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Arranging a funeral

While there is no legal requirement for the person responsible for arranging a funeral to use the services of a funeral director, most people find it easier to have an experienced professional carry out at least the basic requirements.

Funeral directors, at the request of the person responsible, will arrange for:

  • collecting and lodging legal documents
  • removing and caring for the body
  • supplying the coffin (or casket)
  • purchasing a burial plot, arranging for its opening and closing or making arrangements for cremation
  • providing a hearse (usually including mileage up to a certain limit)
  • crematorium or graveside service.

They may also arrange the use of a funeral parlour or chapel for a service, mourners’ cars, flowers and newspaper advertisements. Some people may wish to do some of these things themselves. Charges will vary, depending on the amount of work done and the types of services selected. Many funeral directors are available 24 hours a day but in most cases there will be an extra charge for after hours work.

Making arrangements with a funeral director

The funeral arrangements are usually discussed at the funeral home or, if specifically requested, at the family’s residence. The family should talk to more than one funeral director and ask any questions without feeling pressured by them. They need to decide about the sort of funeral they want before contacting the funeral director. It may be a good idea for a close friend or relative who is less emotionally involved to go with the family when making the arrangements. Remember that the person agreeing to the funeral arrangements is entering into a contract and is responsible for paying the account.

From 1 February 2009, funeral directors must provide customers with:

  • information about their ‘basic funeral’ option if they have one, its cost and what it covers, by giving a ‘basic funeral notice’
  • an itemised quote before entering into any funeral arrangement
  • an itemised statement of the goods and services provided and their costs before accepting final payment

It is not compulsory for funeral directors to provide a prospective customer with a basic funeral notice. However, they may wish to ask the customer to sign a slip saying they have received the notice. The optional basic funeral notice template includes a slip for customers to sign.

What is a basic funeral?

A basic funeral is the lowest cost funeral service package the funeral director is able to provide. It consists of a single service, conducted at the funeral director’s premises or at the burial or cremation site. It would take place on a weekday between 8am and 5pm. A basic funeral includes only the following:

  • arrangement and conduct of the funeral
  • transportation of the body to the funeral director’s premises, mortuary and burial or cremation site
  • storage of the body at a mortuary or holding room
  • preparation of the body for burial or cremation (does not include preparation for viewing or embalming)
  • the least expensive coffin available
  • compulsory medical certificates or permits
  • burial or cremation of the body

Non-religious funerals

A funeral does not have to be a religious ceremony. In fact, many people choose to have a non-religious service or none at all.

A non-religious service is often conducted by a friend or funeral celebrant. The format of the service may be decided by the family or friends and is usually a very personal one. It could include a combination of readings or music and singing, and reflections about the person’s life. Celebrants charge fees for conducting these services.

Crematoriums and funeral parlours may hire their chapels for nonreligious ceremonies, even if the person is not being cremated or buried there. Non-religious funeral ceremonies may also be held in a private home, or simply by the graveside. Funeral directors can help families plan a nonreligious funeral.

The Humanist Society of NSW can provide information on arranging a non-religious funeral.

Doing it yourself

The funeral industry in NSW operates around funeral directors and the traditions they have established, but they do not have exclusive rights in this area. There is nothing to prevent a family handling some of the funeral and burial or cremation arrangements themselves, provided they comply with all the regulations. Staff at the coroner’s mortuary may assist with information about requirements that must be met. Many aspects of a funeral service, such as flowers and cars, can be organised by friends and family. Getting involved in this way can also help in the grieving process. It gives the family the chance to make a creative and personal contribution.

However, it is almost impossible for family or friends to arrange an entire funeral as it involves coordinating a variety of complex tasks within a fairly short space of time and should not be undertaken without the help of experienced people. Because of past hoaxes, newspapers refuse to publish death notices not placed by funeral directors, and coffin makers do not sell to the public. Similarly, hiring a hearse could be difficult. Some people manage to persevere sufficiently to arrange much of the funeral themselves, but the best compromise may be for the family to choose what they want to arrange themselves and leave the rest to the funeral director.

Documents required for burial

  • PR315: medical certificate of cause of death – to be completed by a doctor
  • PR13: form of information of death – to be completed by the funeral director and lodged with the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages
  • within seven days of the death. The next of kin normally provides the information to the funeral director.

Documents required for cremation

  • PR315: medical certificate of cause of death
  • PR13: form of information of death
  • form CL36 (1): application for a cremation permit, completed by the next of kin or executor
  • form CL38(1)(a): a cremation certificate completed and signed by the attending practitioner
  • either:
    • form CL40 (1): a cremation permit completed and signed by a coroner in coronial cases, or
    • form CL39 (1): a cremation permit completed and signed by a medical referee.

Coffins and caskets

Caskets are rectangular, while coffins are wider at the shoulders and narrower at the feet. Generally, coffins are less expensive than caskets. Prices can vary from around $800 to more than $10,000.

Requirements for coffins and caskets

There are certain minimum requirements for coffins and caskets in NSW, including that:

  • they must be lined with plastic and able to be easily handled and sealed
  • if they are to be used for cremation, they must not be made of metal or any toxic material
  • if decorative handles are not made from a type of burnable plastic, they must be removed before the coffin or casket goes into the cremator.

Coffins and caskets can be made from wood veneer, timber or metal.

Viewing the deceased

Bereavement counsellors agree that there is therapeutic value in viewing the deceased, allowing family and friends to gather together to express support for each other and paying respects to the deceased.

Preparing a body for viewing involves adhering to the health regulations previously mentioned (see Embalming). In some cultural groups, the family and friends prepare the body. Family can dress the body or ask to have it dressed in any way they feel appropriate, and can also ask to include other things in the coffin. Funeral directors should be able to accommodate these requests.

The viewing may occur whenever the family chooses, either shortly after death, immediately before the funeral, or at the beginning or end of the ceremony. While it can be emotionally difficult, it is an important aspect of the grieving process.

Disputes about funeral arrangements

The following cases are examples of conflicts that can arise over funeral arrangements.

Case study 1

In 1992 a dispute occurred in Sydney between the family and friends of a homosexual man who had been an atheist. In his will, the man requested a service respecting his atheist beliefs at a particular church that had a mainly gay and lesbian congregation, followed by cremation. The man’s mother, however, wanted him to have a requiem mass and a Catholic burial.

The executor of the will, the (then) Public Trustee, in an attempt to reach a compromise, ordered that, after the church service requested by the deceased, the body be transported to a Catholic church for a ceremony and cremation conducted by a priest. The court would not intervene to prevent the Catholic service from going ahead despite a request by the deceased’s friends. The judge commented that the courts were reluctant to intervene in funeral arrangements.

Case study 2

In the Northern Territory in 1992, the parents of a man who had died suddenly could not agree on suitable funeral arrangements. The parents were separated – the mother living in Darwin and the father in Port Hedland. Each parent wanted the son to be buried in their own towns.

Because the son had died without leaving a will, each parent had an equal legal right as next of kin to administer the estate and to dispose of the body. Each parent made alternative funeral arrangements, knowing that the other disagreed. When the father arranged for undertakers to take the body, the mother obtained a court order to prevent this.

When the case eventually came before the court, the judge looked to practical means to resolve the case. The court decided that the body should be buried in Darwin to avoid any further delay caused by moving it to Port Hedland.

Embalming

Embalming involves replacing all the bodily fluids with formalin to preserve the body and reduce bacteria. This is a health requirement if the body is to be viewed, transported to or from Australia, or be entombed in an above-ground vault or mausoleum.

Embalming gives some colour to the body and many people who want a viewing are prepared to pay the extra cost of embalming for cosmetic reasons. Embalming costs range from about $1200.

Larger funeral firms usually have their own facilities for embalming. Some firms may include the cost of embalming in their general fee or charge an additional amount.