A restful pause to absorb the sharpest sting

Victoria Spence wants to bring death back into the family home. The Sydney life rites celebrant is at the forefront of a natural death movement that is spreading across NSW, from Byron Bay in the north to the Shoalhaven in the south.

Spence wants people to talk more about death before it happens. She and others similarly motivated want families to be better prepared and educated, and to have the options of caring and preparing their dead for burial or cremation in their own homes or with the help of a funeral parlour. They're advocating for personalised memorials, more time to grieve between death and burial or cremation, greener funerals, most often with cardboard coffins, and natural burial sites which dispense with gravestones and provide GPS co-ordinates of the burial site.

In many cultures, such as the Irish, Maori and Filipino, laying out the body at home has never stopped. But most Australian-born families abandoned the practice in the early 1900s, outsourcing the details to the funeral industry.

Spence was the first celebrant in Sydney to import cooling beds from the Netherlands, where their use is routine. If someone dies at home in NSW from a terminal illness, the corpse may be kept there for up to five days, provided it is kept between zero and five degrees, for an old-fashioned wake and goodbye. The beds have been used by eight Sydney families, including Sophie Townsend's.

Initially, Spence used dry ice to cool the body during home-based wakes. But she admits that was ''often too freaky for families saying goodbye to granny'' and only appropriate for a small number of people.

Spence's 25-year transformation from north shore schoolgirl to life rites celebrant and end-of-life educator began in the early 1990s when she was a performance artist living in the inner city. Many of her gay friends were dying of complications caused by AIDS. ''For a very fit middle-class girl from Lindfield, I went to a lot of funerals,'' she says. She remembers a flamboyant friend who was given the most conservative of funerals. It was so removed from the reality of his life that Spence found it inhibited the ability of his friends to grieve. ''I started to see the importance and the power of a good funeral,'' she says.

When her 81-year-old father died, the hours and days that followed were often a ''debacle''. In the moments following his death, Spence, then 27, knew she needed to sit with him for a while and take stock. She ducked round to the local shops to buy flowers and candles, planning to hold her own vigil. But she walked back into the room where her father died to the sound of the body bag being zipped up. ''He wasn't even cold,'' she says. ''And then he was gone.'' She remembers screaming and asking the funeral director not to take the body away yet.

''We had no death literacy,'' she says of her family. They had no idea what to do after her father had died, except call a funeral director. The next three days were an ''adrenalin fuelled'' and ''shock propelled'' round of decisions: on coffins, cremation versus burial, the type of service, the eulogy, who would speak, the music. The family felt ill-prepared to make these on a fast-track schedule dictated by the funeral industry.

''Why does the funeral or cremation have to be so soon?'' she asks. ''If you give families a bit of time to think and sit with the person who died, they emerge in a day or so much calmer and better equipped to make good decisions,'' she says.

When her mother died seven years later, Spence and her family took control, creating a rich and satisfying service that reflected her mother's personality.

Unlike most celebrants who only preside over funerals, Spence often gets involved with the family many months before a death, preparing them for what's ahead and advising them on their options. As a result, many families decide to take the coffin and funeral out of the crematorium or chapel and into parks or RSL, bowling and lifesaving clubs.

In northern NSW, near Byron Bay and Lismore, and in Wollongong, other groups are educating the public on natural death. Jennifer Briscoe-Hough, the manager of Port Kembla Community Project, is importing a cooling bed and seeking funds to establish a non-profit funeral service. She sees herself as part of trend similar to when men weren't allowed into the delivery room when babies were born. Briscoe-Hough says in a decade or two people will look back on this time and scratch their heads about why families stopped being involved in tending to the deceased relative (washing the body and saying goodbye at home, for example).

A study in Wollongong and Port Kembla, in which Briscoe-Hough was involved, found most people thought society was in cultural denial about death and many people were worried about the high cost of a funeral.

''We want novels with endings, we want life without ending,'' said one of the 185 people surveyed and interviewed for ''Talking About Death Practices''.

''Most people cringe at discussion of death, which is silly, given that it is one of the most important things … in life,'' said another participant.

When polled about their attitudes to natural funerals, almost 70 per cent of respondents were supportive of holding a funeral in a public place; 61.6 per cent were supportive of natural burial sites and 57.8 per cent wanted to undertake all aspects of the funeral arrangements. Many were supportive of keeping the body at home for up to five days.

About 65 per cent of Australians opt for cremation over burial and respondents questioned the wisdom and environmental impact of spending so much on a coffin that will be burnt. The industry's biggest profit margins are derived from coffin sales (most often attracting a 100 per cent mark-up, says an IBISWorld report), yet 83 per cent of respondents supported the use of an eco coffin.

When asked what was important to them in a funeral, nearly 70 per cent said ensuring the ceremony reflected the spiritual, cultural and religious beliefs of the dead.

Many felt the funeral industry took advantage of them when they had been at their most vulnerable to sell them expensive coffins and added services. Even a confessed ''bolshie person'' like Briscoe-Hough, who has worked a lot with death and dying, was so dazed when she had to choose a coffin for her mother that she ''didn't even ask how much they were going to be''. The funeral cost $10,500, which appalled her.

''In the past, it was a common thing to spend time with the dead body … The most amazing thing about getting to understand death and dying is it catapults you right into the middle of life. We're not getting this knowledge our lives are finite and precious and it really lets us know that.''

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop