Farewell funerals: Covid-19 has changed the grieving process for good

Jun 02, 2020
Covid-19 is reshaping the way in which Australians view the funeral industry. Source: Getty.

More so than almost any other event in recent history, the coronavirus 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 anywhere from 10 to 50 mourners depending on state-specific restrictions, spaced 1.5 metres apart – without the ability to provide comforting hugs. The effect of this is significant because 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) and intending to wait until restrictions are lifted for a fitting celebration of life later on.

Why direct cremations are increasing

Although it may be unfamiliar to many, all funeral homes actually offer a direct cremation service as an option for families.

A direct cremation 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 has been a growing trend well before the impact of coronavirus forced the social distancing restrictions.

A 2019 report from funeral price comparison website Gathered Here suggests that direct cremation makes up about 23 per cent of total funerals – up from an estimated 5 per cent just 10 years ago. Music icon David Bowie put direct cremation firmly in the mainstream spotlight when his wish to be cremated without a funeral service was widely reported in the British media at the time of his passing 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 unique personality.

Separating arrangement from memorial

Covid-19 has only 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 big myth about direct cremation.

A common misconception is 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 in considering a fitting memorial as an alternative to what the funeral industry has defined for us – for decades.

A great goodbye doesn’t need to be pricey

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, at a time when social distancing restrictions are forcing us to isolate and think differently about memorials.

We’re seeing this first hand at Bare. 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 ones’ 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.

Pre-pay helps loved ones mourn

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,” she said. “People can create a meaningful service and still maintain the rituals without spending a fortune.”

The average funeral in Australia costs around $7,500, according to a 2018 study by comparison site Finder, so cutting out the traditional funeral service also removes the cost pressure. A personalised memorial can cost far less, so it’s not worth putting your family into financial distress just for the sake of having a traditional funeral. A low-cost direct cremation service provides some relief to our customers at a time when they are struggling to cope with the loss of a loved one.

One of my own customers at Bare, a woman called Janice, purchased her own direct cremation because she wanted something reasonably priced and that she could organise herself so her family didn’t have to worry when the time came.

“Also, I did not want a great fuss made,” she told me. “This is perfect.”

Likewise, pre-planning a direct cremation was also a relief for Craig, another one of my customers. He didn’t want to leave his loved ones to have to arrange a costly, complicated funeral for him, when he was happy with an eco-coffin, the paperwork being taken care of by us at Bare and his ashes being returned to his family after cremation.

“This takes so much pressure off my mind,” he said.

With a direct cremation, the money saved on overpriced funerals allows families like Janice’s and Craig’s to plan more personalised celebrations of life – whether that’s a BBQ by the beach, or a memorial at a park, beach or some other special place that meant a lot to your loved one.

At Bare, we’ve seen families get together for sunset ashes-scattering ceremonies at picturesque places like the mountains, at sea or by lakeside. You can even scatter ashes from a hot air balloon.

Instead of a traditional wake, families and close friends are gathering at a loved one’s favourite restaurant for dinner or celebrating their life at home with a backyard BBQ. These personalised options are limitless and can continue when social distancing restrictions are lifted.

Australians have the choice to truly “go their own way” and we think it’s a good thing that more and more families are taking up this option.

Tough convos now ease life later

While we are still learning about how Covid-19 affects us, it’s a frightening time of uncertainty – not just for the most vulnerable but also for their families and loved ones. The threat of coronavirus has confronted many Australians with the thought of our own death, perhaps for the first time.

However, a healthy view of death only serves to improve the way we think about life.

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 Australian culture. 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.

Many of those who have passed away from effects of coronavirus may not have had a lot of time to make an end-of-life plan, leaving grieving families to make necessary arrangements while dealing with the emotional and financial impacts. 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 off families later. Often family members are so focused on the administration of a loved one’s death and planning a funeral that they are not allowing themselves that chance to properly grieve.

Death is not the easiest subject to think about, but making plans today with your loved ones will help ease the financial and emotional stress on them later on. You can start by looking into options for pre-arranging your funeral or cremation, setting up a savings plan, using superannuation, paying in instalments for a pre-paid funeral, or investing in a funeral bond.

And with a pre-arranged funeral, cremation, or memorial in place, you can focus on the things you enjoy while you’re still here.

Would you be happy with a direct cremation? What would you like your send-off to be?

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