folks choosing to hire a funeral director means they have someone to help them wade through the many logistics. So I get it. Back to Carly and her family-run funeral home in suburban Melbourne. We’re sitting on a couch, next to a viewing room. Everything’s tranquil and Carly has very kindly agreed to share some secrets of the funeral industry so you have an idea of things to think about and how not to get ripped off, starting with the basics. What can you expect them to do?
[04:30] Carly Dalton: A funeral director, from the moment you engage them, they’re providing you with ideas, information. Quite often, we’ll get a phone call and that phone call might go something like, “Mom’s going to, my mom’s in palliative care. She’s going to pass away soon. This is the first time I’ve done this. I have no idea what I’m doing.” So we’ll say, well, “Okay, can we ask you some questions?” And then we’ll get you thinking about, you know, what you might like to do. So we might start with, you know, cremation or burial. And they go, “Oh didn’t even thought of that.” Okay. So let’s think about that. That’s pretty important. And would you like, you know, a celebrant or clergy to run that funeral or would you like a family member? And they’re like, “Ah, definitely not religious.” So it’ll either be a family member or a celebrant. And then, you know, the different venues that you can have like an alternative venue or just a beautiful chapel somewhere or a church, you know, so another, like, where do you want to hold it or do you want to hold it at home? You know, or in a park? And then it’s things like, you know have you thought about a coffin? You know, did mom want to be shrouded in a something natural like a burial tray or wicker casket? Does she not want to pay anything for a coffin? Does she just want a cardboard coffin? Which you know, we can offer. Or does she want something really glamorous? So we’ve had every extreme, you know, we had one lady who passed away very suddenly and she was into bling. So we spray painted her coffin metallic silver and put 3000 diamantes. Stick on diamantes would come out all over it. So it was just like, when the sun shine on it, it was like, you know, dazzling.
[06:04] Jan Fran: Wait, you did that? You put the diamantes on?
[06:07] Carly Dalton: Me and my girlfriend, and my daughter and her girlfriend. So we had disco music on putting the diamantes on. Because we had a lot to put on so we needed a lot of fast music but we’ve cleared out three Kmart stores.
[06:19] Jan Fran: What track were you listening to?
[06:21] Jan Fran: But, you know, it was, it was some sort of, you know, high-level disco music. But we had to, we had about 20 packets of stick on diamantes to get on there but the end result was amazing like it was so amazing because she loved her bling.
[06:37] Jan Fran: Yeah.
[06:38] Carly Dalton: You know, that’s, her daughter said she must go out with that.
[06:41] Jan Fran: I got to say that thinking of your role as a funeral director didn’t really involve like a crafternoon, where you’re putting diamantes on a casket. A crafternoon isn’t a typical day for a funeral director. But here’s the other thing you should know, funerals don’t have to be typical. Yeah, you can make them whatever you want them to be.
[07:02] Carly Dalton: So I would say one of the more interesting ones, was a lady who, you know, she wanted, she was a greenie, and she wanted to be naked in her wicker casket and it was an outdoor funeral in the middle of a eco retreat down on the Mornington Peninsula. And you know, so I said, “Look no nakedness. We’re going to wrap you in calico so that you’re all protected. You can wear your Blundstone boots, be in your wicker casket, but because you’re going to be outside for a number of hours, you know on a big rock platform, I need to wrap you up and protect you a bit from the elements.” So that’s what we’re going to do, we did that and she was, she came in on the back of a F100 Hughes which was her favorite vehicle. Her boys drive her in. Carried her in. Put her on this rock pedestal and it was like a rock concert. We had five or six hundred people all with their Eskies and their drinks and their picnic baskets, the biggest sound system you’ve seen in your life and I thought I was you know, doing a funeral for a celebrity, but she was just a local girl who everybody loved and made great cocktails. So, you know, and it was amazing your death should be part of one of those just things that you plan for and it should be exactly how you want it to, you know, and we have had some women who’ve just planned it to the nth degree with everything the way they wanted including coming with their makeup bag with their Chanel Number Five. Their lippie and all their different body washes and different things.
[08:25] Jan Fran: Women. They’re planners. They’re planners.
[08:28] Carly Dalton: They are. And men just lie back and go, “The family will sort it out.”
[08:35] Jan Fran: Typical men.
[08:36] Carly Dalton: You know, but the women are, they have the checklist and it comes with them to us and it’s like, “Okay. I’m going to take this to the family because we’ve got to get this implemented.”
[08:42] Jan Fran: Yeah damn straight! People have some very specific ideas about what they want in their funeral and why shouldn’t they? Do you know what you’d want?
[08:50] Random person 1: Yeah, I would like something quite dramatic. Just, just a bit of fun, some dramatic statue, maybe. Maybe a big angel or hawk or something crazy.
[09:01] Random person 2: I like the idea of not being buried. I’d request to be cremated. It’d be great if it was outside ideally, maybe the beach, you know. I like the idea of like an outdoor wake.
[09:11] Random person 3: I’d like a celebration. Champagne. We’ll get some cocktails up there. We’ll have it in a pub. And then burn me right up.
[09:19] Random person 4: I have a playlist for my service. And so people have to play that music.
[09:23] Random person 5: I want to go to a funeral and really feel something.
[09:25] Random person 6: Well, I kind of like the idea of being compost, you know, one of those mushroom soup things that basically they plant you in the ground. I put the mushrooms on you and then you sprout a little forest with mushrooms. I sort of like the idea, you know, recycling myself either that or donate my body to science.
[09:42] Random person 7: Take my ashes do whatever. Scatter them, toss them. Like use them on the roses whatever.
[09:46] Random person 8: So I would prefer to be cremated and probably have a church service. I’ve got a religious background so, you know, I believe in something. So be nice to be sent off to the something.
[09:57] Random person 9: It’s in the forest. Tall Redwood Forest and everyone’s in novelty outfits just to make the vibe like chill, so you can’t not have a fun time if you see my dad in, like, a Where’s Wally outfit or something.
[10:12] Random person 10: Well, I haven’t given it a great deal of thought but I do like the idea of those, I think there’s sort of like a some sort of box or something that, that grows into a tree so seems like a nice idea. I guess I’d like to become a tree.
[10:26] Jan Fran: Such vision Australia! And all of these things are technically possible but to get it done, your funeral director is going to ask you a very long list of questions. Basically, they’re trying to suss your needs, right? So think of it like going to any new service provider for the first time like a new hairdresser.
[10:47] Jan Fran (thought questions): And what are we doing today? Burial or cremation? Coffin or no coffin? If you go with a coffin, mahogany is really nice, but you can also have a pine or cardboard one. It’s just a bit more price accessible. It’s a bit younger. And what about an outfit for the big day? Something formal or just a shroud? Let’s talk venues, chapel? Park? Ourselves? So what are we doing tonight? Are we doing like a full embalming or just a natural makeup look? Who’s gonna clean up the service? I can do it. Or anyone else can do it. What about the guy who MC’d your second cousin’s wedding? Speaking of, will he be invited? He’s on the guest list. Any add-ons you wanted today? Flowers? Memorial booklet? DVD? Let’s talk catering. Traditional burial or natural burial? Do you want me to change the music?
[11:24] Jan Fran: If you’re thinking this sounds expensive, you are absolutely correct. It can be, but aside from burial or cremation all other choices are optional and Funeral Director Carly says there are ways to keep costs down.
[11:40] Carly Dalton: I would definitely say, and this has been, would be, my experience, res—, like if you know that a death is imminent in a family or for yourself, research, you know. Ring up funeral directors, tell them, you know, this is what’s happening. This is what I’m thinking, you know, I want to, a cremation. I wanted it in alternative venue. I don’t want to spend much on a coffin and, you know, and I want to do my own flowers and I wanted to make my own DVD and do my own printing and whatever so what can you do for me? I would shop around and get a quote like you do with anything else that you purchase in your life. And then if a funeral director says, “Oh no, we need to do the dig deep. We need to that, first.” “So why, why can’t I do it?” And you test it. Ask everyone to bring a bunch of flowers from their garden and they can place it with their loved one, you know, on the day. And we have the most amazing floral arrangements just from people’s garden flowers that they’ve brought. Instead of giving out booklets, you can take a photo of your loved one and there’s an app called Text on Photo and you can just have a photo with, you know, “Loving memory” or “Love always,” or you know, the person’s name. Go to Office Works make it into a JPEG. And you get to print it off at 30 cents each and give them out. So rather than pay $3 for a booklet, you can pay 30 cents for a photo with good writing on it. You know, someone’s got a, obviously, tried on in there and do it. But if you can be bothered then you can save yourself money. And the cardboard coffin thing, we give them away for free. And people, we even deliver them to people’s houses so they can decorate them. Then again, some people got, “I don’t want a cardboard coffin for my loved one,” you know, and that’s fine, but certainly the option’s there.
[13:20] Jan Fran: So is a cheap funeral a bad funeral?
[13:22] Carly Dalton: No. Not at all.
[13:24] Jan Fran: Yes, to having a funeral plan. And not to freak you out, but even the best laid plans can still go wrong, very wrong.
[13:34] Heather: I know that there were people crying, obviously.
[13:36] Jan Fran: Oh my God.
[13:37] Heather: I’m trying not to laugh. My mother-in-law was, was mortified. I’m in quite shock.
[13:44] Jan Fran: This is Heather from Gippsland in regional Victoria. A couple of years ago, she took her mother-in-law to a friend’s funeral and everything was going to plan until, well, there was a calculation error.
[13:58] Heather: You know at a normal funeral, you would say, the coffin be lowered to an extent in the grave. This particular one did not actually fit in the hole. The hole wasn’t big enough for the coffin. Then when they realized it wasn’t going in, they basically stood on the end of the coffin and, and started to you know, do that jump but, you know, how you sort of, put your weight on and try and really, and it wasn’t going in.
[14:28] Jan Fran: Someone gave it, gave a stomp on to the coffin?
[14:31] Heather: And I think in the end everyone just, they sort, they sort of backed off in the end, I think because everyone was starting to get a bit, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
[14:40] Jan Fran: So someone is, is standing on, sort of jumping on the coffin? To try and get it to go into the grave. Oh my god.
[14:44] Heather: On the, on the bottom. Yeah. To try and get it to go in the hole. Yes. I feel terrible that I find that hilarious.
[14:54] Jan Fran: Was anybody laughing or were they, were they devastated. What was, how do you react to that?
[14:59] Heather: Well, I mean, I am not a good person sometimes. And I do find things that are inappropriate quite funny and for me, I was almost in a hot flush trying not to giggle. For me, it was just like I was mortified, I was.
[15:15] Jan Fran: Yeah.
[15:16] Heather: But at the same time, I was standing there going. I can’t believe you’re actually standing on a coffin trying to get it in the hole.
[15:30] Jan Fran: It didn’t go into the hole. Not words you want to hear ever actually and you really don’t want to hear it in a cemetery. And look, you probably won’t but you can encounter some less than professional “professionals” and you can get ripped off majorly. And look, there are great funeral directors out there. No doubt, but funerals are big business in Australia. I’m talking 1.6 billion dollar industry. Big business. And like any business, it is buyer beware.
[16:06] Saimi Jeong: It’s such a vulnerable time for someone when a loved one has just died.
[16:09] Jan Fran: Saimi Jeong works for consumer group, Choice, and she’s been looking into this.
[16:14] Saimi Jeong: We now have these big companies, two in particular, own a third of the market share in Australia. And the biggest one, InvoCare, has a quarter of the market, actually, and a third of the market in metropolitan areas. At the end of the day, they exist to make profit for shareholders. I mean, the way that these companies expand is by buying up smaller businesses and often when they do that, they actually keep the original name and the local community won’t know that it’s been taken over. And on websites, they still have words actually saying that they are family owned business.
[16:56] Jan Fran: We got in touch with InvoCare and they told us:
[16:59] InvoCare representative: As an ASX listed company, we are held with highest levels of public scrutiny.
[17:04] Jan Fran: They’ve also said their websites are now updated. Back to Saimi. Now as part of her investigation, Saimi and her team conducted a good old-fashioned mystery shop of funeral homes around the country – getting quotes from both the big players and independent businesses. And she says that sometimes it felt like certain businesses were just making up a number, any number.
[17:28] Saimi Jeong: The costs of a funeral that you’ll get quoted often will just vary quite significantly. So even something as basic as a direct cremation with no service, prices range from $1,200 to $5,600, is what we found. And they build massive mark ups into coffins. The professional service fee is actually the biggest item and often that’s not broken down any further, even though it’s always in the thousands of dollars. Viewings is another one where some just offered it at no cost but otherwise, it went from a hundred and ten dollars ($110) to $1,600 for a viewing.
[18:10] Jan Fran: To view your deceased loved one?
[18:11] Saimi Jeong: Yep.
[18:12] Jan Fran: Oh, man.
[18:13] Saimi Jeong: Yeah.
[18:14] Jan Fran: How is it that there is such a discrepancy in costs here?
[18:20] Saimi Jeong: It’s basically because funeral homes can charge what they want to charge and what they’re relying on the knowledge gap, we have, you know, most of the time, people, if they have to organize a funeral, it’s likely that it’ll be the first time, it’s not often that you have to organize one. So funeral directors really rely on that lack of knowledge. Yeah, you don’t necessarily want to go shopping around when it comes to a loved one. And I think for some people it also feels weird to them and there’s a sign of guilt involved there and businesses can play on that as well.
[18:58] Jan Fran: A lot of people go for prepaid funerals. They take comfort in knowing that the cost won’t fall to their families to cover. Can you sense a “but” coming on? No, but no but. However, do your research and be aware of what you are buying because they can be cost creep and check to see if there is a cancellation option in case you move into state. The thing with prepaid funerals is that you actually won’t be around to see that through it’ll be family members and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get exactly what you arranged. So an example of that was a woman I spoke to who she actually pre-arranged a funeral for her mother for her. And one thing that was really important to her was that her mother had to be placed in a rosewood coffin and that was because her mother absolutely adored rosewood. She had rosewood furniture throughout her entire home, and that was really important for her daughter. And then a few years later, it wasn’t even that long, her mother passed away. And she went back to the funeral home and they said, “Oh I see you’ve chosen this coffin, but we aren’t with that supplier any more so you’re going to have to choose something else.” And even though, you know, that might seem like a small thing to someone else, for her, it was just such a disappointment because she thought she’d had that all locked in. So it’s kind of little details like that which that almost negates the point of doing a prepaid funeral. Those were..
[20:29] Jan Fran: Yeah, yeah.
[20:31] Saimi Jeong: And it just really doesn’t, I mean, it would get, you’d come away with that eek feeling of kind of being done over.
[20:38] Jan Fran: If someone thinks that they’ve been gouged by the funeral industry. Who do they complain to?
[20:43] Saimi Jeong: You can go to a consumer protection agency state by state or you can contact the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
[20:52] Jan Fran: Well, that sounds bleak. But in good news, there are some simple questions that you can ask to help avoid a really unpleasant experience. Here is some advice from funeral director Carly.
[21:04] Carly Dalton: So I’m talking to you now. You’re my funeral director. When I ring the phone when mom dies in the middle of the night, are you going to pick up the phone? Or am I going to be put through to an answering service, you know, so are you available, are you the person that’s going to be looking after me the whole way through or am I talking to you now, but then you’re going to handball me to somebody else? Who’s going to be looking after my loved one, you know, are you going to be looking after them or do you have a mortician or an embalmer? Who are they? Can I meet them? Am I able to help look after my mom, dad, auntie, Nana, whoever, you know, can I help wash and dress them if that’s important to you? Things like, you know, if it’s really important and this has been something that our families have asked, you know, I want a female mortician or embalmer looking after my mom or my Nana. Can you guarantee that that’s going to happen and that no male will see her naked. It’s so secretive. It’s such a secretive industry. So all I would be saying, I’d like to come and inspect the premises, please. And you know, I just think any service provider that tells you, you know, you can’t use this venue or you can’t have this coffin, or you can’t do this, well tell me why I can’t, you know. So red flags, to me, is being told what you can do by someone who’s trying to be a little bit more controlling over the situation.
[22:22] Jan Fran: Yeah.
[22:22] Carly Dalton: Yeah.
[22:23] Jan Fran: So a loved one has died. It might be sudden. It might not be. Either way, you’re vulnerable. And at the same time your person’s farewell has landed in your lap. What are the main things to think about when it comes to planning a funeral? One, ask the funeral director for an itemized breakdown of costs like what’s a viewing going to cost? And what is included in the professional service fee? And how much will that DVD be? And yeah, the funeral industry is still very big on DVDs. Two, you don’t have to have anything you or your person wouldn’t want. You don’t even have to have a funeral. A direct cremation is often the cheapest option after someone has died and you can arrange almost everything else yourself. And three, if you’re going for a coffin, you can always be aware. Coffins involve some of the highest mark ups in the funeral biz. Why not get something fun from the internet? Eh? If the funeral home refuses to accept your coffin, ask the crucial question, “What’s the matter with you?” And if you’re feeling like this process is not going how you’d like, you can always transfer your loved one to a different funeral home. Just be aware there might be a fee involved. Oh, yeah, and if you choose cremation, for all that is good and holy, don’t forget to collect your loved one. This is Meredith.
[23:46] Meredith: So my gran passed away and we ended up deciding to get her cremated. So she was cremated by funeral home and she was put in a cremated box and then time went by for four years. One day, I just decided to pick her up. So, I think, I was coming home from work and I was like, oh, yeah, she’s in there. I wonder if anyone’s got it. So I just called in and I just said my name and her name and they’re like, “Oh yeah, here she is,” and they just handed her over. I didn’t even have to give ID or anything.
[24:23] Jan Fran: Okay.
[24:26] Meredith: She says, “Hi.” I don’t know.
[24:30] Jan Fran: I’m Jan Fran. This is The Pineapple Project and this season, we are tackling the logistics of the big sleep – death, because everybody’s doing it. Next on The Pineapple Project, close your eyes and think about all the admin tasks you’ve done and will continue to do throughout your lifetime. When you die, it’s not like that stuff just boom ceases to exist right along with you. It’s just a big tangled, whip that someone else really need to kind of pick apart. So, and I mean this in a totally undodgy way, how do you get access to someone’s bank accounts after they die? And how do your people untangle your affairs once you have checked out?
[25:25] Woman’s voice: I’m left with the, with the job of having to piece together his life and figure out what to do with his, his effects. So what do I do? I have no idea.
[25:35] Jan Fran: You’re going to need some help tracking down these clues.
[25:38] Random voice: I need an investigator.
[25:40] Jan Fran: That is the next episode of The Pineapple Project. This podcast is mixed by sound engineers Angie Grant and Krissy Miltiadou. It’s produced by Karla Arnall and Clare O’Halloran. The role of Grimmy, the Grim Reaper is played by Rhys Nicholson, isn’t he adorable? The Pineapple Project’s executive producer is Rachel Fountain. The host? Hello. That’s me Jan Fran. And Kellie Riordan is the manager of ABC Audio Studios. What a team, people, what a bloody team. Psst, hey. Were you thinking during this episode, “What if I want to have a funeral that’s, like, good for the planet?” Good thought my friend. If you are trying to die green head on over to ABC podcast Little Green Pod for an episode about dying with the planet on your mind. You will hear a lot of wacky options like eco-friendly coffins, shrouds and bush cemeteries. Is that the same as a Tibetan sky burial? We still don’t know what that is.
End of transcription. Total audio minute: [26 min 41 sec]
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