Short answer, No!
For too long there has been an air of mystery surrounding the process of what happens when a person dies, the entire subject has become quite taboo within the western world and people no longer feel comfortable to ask the questions that they have. These taboos have been reinforced at least in part, by a Funeral industry which over the years has sought to offer a ‘complete service package’ to everyday consumers – positioning itself to be a one stop death shop and the costs for this convenience have continued to increase. Today the industry often attracts criticism for what they have not provided; detail about what their services truly involve or any indication or offer to a family to keep control over their loved one, over all or some of those processes… in short, through a lack of understanding and transparency we have handed over the care of our dead and control of the final funeral ceremony to external businesses without considering the social, emotional or financial implications of doing so.
You can keep a person at home with you. You can wash and dress your loved one. You can provide your own coffin or container and transport your loved one to a cemetery or crematorium yourself and engage those services to be carried out. You can plan the ceremony and conduct it or have a friend or family member do it for you. It can be as community minded and family lead as you are comfortable with. Being involved in the process in this way it can be not only a very special and intimate experience but a practical and cost effective one as well.
You can have as much or as little control over the process as you would like.
By making the conversation about death and dying, just another part of life we aim to be part of the ever-growing movement taking the death and dying journey away from the neat packages of the funeral industry and back into the hands of families
It has been our experience that coffins are not generally reused. They are sold to the consumer as a necessary purchase and there is no alternative offered.
But that’s not to say that they can’t be.
In relation to burials, it is not actually necessary to purchase a coffin – it is, in Tasmania (legislation can change from State to State), permissible for a coffin to be ‘loaned’ to a family for a burial. This would be an option if the family wanted a natural or ‘shroud’ burial. The only restriction is that the coffin must not be a specific bio-degradable construction and it must be able to be steam cleaned/disinfected between use. This means that the cost of coffin purchase is not actually a necessity. In international repatriation, it is a requirement that the coffin transporting the human remains be metal lined. This metal lining can fit inside a coffin and be removed and cleaned, leaving the integrity of the solid coffin intact.
When it comes to transport, a coffin is not necessarily required either. According to the Burial and Cremation Regulations 2015, human remains can be placed in any coffin, container or tray that can prevent the escape of bodily discharges, contaminants or infectious materials. A re-usable coffin would be suitable for these purposes as well.
For cremation, sufficiently robust body bags suitable for cremation can be found available for purchase online around the world however that is not necessary either and for minimal impact a cremation or burial can occur using just a shroud. There is a need for a hard flat surface for the body to lay on to be put into a cremator, this could be a piece of board or a shroud bearer. It is possible for you to seek permission from a crematory manager for a cremation to be carried out in this way. Crematorium management does have the option of denying the request if they feel the ‘container’ would damage their equipment or if it would be injurious to public health and safety.
Natural Burial is the most environmentally friendly way of dealing with a deceased person. It is better for the environment than cremation or traditional burial which are at present the only other 2 options available to us in Tasmania and Australia. There are other new ways being developed all the time and some exciting things happening in what is being called “Green Death-Tech”, eventually these even more sustainable methods will find their way into public use. But we are not there yet. For now, natural burial is it.
Presently, we know of no specifically dedicated natural burial ground in Australia. There are sections of existing traditional and lawn cemeteries that have given over sections of land for natural burial, but not a cemetery that exists only to bury the dead in a natural and sustainable way. They are all over the UK and USA and Australia is edging ever closer to having our own here as well.
It is worth noting, that some of the existing natural burial areas are called such, more for their bush style location rather than the way they allow burials to take place. Of most concern is the depth of the graves dug in these areas and what checks and balances they have in place to ensure what goes into the ground is in fact all natural. These are good questions to ask if you are considering burial in one of those areas.
A natural burial is one that occurs in a shallow depth grave. The deeper you lay a deceased body in the earth, the slower the decomposition becomes and the less the earth receives from the remains. Tasmanian legislation states that the human remains need to be completely covered in soil, one meter deep at its shallowest point. Legislation changes from State to State but we know in the UK this requirement is the same. This is why you will often see graves mounded up above the top of the ground, to still allow a meter of soil while burying the body at an optimal depth. Even without this, one meter still allows for a much faster decomposition, simply because the soil is warmer higher up and has more insect and bacteria life within it.
But it’s not all about depth. With a natural burial, you must consider –
There can be no prior chemical treatments. Sometimes, bodies are embalmed – a process through which all of the blood is pumped out of the deceased person and replaced with a fluid that significantly slows the rate of decomposition. Something that is also used from time to time is the process of temporary preservation. This is where every major organ in the body of the deceased person is pierced and a setting agent introduced to slow the decomposition, this slowing does not last as long as the embalming process.
What the body is wearing – only natural fibres can be on the body. That goes for clothing, shoes, hair ties, jewellery – everything. Most metals come from the earth and are permitted to return to the earth with a deceased person so things like gold tooth fillings or wedding rings are most often allowed.
You do not need a coffin. Some natural burial grounds would prefer you did not use one, some make it a requirement. Shrouds are commonly used to cover a deceased person and this is the best way to achieve the optimal goals for natural burial. If you do choose to use a coffin, it needs to be of bio-degradable and natural construction. Ideally, no screws. Certainly, no non-biodegradable plastic. There are some wonderful wicker, seagrass and bamboo coffins available and local to Tasmania, a natural recycled paper alternative (see the link PeacePod under our resources section). The burial ground may want to see the coffin before they agree to the burial, the integrity of what goes into the earth is very important for the process of natural burial.
You are limited by what you can put inside a coffin or shroud. Things made of plastic for example are not permitted. Hand written notes, letters and drawings are.
That natural burials are shallow depth and therefore single graves. You can have them side by side but not two deceased persons can share the one grave plot. Having said this, the plots are often still a financially viable alternative to traditional cemeteries.
When it comes to marking the grave site of a natural burial, some will allow a stone local to the area or a small plaque, others will not. Some will provide you with a GPS coordinate, some will not. One lovely idea from the UK was to create a roll of honour at the entrance – so while the individual graves were not marked the entire natural ground became that person’s legacy to the generations to come.
Natural burial is a responsible, sustainable and financially viable alternative.
You can put as much effort and planning into your own funeral as you like. And it can take any form.
The word ‘funeral’ brings up all sorts of connotations that seem to all be linked to the idea of traditional ceremony that is available through funeral homes – a celebrant, 3 pieces of music, montage of photos, a reading or two and a bit of catering after if you’re lucky. In fact, a funeral can be whatever you want it to be.
In Australia, a ‘funeral’ is a ceremony where the body in a coffin is present, a ‘memorial’ is a ceremony where it is not present (sometimes the ashes of the person may be there if they have already been cremated.) Interestingly, these words are largely interchangeable in other western countries.
You can have a ceremony at home, in a park, on a beach, in the bush, a meaningful place – anywhere you like. Some places will not permit you to take a body in a coffin to the venue – you do need to check that out first – however you can have a gathering of people just about anywhere.
You can record your after death wishes for the type of ceremony you would like and what it could include. You can also create wishes for other things as well. Such as –
Venue for ceremony
Time (evening, morning, sunset etc)
Ambience, incense, candles
Religious components or requirements
Celebrant or person (if anyone) you’d like to lead the ceremony
Colours and themes (a country feel for a farmer etc)
Musicians and music , live and recorded
Stories you’d like to be told – you can write your own eulogy
Messages for people that you would like to be included and given out
Photos, how to display them, share memories, create a montage
Ways of recording peoples’ attendance, it doesn’t just have to be a name on a page
Order of Service, booklet, bookmark or other record of the ceremony (if any)
Gifts for those attending (you can give out something personal from the deceased – a photo they took, a piece of their artwork or writing, a book from their collection etc)
Poems/readings to be read out
Catering after (or before) the ceremony
Wording for your death and/or funeral notice that will go in the paper
Registering of your death with State Authorities (your family can do this, in Tasmania the paperwork is available for lodgement through Service Tasmania, check with your local State Department of Births, Deaths and Marriages)
While traditional style Funeral Directors often take control, and do much of this for you, they do not have to. For some it can be a blessing and for others it can make them feel a little more powerless in the situation than they otherwise would have been. Either way, you can be involved in the planning and orchestrating of all of these things to whatever degree you choose and as Funeral Professionals they can be engaged to do as much or as little as you want them to. But it is your choice, that’s the point.
When it comes to ceremony, it can be as formal or as informal as you like. Some of the most meaningful and memorable ceremonies come from a group of people, gathered together is a lounge room or around a table, all with the purpose of honouring the death and celebrating the life of someone near and dear to them. Sharing stories and memories, laughing and crying together, it can be a powerful and significant part of the grieving journey.
With careful planning and consideration, the support services do exist to allow you or your loved one to die at home. There are some remarkable figures out there, some places report that over 70% of people would like to die at home and yet in Tasmania only about 30% achieve this. While it is not a decision that would suit everybody, it is an option.
Through conversations with palliative care providers, hospitals, doctors, community nursing and after death care providers, all the logistical considerations can be addressed. Of course, it is not an exact art, and part of the planning can be around contingencies if it becomes a situation that can no longer be managed comfortably by the family and carers.
Good and careful conversation and planning can go a long way to seeing that people are able to realise their desire to die at home.
Stop. Breathe. Put on the kettle.
When someone dies there is no urgency; it is not an emergency. There is nothing that you must do in that moment. Often people without that knowledge, will launch into a series of phone calls, planning and organisation without taking a moment to just be in that space with their loved one.
If you have chosen to die at home or keep your loved one at home, then generally you will already have done a good deal of planning to get to that point. If you have not, or the death occurs in a hospital, nursing or palliative care environment, then much of the planning may be still to come. In either case, it is not unreasonable to take the time to ‘be’, assimilate what you have been through and where you are going. Be gentle with yourself and do not be pushed into someone else’s time frame.
Whether you choose to have a formal traditional funeral, something alternative, a wake, a funeral at home or no ceremony at all is up to you and all the choices and planning can be made over whatever length of time you need them to be. Some might want it all done in 3 days, for others it can be longer.
When someone dies in a nursing home, palliative care facility or hospital
When someone dies in a nursing home, palliative care facility or in a hospital you need to notify a medical practitioner as soon as practicable. Much of the paperwork required after death will be initiated and completed by the medical staff on hand at the time. They will complete the Life Extinct form and place Identification on the body. They will contact a treating doctor, if one is not on hand, and arrange for the Medical Certificate Cause of Death to be completed as soon as possible and they will take instructions as to whether the Coroner’s office needs to be notified about the death, if the death is considered ‘reportable’. If this is not the case you do have the right to take that person home rather than to a funeral director’s facility.
For this discussion, the following supposes that the Coroners involvement is not required.
When someone dies at home
When someone dies at home, you are required to make a notification of the death – as soon as practicable. You can do this by calling a nurse or doctor who has been overseeing the care/treatment of the deceased. If they cannot be reached or if the death was sudden or unexpected, an ambulance or police officer will need to be notified – as soon as practicable – and they will determine if the Coroner needs to be notified.
Once you have notified someone, if not a Doctor, the person that you notify will then be required to notify a Doctor. The Doctor will then agree to complete a Medical Cause of Death Certificate – if the doctor doesn’t agree then the Coroner will be required.
Once the Doctor has agreed to complete the Medical Cause of Death Certificate, they have 8 hours to either attend the place of death or arrange for another medical practitioner or responsible person to attend. In reality, if the ambulance, nurse, police etc. is in attendance, they are also considered to be a responsible person.
If a Responsible Person is relied upon and the Doctor does not attend initially to create the Medical Certificate Cause of Death, a Life Extinct document needs to be completed by a ‘responsible person’ – there are guidelines as to who fits this criteria and they must be a person who is not a relative, not a beneficiary to any estate and has not had any financial dealings with the deceased in the last 5 years. A Life Extinct document is a form that is issued in triplicate (the white is the original which goes to the person who has custody of the deceased, the blue duplicate goes to the medical practitioner named on the form as going to be completing the Medical Certificate Cause of Death, the green copy is to be forwarded to the Registry of Births, Death and Marriages). Eventually, both the white and blue copies will end up with the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. The Life Extinct form exists to be used when a Doctor cannot attend and complete the Medical Certificate Cause of Death within that eight- hour window.
There is no urgency when someone dies. There is time to stop, cry, put on the kettle and gather yourself and as soon as practicable, make the notification.
Once the agreement has been obtained by the Doctor to Complete the Medical Certificate Cause of Death, the responsible person can then complete the two tasks required of them, one is to complete what is called a Life Extinct form (all police, ambulance, nurses, doctors etc have access to these), the other is to place an approved identification tag on the deceased, if possible on their left arm. It should contain the person’s name and location. These can be obtained from hospitals and again, many of the ‘responsible people’ will have them at hand. This tag remains on the body as a permanent addition and there are rules in relation to who can remove it, how, why and under what circumstances.
Once these formalities are out of the way you can then go about considering ‘where to from here’. You have time. Most likely, people will be asking you which Funeral Home you would like to be contacted. Funeral Directors are optional, meaning you are not obliged or legally required to engage a Funeral Home.
From the time of death, the Executor of a person’s Will becomes the legally responsible person in relation to the body of the deceased. If the deceased has not left a legal Will appointing an Executor, the senior next of kin will be responsible for those decisions. With the agreement of the legally responsible person, a family, community, friend group etc can do as much or as little towards the death care of their loved one as they want to.
If a child is old enough to notice someone’s presence then they will also notice someone’s absence.
Death is a natural part of life and generations ago both young and old lived with death as a part of their everyday existence. It has only been in the last few decades that we have begun shielding children from this natural event in a misguided effort to protect them from sadness. The immediate impact of this is that the child is then denied the ability to grieve like everyone else and say goodbye.
Another impact that seems to have happened is that entire generations of children have been raised never having experienced what it is like to have someone close to them die. The evidence of this is never more pronounced than when an adult child experiences the death of a parent and it is such a foreign thing for them that they do not know what to do, how to feel or how to reach the understanding of what their ‘new normal’ is going to be moving forward.
Children will only ever learn about death and dying from the examples they are set, from being included in the process of saying goodbye and being given the opportunity to reach their own understanding of mortality. Death is only the scary monster hiding under their bed waiting to get them, if we make it that way for them.
For everyone, but for children in particular, the language of death is important. Euphemisms like ‘gone’, ‘passed away’, ‘lost’, ‘departed’ all leave open the possibility that a person can be found or will return… it perpetuates confusion and promotes a lack of understanding around what death truly means.