Has it become too expensive to die?

Is it becoming too expensive to die? You may have learned recently that you almost certainly won’t be able to afford to retire until well past 70 in Australia and in other OECD countries (1) (with a special Guardian report suggesting ‘there’s a danger of a generation who can’t afford to retire’) (2). Soon you might also realize that many in our community can’t afford to die as well. [And to actually afford a house (3)http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/housing-education-healthcare-cost-of-living-is-too-expensive/news-story/1093f016fee4378792843b5c84bb0c7e or a reasonable ‘cost of living’ (4) in Australia – well, in your dreams!].

After hearing recently from a friend that he was putting in his Will that no money from this was to go any money-grubbing funeral home, AW decided to focus on what a recent ABC report called ‘the vultures from the funeral industry’ (5). This was from a recent independent report by the University of Sydney Business School (6). It’s a sobering read confirming in detail what most people have generally known for a while (that the funeral industry in Australia is a rip-off). But it is still a topic worthy of a brief probe into a nasty scam given that it relates to what some in the industry cynically call ‘the misery business’ (7 & 8). There are various aspects of deception involved with this. Perhaps the most shocking is to find out that behind the apparent competition between different firms there is generally one listed company Invocare which dominates the whole industry in Australia. As the real firm behind such brand names as White Lady Funeral, Guardian, and Simplicity Funerals (i.e. around 30 brands overall), it reportedly has up to an 80% market share of ‘Australia’s profitable east coast’ (5) [YES THAT WAS NOT A TYPO] and around 40% overall around Australia-– getting a monopoly over the capital cities whilst often leaving the less lucrative rural and regional areas to local independents.

As a related News.com article points out re: the influence of Invocare, funerals in Australia have become a billion dollar industry – “taking advantage of people at their most vulnerable’ (6). About a 159,000 people now die each year in Australia, with this figure projected to double over the next 20 years. Whilst the basic price often by Invocare companies is reportedly around $5000-6000 where you can get a specific quote, several reports we looked at indicate $10,000 as a more realistic average where vague inclusive pricing is applied – and up to a couple of thousand extra if you are from Perth (9). If you are wealthy this may not seem much. But for the many who are struggling in the current climate it can be really difficult. Cremations were traditionally cheaper but now more popular than burials are often just as expensive(11). One relevant site has estimated that average cremations now costs more than $7400 in Australia – with burials in some parts of Australia around $20,000 with plaques and cemetery fees). Certainly cremations are more popular in urban areas (now around 70%) whilst non-urban areas also now more than 50% (10).

Invocare claims that its operators “provide price transparency upfront so that our customers can select an option to best suit their needs” (12). But as the Laan & Moerman report indicates, the central problem is a lack of transparency – especially by Invocare. As well as funerals, the process (depending on cremation or burial options) can include a range of additional costs such as hearses, undertakers, embalming, tributes, and flowers. This is all at a time when people are vulnerable and overwhelmed by a terribly stressful event in their lives, and with only days to organize and make decisions about this. As the report points out “When you buy a funeral service, it’s very hard to unpack that product. It’s very hard to get a funeral director to tell you what the amount of money per product in a package is.” And as Chris Pash for Business Insider reports, this kind of ‘upselling by predatory funeral directors can add 1000% to the cost of a funeral” (10). In 2014 Invocare was penalized by ACCC for giving ‘false or misleading information’ (14), but since then it seems to have become more clever at persuading people to give them their hard-earned money to avoid legal scrutiny. Whilst Invocare may have got down pat the quick and efficient send-off, the combination of impersonality, non-accountability, and secretive jacked-up costing really does shock and/or offend many (13).

So how to resist the rampant and rip-off ‘commercialisation of death’? (15) The University of Sydney report made a number of recommendations, including for uniformity of regulations between states, greater information for consumers on alternatives, including “direct committal, not-for-profit and community service providers, as well as do-it-yourself options”. They also clarified that all regulatory requirements for disposing of a body can be met for as little as $1200. Therefore people should start considering other options. In this way, for instance, we found mention of a not-for-profit organization the Natural Death Care Centre (NDCC) with its mission to start those discussions and educate the public on their rights and options for end of life care. As they point out “It’s not commonly known that in NSW, funerals can legally be a DIY affair. You can build a coffin, file the paperwork, store the body, run a ceremony and drive your own vehicle to the cemetery or crematorium” (16). Finally you can always consider just not dying – for instance, you can look at buying an ‘immortality drug” (17). My friend with the changed Will just insists he is going to sneak off to die anonymously where no-one can find him.

– CKR 18/8/2017

  1. http://www.smh.com.au/business/workplace-relations/too-poor-to-retire-more-australians-than-ever-will-work-past-70-20160408-go1ubf.html
  2. http://www.yourinvestmentpropertymag.com.au/news/australia-has-the-third-most-expensive-housing-market-in-the-world-230330.aspx
  3. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/housing-education-healthcare-cost-of-living-is-too-expensive/news-story/1093f016fee4378792843b5c84bb0c7e
  4. http://www.news.com.au/finance/business/other-industries/australias-1-billion-funeral-industry-taking-advantage-of-people-at-their-most-vulnerable/news-story/2abcfe8f664377a35fe29ea292c98ed1
  5. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-20/how-to-avoid-the-vultures-in-the-funeral-industry/8723028
  6. Van der Laan, S. & Moerman, L. (2017) Its your funeral: An Investigation of Death Care and the Funeral Industry in Australia, Sydney University Business School, http://sydney.edu.au/business/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/310140/Its_Your_Funeral_Report.pdf
  7. http://www.smh.com.au/business/consumer-affairs/funeral-services-and-costs-shrouded-in-secrecy-university-research-finds-20170522-gwagq7.html
  8. http://theconversation.com/consumers-lose-out-in-funeral-industry-lacking-competition-and-regulation-study-78031
  9. https://thewest.com.au/lifestyle/dont-die-in-perth-its-too-expensive-ng-b88542214z
  10. https://www.gatheredhere.com.au/the-average-cost-of-a-cremation-in-australia/
  11. https://www.businessinsider.com.au/study-upselling-by-predatory-funeral-directors-can-add-1000-to-the-cost-of-a-funeral-2017-5
  12. http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/05/24/the-cost-of-death-how-funeral-prices-vary-across-australia_a_22104818/
  13. http://theothersideoffunerals.blogspot.hk/2013/02/short-history-of-funeral-industry.html
  14. https://www.accc.gov.au/media-release/funeral-and-cemeteries-operator-invocare-pays-102000-penalty-for-alleged-false-or-misleading-representation
  15. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-20/how-to-avoid-the-vultures-in-the-funeral-industry/8723028
  16. http://rmitcatalyst.com/death-and-the-institution
  17. https://futurism.com/expert-human-immortality-could-be-acquired-through-ai/

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