The final act of love: reclaiming the rites of modern death

Courtesy of | By Bonnie Malkin | Photo by Rubberball Productions/Getty Images | Originally Published 12.26.2017 | Posted 12.29.2017

The stops on the conveyor belt of modern death can be comforting in their familiarity. Most people know the drill: a crematorium, the coffin standing alone at the front of the room, the eulogies, a song, the curtains open, the coffin disappears.

Or, the slow walk to the graveside, that devastating moment the coffin is lowered down, the wet-cheeked embraces, the slow walk back, the sense of relief that the public part is over. As one group leaves, another arrives to enact the same rites, walk the same paths.

Funerals have played out like this since the death industry stepped in to take the place that churches, synagogues and mosques used to occupy, before the decline of religion in our daily lives.

Going through those motions can be done on autopilot. But it can feel rote, rushed and one-size-fits all. It is also, often, very expensive.

Now, a new generation of funeral directors and celebrants want Australians to have more choice when it comes to the final act of love. The way we deal with death is changing.

“The biggest problem in Australia is the community aren’t aware that they have choice and legal rights,” says Libby Moloney, an independent funeral director who opened her business, Natural Grace, in Victoria five years ago.

“There are very few limitations on what we have to do, the rest is all choice. There’s no law that you have to have a funeral director, it is a choice to use one. If you aren’t educated, you can’t exercise your right to choose.”

Moloney, and others like her, have organised funerals in pubs, surf clubs, town halls, homes and – in the saddest of circumstances – schools. They have seen brothers build coffins for brothers. School friends decorate caskets with painted handprints. Mourners accompany coffins to the furnace door.

A Sydney celebrant and community funeral director, Victoria Spence, who has worked in the industry for 15 years and runs the Life Rites practice, has witnessed the start of this shaking off of the ways of “the death industry”, and a return, in part, to the old way of viewing death: as a part of life.

“The key shift is away from the landscape of the dead, the traditional crematorium and traditional graveside as the site for the funeral ceremony, and life celebrations and into the community,” she says.

“It’s a contemporary return to old ways of celebrating the dead, which is in a meaningful space in our lives. It is a return to that, reclaiming the rite and taking more time. Nobody gets married in three days, nobody gets pregnant and has a baby in three days and you don’t have to honour, celebrate and farewell a loved one in three days either.”

Before the decline of religion in Australia, death was celebrated in the same places that the community celebrated new babies, marriage, life.

Then, during the 20th century, the traditional activities associated with death and mourning shifted from family control to institutions.

In their 2017 report It’s Your Funeral,the University of Sydney’s Prof Sandra van der Laan and Assoc Prof Lee Moerman wrote: “In the 19th and early 20th centuries women were involved at the death bed, preparing the body after death until the funeral. However, by the outset of world war one, undertakers became prominent. Within the following 30-year period until the end of world war two, a shift to a culture of ‘death denial’ and the privatisation of grief had developed.”

Without the touchstone of religion, death was ripe to be corporatised. It became the domain of the death professionals. It was broken up into manageable, cost-pegged chunks. The coffin. The hearse. The funeral. The burial. The wake. The memorial. The whole package can cost up to $25,000.

Victoria Spence
 ‘The key shift is away from the landscape of the dead … and into the community,’ Victoria Spence, independent funeral celebrant and death doula in Sydney. Photograph: Jonny Weeks for the Guardian

Enter InvoCare, the US conglomerate behind brands such as Simplicity, Guardian and White Lady Funerals, that controls 40% of the $1bn Australian death industry.

A glance at InvoCare’s annual report provides an idea of its scale: 1,566 equivalent employees, 225 funeral homes and 16 cemeteries and crematoriums in 2016. With its arrival, death was well and truly moved out of the community and into its own “death landscape”, separated from the other events that make up a life. This can be traumatic.

One of the main problems with the crematorium funeral model – apart from the cost – is the time constraints it places on the ceremony. Most are 45 minutes long. Many people are not informed that they could make a double booking and have more time. As one family is ushered out of the side door of the chapel, another is waiting to enter.

“People often find these environments a bit alienating, Spence says.

“They don’t understand how they work, a lot of people have told me for years they don’t like the sense of one after the other, feeling rushed. You can have beautiful ceremonies there, you just have to know you can take more time.

“You are having what is supposed to be a very important, very meaningful and personal ceremony in the middle of the busy working environment of the death industry.”

Spence doesn’t suggest that the traditional model is wrong, just that it doesn’t suit everyone.

It didn’t suit the family of the artist Joris Everaerts who died on 4 November. Everaerts had accepted he was dying. Aged 67, he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He and his family had hoped he would make it to the new year. But he suffered complications after surgery and died at home.

His wife, Margaret Donaldson, nursed him in his final days. His brother visited from Belgium. His daughter was there too.

In his final weeks, Joris was not interested in planning a funeral. That was for the living. “He said it was for me, not for him – that was quite liberating,” Donaldson says.

She had imagined his funeral would be a traditional affair at the crematorium. But when the time came, Spence, a friend of the couple, suggested they do it differently.

Donaldson recalls her reticence. “It seems as if you don’t do it through the traditional funeral home, you are going to be carrying it much more. You feel you don’t have the energy to do all that, to push through on all of that unless you have someone to facilitate it. There’s a feeling that you want to hand it over because you are too tired and too grieving.”

But she had support, and with guidance from Spence and Life Rites, she and Everaerts’s family and friends took 10 days to plan his funeral. Friends and fellow artists decorated his coffin in his studio. They covered the top in wax, and – as Everaerts loved working with twigs, brought twigs to arrange on the coffin. Family members took their time to perfect their eulogies. People gathered at the home, working out who was going to speak, compiling images and writing the order of service.

When they were finished, his life was celebrated with a ceremony at a local town hall, led by Spence and attended by some 200 people. Guests were invited to add a twig to his coffin. After the eulogies, there was a lunch of sandwiches and tea. A couple of cups and plates were put down on his coffin as friends and family gathered around it to tell stories about their friend and laugh. The ceremony and lunch lasted three hours. They moved back to the family home, and hours later it was still going on. It felt right.

“It certainly suited Joris’s personality, he wasn’t into formalities or institutions,” Donaldson says.


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