COVID-19 is shaking-up the funeral industry, but it’s a long-overdue change that empowers families to celebrate their loved ones’ lives their way, writes Cale Donovan, co-founder of Bare Cremation.
More so than almost any other event in history, COVID-19 is forcing us to reconsider the way we do things: how we educate our children, how we earn an income, how we stay connected with family and friends. The funeral industry is no different and COVID-19 is challenging how we view traditional funerals and consider how we really want to be celebrated.
The impact of social distancing restrictions means funerals across Australia are currently limited to 20 mourners, spaced 1.5 metres apart – with no ability to provide comforting hugs. The effect of this is significant as the traditional funeral industry is built to support large gatherings of people in a funeral parlour, chapel or venue. With this no longer possible, families are being forced to reconsider how they will commemorate a loved one.
Some families are opting for a small private service for immediate family only. Others are having no service at all while restrictions are in place, instead opting for a direct cremation (a cremation without an accompanying funeral service), intending to wait until restrictions are lifted for a fitting celebration of life later on.
Although it may be unfamiliar to many, all funeral homes offer a direct cremation service.
This service includes the arrangement of all the basic requirements: paperwork, collection, cremation and the return of ashes to the family. What it does not include is the traditional notion of a funeral service – for example, a church service or a viewing of the body. Although a major change, particularly when compared with the concept of a traditional funeral, this no-frills approach was a growing trend well before coronavirus forced the social distancing restrictions.
Research conducted by gatheredhere.com.au suggests that direct cremation makes up about 23 per cent of total funerals – up from an estimated five per cent just 10 years ago. Music icon David Bowie put direct cremation firmly in the spotlight when his wish to be cremated without a funeral service was widely reported in the British media when he passed in 2016.
People today are well informed, price conscious and non-traditional, so more than ever, many are saying farewell to traditional funerals. Far from being a negative concept, many believe direct cremations allow the freedom and flexibility to personalise a loved one’s memorial to match their personality.
Separating the arrangement from the memorial
COVID-19 has accelerated the trend in direct cremation and many industry experts think it’s a positive adaptation. Before we get to why, it’s important to dispel a myth about direct cremation – that the emergence of the ‘no service’ cremation is due to families undervaluing the importance of a memorial service. In fact, quite the opposite is true. It is vitally important that something is done when someone dies to celebrate and honour their life and help us to process their loss.
Memorials play a pivotal role in the grieving process and celebrating the life of loved ones. Direct cremation providers don’t advocate against that, they just assist families to consider a fitting memorial as an alternative to what the funeral industry has defined for us, for decades.
“This type of send-off is gaining in popularity for a number of reasons,” says Ian Atkinson, of financial services firm SunLife in the UK. “But mainly because there is no need for extra expenses, like hearses and limos, embalming, officiants’ fees, flowers and orders of service, making it considerably cheaper,” he told This is Money recently. “When the service is not tied to the crematorium, it can be done exactly how the family wants at a time and a place that is right for them.”
Freedom to ‘go your own way’
A simple, respectful cremation that takes place separately from any ceremony allows families the freedom to commemorate a life well lived, in their own way. Families who are unable to host funerals right now are planning more fitting tributes for when restrictions are lifted. It also allows them the time and freedom to think about the best way to celebrate their loved ones.
Traditionally, funeral homes tend to perform both the cremation and the service within days of death, which places extra pressure on the family who are trying to process their grief at the same time. An end-of-life service is your way of saying thank you to someone special for their unique life. It is one of the last physical acts you can do for someone to ensure their life is recognised and remembered – so why should families be rushed through such a rigid process? Taking a moment to reflect and plan can help ease the emotional pressure that comes with loss. This has never been more true than now.
We’re seeing this firsthand at Bare Cremation. One Queensland man took a personal moment of remembrance to celebrate his late wife by having her favourite dinner with a toast of wine. He plans to have a larger family gathering when restrictions are lifted. Other families are finding ways to unite, even though they can’t physically be together right now, by taking a moment to do something at the same time, on the same day, but in separate households. One family lit candles for their loved one at the same time, and another simultaneously played their loved one’s favourite song.
Once the social distancing rules are relaxed, many families are also planning to visit the deceased’s favourite places in nature for a quiet moment. But send-offs can even be more personalised and out of the box. Before the coronavirus, one man took his dad’s ashes on a final drive in style in a friend’s Lamborghini. These simple acts say, ‘I am honouring and remembering you’, in a more personal way than any funeral parlour can facilitate, and a direct cremation allows for this.
Alternative to a high-cost, traditional funeral
There are no rules when it comes to memorials. A church, chapel or funeral parlour service followed by a wake at a funeral home is not necessarily right for everyone, so a direct cremation allows families to take ownership of that memorial in a way that truly celebrates our loved one’s unique life.
Fran Hall, chief executive at the UK industry advisory organisation Good Funeral Guide, told The Guardian that families often felt shame in trying to keep funeral costs down, but that needed to change.
“We need to move away from that idea. People can create a meaningful service and still maintain the rituals without spending a fortune,” she said.
The average funeral in Australia costs around $7500, according to a 2018 study by finder.com.au, so cutting out the traditional funeral service also removes the cost pressure. A personalised memorial can cost far less, alleviating potential financial stress.
“I wanted something that was reasonably priced and that I could take charge of, so that my family would not have the worry,” said Bare pre-paid direct cremation customer Janice. “Also, I did not want a great fuss made. This is perfect,” she said.
Pre-planning a direct cremation was also a relief for Craig. “I was always concerned about leaving things to loved ones to arrange costly and complicated end-of-life arrangements,” he said. “My wife found Bare online. They had exactly what we wanted on offer, an eco coffin, cremation and paperwork taken care of and my ashes returned to the family for an affordable payment system. Takes so much pressure off my mind.”
For some, the pandemic has been a catalyst to have the tough conversations with the people we love about our end-of-life wishes. It’s forcing us to be more vocal about our mortality, which is something we’re generally not accustomed to doing in Australia. Having discussions with loved ones about end-of-life wishes allows people to share input into how they want to be celebrated and remembered when the time comes, rather than what a family member or funeral director decides on our behalf.
We cannot control when or where death occurs, but we can make it easier on our families by including them in the planning. Talking about end of life with loved ones now helps ease the pressure on families later.
Cale Donovan is the co-founder of online funeral service Bare Cremation.
Has COVID-19 prompted you consider your end-of-life plans and your funeral more thoroughly?
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