Death Literacy Intros: how death literacy literally saves you money and time
Updated: Oct 3, 2020
Death Literacy - a coin termed by Dr Kerrie Noonan. "Death literacy is defined as a set of knowledge and skills that make it possible to gain access to understand and act upon end-of-life and death care options" (Noonan, et al 2016).
Today's post Gentle Reader, will explore the financial advantages to being death literate, so clutch yer piggy-bank and let's get started. If you aren't sure about how much a funeral can cost, allow me to direct your attention here, here, and here if you want to gain additional background context beyond this post.
On an introductory note, I will point out that planning as far in advance as possible (pre-need) for our end of life, preferred site of dying, after-death body care, and funeral is the most effective way to save money.
There is an interesting cultural norm wherein we expect to pay a lot of money for a funeral, but do not necessarily factor in the cost of a rich and - insofar as it is possible - satisfying end of life. In other words, we are rather backwards in not expecting to have/planning for having a less expensive funeral (which we are NOT traditionally around for, however you can plan a Fabulous Going Away Party with me and thus neatly attend your own funeral if that is what you like), but rather enjoying our time at end of life (which many of us will be cognitively present, and reasonably physically able, for). From a purely rational point of view, this traditional approach seems to miss the point of a good life well lived until the end, while reserving a good deal of money for other people and their businesses, all at the literal expense of our own quality of life up until our deaths.
The other, arguably bigger, debt trap to beware here is also the same one that operates around high holiday times, like Christmas and Valentine's Day. To wit: the more money we spend on someone, the more we demonstrate how much we love them! And this is where funerals all too frequently become excessively - even obscenely - expensive... What point are we proving in terms of love and devotion when after someone is dead we organise a purchase of a $15,000 coffin for someone who will be cremated. At this point I invite you to bear in mind that it is not unusual for funeral homes to remove the expensive coffin for resale and put the body into the crematorium incinerator in the cheapest option possible. Funeral homes are businesses, never forget that. Why do we spend hundreds of dollars on so-called "floral tributes" that will often be left behind in the memorial chapel to be summarily disposed of. Why are we spending so much time after someone dies wondering what to do and realising we are too tired, sad, and overwhelmed to make good decisions? Why are we prioritising so many after-death options that do not serve us well?
Consider: what if we normalise a different set of financial priorities for ourselves and those around us as a normal part of death?
Let's drill down into some funeral myths, and talk plainly about what we 'must' do when we die here in Australia - for international options please see an advance planner in your own country:
MYTH - we must have a funeral!
Nope. We don't. Funerals are optional, and it is perfectly reasonable for you to forgo a funeral in any tangible sense if that is not what you want after you die*. One of my closest friends is adamant that he does not want a funeral, and everyone he knows is well aware of his wishes; he is well-loved and respected, and we understand his position. Some of us may have compellingly good reasons for foregoing a funeral, too. Skipping funerals helps maximise donations to charities, or ensures that all possible monies go directly to friends and/or family - and this is a perfectly reasonable position. Understanding that funerals are optional also helps to take a good deal of emotional and psychological pressure away from social orphans who may not have many (or any) people close to them as they age. The section later on for direct cremation services is helpful in these situations, see below.
*However (like my good friend mentioned here), do be aware that there may be a sneaky memorial or celebration of your life afterwards, but as you won't be around to grumble about this sneakiness, I give you permission to relax about it all now.
MYTH - we must use a funeral home when we die!
Nope. Anyone in Australia can conduct a funeral (although you may have to jump through some administrative hoops to do this) - and while this fact does not suit the bottom line of funeral homes, as funerals are ceremonial from a legal standpoint (rather than legal in nature, as weddings are) we are under no obligation or duress to engage the services of a funeral home at all*. Funerals can happen at home, and can be either family-led (you may wish to have a celebrant or member of a funeral home present if that is what works best for you but in this case they act as a backup and let you do most of the work), or you can do it all yourself and not involve a funeral home at all. This last is sometimes referred to as a DIY funeral, and may take place in any way, shape, or form suits you providing you follow the state and federal laws.
*The exception to this rule is when the Coroner's office is involved in investigating a death as the Coroner will only release a body to a funeral home hearse. However, you can have a body delivered to your home, or taken immediately to direct cremation, so the hearse ride is the only funeral home expense you must cover in these circumstances. All other options are simply that, options that you may choose or refuse - it is up to you.
For example, you can keep a body at home for up to five days after death (whether a body is transported home from a hospital or nursing home after death, or when an expected death takes place at home), but you must have cooling in place within eight hours. You can hire cooling plates from some end of life doulas (including me) as well as some funeral homes - Tender Funerals in Port Kemla, if you are local to them is one example - or you can go online to purchase Techni Ice reusable ice packs.
Of course with DIY/at home funerals, you have the flexibility of time; you can have a funeral that is a single event at one time, or hold space for people to come and go as they can or feel able to, and for some families or groups this process may last a few days. What will work best for your wishes, and how much money do you really think needs to be spent after you die? Objective and advance planning here is really your best friend.
MYTH - we must hold a funeral straight away when someone dies!
Again, no. As funerals are optional, you can choose to have a service right away - this is important for some faiths and cultures, but is not a legal requirement - OR you can choose to wait, and hold the funeral at a time and place of your own choosing after the initial, raw grief and loss has had some time to settle in. Funeral timing, as with place and organisers as discussed above, is entirely up to you the individual and family as consumers. Feel free to ignore all the traditional, corporate-run hype. When would a funeral seem right for you after you die? If you decide you would you like a pause after death before holding a ceremony, then I (and Australian law) support you in doing so.
Pro savings argument for a funeral that isn't immediate: when family and/or social networks are far-flung - which is more and more common these days - waiting weeks or even months for a funeral may work in everyone's favour. A timetable of no rush will enable people who live and work in other states or countries time to rearrange work and life schedules for airfares that aren't so expensive, as last-minute travel arrangements tend to be. Self-employed people and small business owners will likewise be given breathing room to plan their time away for a funeral/memorial service in advance, thus minimising potential disruption to income streams, customer information channels, and suppliers alike.
The important thing to remember is that funerals (should you wish to have one at all) do not have to be expensive, and you can have something quite low-key, and low-cost, from home if that suits you better.
Now that we've kicked some expensive funeral myths into the gutter, let's consider what you CAN do as a fact for your end of life, death, and funeral that can save you money.
Can I use a coffin I make myself?
Yup, absolutely! In fact, the Men's Shed association can help you out by making them for you if you are not handy or if you are without access to power tools. You can also do low-impact, environmentally-friendly options for coffins, so it may pay to shop around. Bear in mind that cardboard coffins are FULL of adhesive, and do not burn in a 'green' way, so other alternatives may suit you better. There is a fun video here from the NZ Coffin Club (the originators) that I use a lot in my public talks about advance planning, showing that you can build your death furniture well in advance of your actual death, and use it in your home for wine racks (upright with removable shelving), as a daybed, or as storage, thus also handily saving a trip to IKEA.
I don't want to spend a lot on a coffin, are there alternatives to funeral homes?
Yes - in fact you can buy direct from suppliers like Scientia Coffins, and you can also buy their products from Costco at a considerable saving compared to corporate funeral home options. See link above for further details.
Can I have a funeral that costs less than $1000?
Yes! If you do something at home, in your garden, or in a park/beach setting (check with your local council about numbers though - for example: in my local area up to 30 people may gather in a public space without a permit, but this will vary by location), self-cater or go BYO, use flowers from your garden, and engage friends and family for music or decorations then this is very, very possible*.
*In addition to the funeral, you do need to budget between 2-3K AUD or so for fire-based cremation costs and containers for ashes will be additional.
I really don't do well under pressure, can I skip having a funeral home hold or transport the body for me as I worry I will be pressured into spending money with them?
Yes, you absolutely can. You can opt for a non-attendance cremation service for a fee of $2K AUD and up (at the time of writing), but do bear in mind that transportation costs are NOT included in the cremation fee , and will therefore be an additional financial consideration. Contact your local independent funeral home, funeral or advance planner, or celebrant for further information.
An option of this kind would work well for those of us who either do not want a funeral, or who have family and friends who will hold a delayed funeral, as the ashes will be ready for whenever a gathering is held. N.B.: this option is not ideal for anyone who would like to attend the cremation.
We want to have a small, DIY backyard funeral with the body, but don't feel comfortable having the body at home for a few days while people travel in for the ceremony - can we use a funeral home instead of keeping the body at home?
Yes! Funeral homes will overnight guest (I do think this is a lovely way to put it) a body for a very reasonable fee - about $60-80 overnight or so at the time of writing, ask around with your local funeral homes. Remember to factor in the transport and coffin costs on top of this, but you can use a home-made coffin, which will lower your expenses. If one funeral home refuses to help you out, keep asking around - independent and smaller funeral homes may be more open to this option. The executor of the will has responsibility for the body under Australian law - weird, but nonetheless true - so be prepared with copies of this document if needed. Under Australian law the executor determines what happens with a body, not a funeral home or hospital worker, and you have the law on your side to enact your right to determine exactly how many services you engage from a funeral home.
Sensible DIY funeral planning tips: if you encounter more opposition or 'hard sell' than you are comfortable with from funeral homes regarding cool storage and transport as the only services provided, try asking a trusted friend to do your comparison shopping, or engage the services of an advocate End of Life Consultant like me to help you organise this aspect of the funeral itself.
In warmer weather/locations it is always a good idea to have a shaded area for the coffin, so if you have a portable marquee that you can set up with a small table for photos, flowers, etc., then this aspect is readily sorted. Alternatively, you may wish to have the ashes present instead of the coffin, and a small memorial table or area can easily be set up to accommodate this option.
I'm not sure how to go about planning a funeral ceremony, are there low-cost options?
Yes. You can search options on the web - YouTube has many helpful videos, for example - or you can hire someone like me who will help you plan a funeral for a reasonable price, but again I urge you to shop around to ensure you are getting the best price and someone you are happy working with. If you know someone in your local community who is a funeral celebrant they may help you plan, but do be direct upfront in communicating your need for planning only if you do not wish to also engage them as your funeral celebrant. Shop around if you can here too, and if you do not feel up to doing this then ask a close friend to help you out; delegation can be a good idea when price-comparing.
Is it weird to want to spend money on my end of life rather than my death???
No! It is perfectly normal to re-envisage your end of life priorities, and hopefully you have after reading this far. Ensuring you have enough money for whatever kind of after-death body care, disposition of your remains (do you like the fancy industry-speak for burial or cremation here?) and funeral can then help you understand what kind of income you will be able to spend on your end of life, so it is important to plan here, too.
Obviously there are no guarantees in life (except death, but you know that by now), however if you know what your prognosis is (assuming you have one), or are familiar with a known family illness pathway (assuming you will be following this as well), then you may have a good chance of realising your end of life plans. Are you interested in travel, taking up a new hobby, putting together a memorial project, reconnecting with friends and/or family you have lost touch with, finishing up projects that are significant to you, or having a compassionate and listening ear and presence for the last stages of your life? If the answer to any of these is 'yes', then you may well benefit from shifting your financial attention to ensuring you have less money focused on the 'after I die' side of your personal equation, and far more onto the 'I am still alive and engaged with the quality of my life' side of your personal equation. Why not plan to live as fiercely and completely as possible up to the last possible moment? I absolutely support you in this endeavour.
One way to better know how you can shift our end of life priorities by improving your death literacy is by attending information/conversation events (like death cafes, community festivals, or public talks like the ones I offer* on a regular basis). However, if you want specific questions answered then it is probably a good idea to work with an End of Life Consultant or end of life practitioner who specialises in advance planning and consumer advocacy. If you are interested in support as well as planning the End of Life Doula Directory is a good resource for helping you find someone near you, but if you explore the directory and find someone that catches your eye and they are a long way away, it is always worth asking them if they will Skype or Zoom call with you instead (not just in Australia, so the international Gentle Reader can happily benefit from this option). Many death doulas will say yes to a phone or video call, and in this way people in remote or regional areas are not left out of the death literacy loop. Bear in mind that often legal specifics vary from state to state as well as country to country, so it is advisable to take detailed information from someone in your own state wherever possible.
*If you would like to remotely attend one of my public talks please email me and I will arrange it as soon as practicable and possible.
Are you interested in learning more about how planning for your end of life with death literacy can help save you money? Please do not hesitate to contact me - I am an End of Life Consultant who is a consumer advocate, professional public speaker, and compassionate listener who is very good at creative solutions for clients.
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