THAT'S LIFE: Dignified plans to die for

TODAY’S That’s Life topic is death.  

One of the most natural and inevitable facts of life there is.

Even more common than taxes or getting caught in the slow lane at the supermarket checkout.

Given how fundamental it is to existence, it’s amazing how much of our lives we spend avoiding the subject of death.

The topic, by the way, doesn’t spring from the likely result of today’s federal election.

As  heavy as Labor’s defeat will be, Labor isn’t going to die.

   Labor is just going to spend   a couple of years in the wilderness   contemplating  where   it wrong.

Which shouldn’t be too hard to work out, given all the shenanigans we’ve seen   over the last couple of years.

  I’m sure   Labor Party powers brokers will eventually conclude  they should have seen it coming.

My short-sighted pet cat would have seen it coming.

Which gets us back to death,    and how we too should see it coming,   and plan in advance: calmly and sensibly, while we’re alive, in order to ease unnecessary suffering.  

The topic was inspired by a recent chat  with Herald letter writer Stuart Carter, who is a passionate advocate for dignified death and dying.

    Stuart recently wrote in support of another Herald letter writer, Carole Poole, who’d detailed  the ‘‘challenges’’, particularly financial, families confront when faced with the death of a loved one.

Both Stuart and I agreed, having lost loved ones in recent years, that the last thing you want to think about when grieving  is organising a funeral. 

It can be very expensive and if you haven’t planned,  can   add unwanted stress at a   sensitive time. 

Truth is, we have an ageing population, and business is dying to cash in.

‘‘We’re vulnerable to funeral industry pressure to make decisions just when we’re at our least prepared to make those decisions,’’ Stuart said.

Citing Robert Larkin, in his book Funeral Rights: What the Australian ‘death-care’ industry doesn’t want you to know, Stuart  points out: ‘‘It is perfectly legal to arrange a funeral yourself.’’

And yet it’s not that straightforward.

“In Australia it’s a closed shop when it comes to coffins and caskets,” Stuart said. 

“It is impossible to buy a coffin from anyone other than a funeral director.

“The only option is to make your own or have a local Men’s Shed or carpenter make one up for you.”

Although I’m not totally sure building coffins is going to take your mind off why you’re in the   Men’s Shed – I guess it’s good to stay busy. 

In the UK, by contrast, you can pick up a coffin  from any range of outlets. 

Stuart fears Australians are being herded down the American path, where the funeral industry  is so powerful that a Funeral Consumers Association  has been established to advise citizens of their rights and guard against hard selling.

‘‘The costs can be astronomical and the ‘trends’ bizarre,’’ he said. 

‘‘For example, there seems to be this growing belief, encouraged by some religious groups, that we will live forever.

‘‘Hence you get trends like steel coffins which allegedly prevent the body from decaying, and concrete vaults that stop the body being buried – a strange concept in itself.  

‘‘To be aware and then to prepare is the best form of insurance.’’

  It’s something I can relate to, thinking back to the passing of my father.

Thankfully, Mum and Dad had their affairs arranged fastidiously – to the point of morbidity, we used to joke.

But come the time when Dad passed away, it was very helpful as family and friends had a clear idea of what would happen. 

It made the process of grieving, and organising church and wake easier, and reminds me, I’ve still got to do my will.

  The  ‘‘industry’’ of dying and  death differ from country to country, Stuart said. 

 “In many countries, there is no rush to have a burial – people get time to think.

‘‘Even the way they market it. I went to a national funeral expo in Coventry, England. It went for three days. The theme was ‘circus’.

 ‘‘There were competitions, giveaways, bands at night. Just like a trade fare, only with coffins, urns, mortuaries. It was eye-opening. 

“They even have a respected commentator in England, Charles Cowling, author of The Good Funeral Guide, who is in high demand for advice on his blog.

‘‘By contrast,  the funeral scene in Australia is dominated by two  companies, InvoCare and Tobin Brothers, which control the agenda for what, when, where and most importantly, how much.’’

Stuart feels we may have lost touch with the fact we’re mortal.

 “We’re not having that  conversation any more,” he said.

“There’s generally a long gap between birth and death,  and the medicalisation of existence makes us think we can go on forever. 

‘‘We need to recognise the disconnect between what we want and what we know is going to happen and start planning for the transition while we’re alive.’’ 

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