Buried or cremated? Over-60s get real about the big question

The over-60 community has chosen between cremation and burial.

Planning our own funeral or what happens to our bodies when we die is not morbid, instead, it is acknowledging the reality of the journey that everyone will embark on. Thinking about it and actually making a decision based on our preference also helps our family carry out their duty the way we would like it to be. Starts at 60 reader Trish Buckley said, “(There) should be more discussion about what you want after you die, write it down, let your family know, then, when the inevitable happens, your grieving families aren’t floundering, wondering what to do, make your will.”  Suzanne Smith agreed with Ms Buckley’s opinion saying, “I agree tell the family what you want.”

Some people prefer to be buried or cremated after death and some people choose to be buried at sea, while others may donate their bodies to science. We asked the Starts at 60 community, “Would you rather be buried or cremated when you die?” and this is what the majority picked: Cremation. Why? 

To some, cremation gives the family the opportunity to remember their loved ones in unique and special ways. Margaret Longstaff Pomerenke who said that she chooses cremation, said, “My kids can plant a flowering plant with my ashes then each year when I come out in bloom they can say “hello Mum”.

Some readers even came up with unique ideas on what can be done with their ashes. Patricia Wallace McGregor said, “I also think it would be great to be cremated, divided in 6, mixed with concrete and made into garden ornaments or garden gnomes so my kids can have one each in their gardens. lol.”

For others, cremation allows the family to still be “close” to their loved ones who have passed away. Jan Casey said, “At least you can be portable and the kids can share you. My Mum’s and Dad’s ashes are in my linen cupboard waiting for the time I get to go and scatter them at their favourite place in NSW (Sussex Inlet). I say hello to them when I get out sheets etc. My husband’s ashes are in a nice timber box in the lounge room where he wanted to be. I dust him occasionally and swear at him sometimes. I don’t really want him there, in the TV cabinet but I’m too afraid to put him away.”

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For Faye Chatterton, cremation symbolises a union. “Our ashes will then be scattered at the end of the Jetty at Glenelg Beach in South Australia. (We) have kept ashes here for almost 25 years, just waiting for mine to be mixed in with his. We were both born in South Australia and lived near Glenelg.”

Kay Robertson’s vision sees her children as part of the plan. She said, “Cremated and the kids are going to scatter my ashes while driving along a beautiful winding road with a sea view in my Monaro while playing Suzi Quatro’s ‘Your mumma wont like me'”

But not everyone likes cremation as an option.

Jean Clawson said, “I’m being buried with my husband. Unless I should die while on holiday a long way from home, then I am to be cremated and buried with him.”

Kerry Cochran said that she prefers to be “Buried in one of those new, design your own, biodegradable coffins. Mine will have fairies and flowers on it I think! Should lighten the mood at the funeral!”

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Many Starts at 60 readers also saw the lighter side in the discussion with some sharing really funny ideas. Grant Waghorn said, “I’d like to be stuffed with fireworks and ignited over Parliament,” while Max Mcleod said, “I want to be Cremated. It will be my last chance of having a ‘smoking hot body’.”

Now that you’ve made a choice, you have to know the legal and other requirements for these different methods.

Requirements for burial

Once a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death has been issued, a body can be buried. There are three choices of burial site: a public cemetery, a private cemetery, or private land. To bury a body on private land, the land must be greater than five hectares in area and the approval of the Local Council must be obtained. The Council will not allow a body to be buried in an area where it has the potential to pollute a domestic water supply. Most Councils require the proposed site to be surveyed, and they may put a restrictive covenant on the land. Both public and private cemeteries can be selective, and may refuse to accept a body that has not been delivered by a funeral director. There is no legal requirement for them to do so.

A person who wishes to arrange a private funeral would need to identify a sympathetic cemetery operator before the death. (No such operator could be identified from inquiries made in the course of preparing this web site). Alternatively, it is possible to select a funeral director who will only conduct those parts of a funeral that the family considers too difficult to organise themselves.

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When a body is buried, the top of the coffin must be a minimum of 900 mm below ground level, unless it is placed in an above-ground vault. Any body placed in an above-ground vault must be embalmed and hermetically enclosed in an approved material.

Many like the idea of their ashes being scattered by the sea.
Many like the idea of their ashes being scattered by the sea.

Requirements for cremation

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Cremated bodies cannot be exhumed for further medical study, therefore extra precautions are required by law before cremation can take place. Before any cremation can take place, according to Australian Museum, the executor must complete an application to cremate, in which he/she certifies that the dead person had not expressed any desire not to be cremated. This form is given to a doctor, usually the doctor that issued the medical certificate of cause of death.

The doctor then issues a cremation certificate if he/she is satisfied that there were no suspicious circumstances and that the dead person was not opposed to being cremated. This certificate is then given to a medical referee who also inspects the body and checks the first doctor’s certificate. If in agreement he/she issues a cremation permit. (If the body was referred to the Coroner, the Coroner can issue a cremation permit.)

For a crematorium to accept a body for cremation, it must delivered in a sealed coffin that meets occupation health and safety criteria, is of a suitable size and material, and is accompanied by a cremation permit. Many crematoria will be unwilling to accept a body that has not been delivered by a funeral director, and may request approval from the Department of Health. In this event, do not panic – a phone call between the crematorium and the Area Health Service Public Health Unit should remove any concerns of the crematorium operator and no further paperwork is needed.

There is nothing in the laws specifying that a cremation must take place in a cremator, therefore it would be possible to build a funeral pyre and cremate a body privately if it complied with Environmental Protection Agency and Local Government regulations on burning off. However, gas-fuelled cremators are a more environmentally benign way of incinerating a body and it is reasonable to expect that the law would soon regulate funeral pyres if they became popular.

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Crematoria are required to provide ashes to the executor, to dispose of them according to directions, or to keep them for a minimum of 14 days if they are unclaimed. Permission is required to scatter ashes in certain places, including some enclosed waterways and public spaces. Some people pick special places to scatter ashes to celebrate how they lived their life. For example, Josephine Batten said, “We’re to be cremate then blow our ashes to the wind since we are regular travellers this way we’ll be travelling forever.”

Requirements for burial at sea

You can’t just leave an uncremated body at sea; it is regulated under federal law under the Sea Dumping Act. An application on a prescribed form must be made to Environment Australia. Although the act states that a fee of $1000 must be lodged with the application, the Minister has the power to waive the fee. Bodies for burial at sea must be prepared in accordance with the Ship Captain’s Medical Guide, which involves weighting the body and sewing it into a strong shroud with several openings to allow putrefaction gases and trapped air to escape.

The site of the burial must be arranged with Environment Australia, who will confirm the location with other agencies including, NSW Fisheries, NSW Department of Transport, NSW Environmental Protection Agency, Commonwealth Fisheries, Commonwealth Hydrographer and Commonwealth Maritime Safety Officer. Environment Australia will try to grant a permit within a few days, but it is helpful if contact is made with the Department prior to the death.

The main criteria in determining a site for sea burial are that the body will not be carried inshore by currents, or be retrieved by fishing activities. This means that the body must be submerged in water of depth greater than 1000 m, which around Sydney, dictates that the burial will be more than 60 km off the mainland.

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Requirements for donation of body to science

Human bodies are useful in medical research and in the training of medical students and there are over-60s who do want their bodies to be donated to science. Susan King said, “I have it in my will that my body is to be donated to science. I’m hoping I will be of some use after death and the kids get to party or what ever they choose instead of spending thousands on a funeral. Win win all round I think.”

People wishing to donate their bodies to science need to make prior arrangements – it is not sufficient to leave an instruction in a will. After the body has been used, the medical school meets the cost of cremation or burial of any remaining parts of the body according to prior arrangements with the donor. Peggy Stocke is considering a combination of donation and cremation. “I am a donor, after there done with me they can cremate my remains and the kids can share my ashes and sprinkle some in the lake I live on,” she said.

Info on requirements via Australian Museum.

Have you thought of your most preferred method?