The stereotypical picture of mourners dressed in black lined up around an open grave, weeping behind dark veils, is long behind us.
Although Victorian-era impressions remain, our approach to funerals has been moving forward, albeit slowly, for decades and is now more relaxed and less formal.
Services have been becoming a celebration of life more than a time of deep mourning; dark suits have made way for colourful shirts and dresses; dour hymns have been set aside for cheerful music reflecting the taste of the deceased; and even brightly-painted coffins are replacing dark timber with silver ornamentation.
Then came the pandemic and funerals were suddenly reduced to a handful of close relatives – and sometimes not even that – to see loved ones off to the afterlife.
Funeral celebrant Rod Schafferius, who has been an eyewitness to change during the past 23 years, says the Covid pandemic forced changes and choices in planning.
With few being able to attend a funeral during the pandemic, many services were cancelled as families decided the formality could be dispensed with completely. Often only immediate family could attend or, sometimes, even knew about the death.
Memorial services in parks and on beaches began replacing the formal service where curtains were slowly drawn to the tune of Amazing Grace. Pallbearers became redundant.
“We have had a lot more demand for memorial services since Covid,” Rod says.
But while the phenomenon of no service and no attendance has got bigger, he says most people still want to say their goodbyes.
“One family during Covid when only seven people were allowed to attend, decided to proceed and then have a memorial service at a later time. They just couldn’t imagine not having anything at all. People need to say goodbye.”
Live streaming necessarily became a part of every chapel service and that, he says, is here to stay: “It’s now a given and represents a big change for the industry that family and friends can tune in for a service from around the world.”
There are also those who choose a cremation and then simply scatter the ashes at a later time when they are ready.
Others dispense with the service and gather to party, although commonly, this doesn’t give a sense of closure to many who want some sort of formal farewell.
In Rod’s experience, failing to acknowledge the loss at all is not a great idea.
“They just move on with life but there will be those on a psychologist’s couch in the future, who are suffering because they never said goodbye to mum or dad,” he says. “A memorial service with a few words and a committal gives the sense of having said goodbye.”
Ceremony is not to be confused with tradition, and with the move away from religious services, funerals now come in many forms as families strive to make the service more personal. The aim is to better reflect the life and times of the person they are honouring, more than dwell on speculation about their soul.
Increasingly, the deceased’s personal items – a favourite hat, a football, a work tool or any other treasured possessions typical of their life – are included in the ceremony.
The move from church to chapel – or garden, farm, backyard – has made it all possible.
Rod says it works well as a chapel is neutral territory where everyone can be comfortable, especially younger generations who have not been involved in the church. Chapels are also convenient and offer on-site catering.
About 70 per cent of services are now conducted by celebrants, compared with less than 5 per cent at the turn of the millennium.
Picture presentations have become popular and even standard while Abide with Me has been replaced by the music of the era of the deceased or music that meant something to them.
Most now like to refer to a celebration of a life, but some prefer to gather to mourn a loss.
The curtain doesn’t have to be closed after a cremation service, which avoids the gut-wrenching moment of finality.
It’s even possible to have pallbearers carry the coffin to the hearse, even if it only drives to the rear of the chapel.
“People now wear smart casual and it’s a lot more relaxed,” Rod says.
But there is still funeral etiquette and he has noticed that younger people in particular have no idea about simple respect – take your cap off while in the service, don’t come dressed in ripped jeans or like you’re going to a night club.
“It can be just a bit too casual,” he says. “Standards have changed a lot, but it’s still important to show some respect.”
The trend makes it clear that funeral services are not so much about the deceased but about those left to mourn them – it’s part of the grieving process.
Change is increasingly being embraced although time frames remain strict.
“There is only 45 minutes and you have to abide by that, you really can’t go overtime,” Rod says. “Attendees have been known to get up and leave if it goes on too long. They have a timetable too and overall, we don’t need the minutiae of life.
“Eulogies can remember mum and dad for who they were without having to list the details. It’s how they made you feel more than what they did. That’s how they’ll be remembered.”
While it’s easy to think that since you won’t be at your own funeral so it doesn’t really matter what happens, Rod recommends that for the sake of family, it is important to make a list of preferences – “it’s better to hear a family discuss mum’s wishes and take that on board when making decisions than to have grieving family sitting around a table without a clue where to start”.
More importantly, it can avoid tension when it comes to making the arrangements.
Adult children have different perceptions of their parents and can readily disagree on what should occur. For example, even if mum wasn’t religious, one of the children might be, and will demand that component. Settle the arguments while you still can.
“We want to honour our loved one’s wishes, but individually we don’t make detailed plans for those left behind,” Rod says. “But we are a lot more open to having our wishes known. It’s not such a mystery now.
“People in their 40s and 50s are encouraging mum and dad to write things down. My own mum was in her 90s and while she would talk about death, she was reluctant to talk about her funeral.”
The most significant difference between funerals last century and today is ownership and flexibility – the rules and rites are no longer dictated by religion, tradition, or even the funeral director.
Every family is different and every family will have its own ideas on what follows the death of a loved one. All of them are valid requests to funeral directors and celebrants.
It’s your funeral and you make the choices – burial or cremation; what sort of farewell ceremony, if any, do you want; and what will happen with your remains – a place for family and friends to visit – a headstone, a plaque in a rose garden or ashes in a columbarium wall?
Graves with monuments and inscriptions are not given as much importance in the 21st century.
Questions Rod recommends considering before you go are:
Burial or cremation? This is commonly addressed in family discussions, but what happens next is not so common.
Do you want your ashes, or “cremains”, scattered in a favourite location, divided and put in urns for those who want to keep them close; placed in a columbarium wall at a cemetery – or nothing at all.
There are also more imaginative choices, such as putting the ashes into fireworks to go out in a blaze of glory, made into jewellery, incorporated into keepsakes – or even tattoo ink.
Should there be a religious element even if it’s a chapel service?
“Would mum or dad want a prayer? Many will say that a parent didn’t have a faith but still expected the Lord’s Prayer to be spoken at the service, although even that is disappearing,” Rod says.
“Family will say dad hated the church, but do we have a hymn at his service? The answer is you don’t need to have a hymn just because it’s a funeral. It’s all a matter of personal choice.”
The format of the service? Make your wishes clear. Nominate the songs you’d like played. Decide if you want your life shown in pictures during the service, even if you want your pet to attend.
“A lot of people get stuck on the music and having the conversation about that is really important. A younger person doesn’t know the hit parade from 1945 but they will want music that reflects a life,” Rod says. “You are not bound by rules. The only rule is that you can no longer release balloons at a funeral for environmental reasons.
“As more people become aware that they can take ownership of their service, I would urge them to consider their pre-arrangements and to write it down. Consider the options and write down your wishes. There are no guarantees, but it is a little something you can do to help your family,” Rod says.
After all, it really is your funeral.
BY THE NUMBERS
The Australian Funeral Industry State of the Nation report conducted by Bare Cremation surveyed 1026 respondents for a Funeral Beliefs and Values Study; 1468 respondents for a Funerals Experience Study; and 1000 respondents for a Funeral Opinions and Industry Study. Here are some of the key points:
99% knew if they wanted cremation or burial, but only 18% were confident their families knew exactly what they wanted at their funeral.
44% of families experience tension when arranging funerals.
6% have prepaid in advance.
95% of over 35s have attended a funeral, and 60% have been involved in a funeral arrangement.
47% of Australians identify with a religious faith. Funeral arrangements are no longer largely led by religion. Of religious respondents, 10% strongly agreed that religion or spirituality would impact their choices for funeral planning and memorial services.
90% agreed that people should have the chance to plan their own funeral before they die, and that these wishes should be honoured, even if it’s not what the family want.
44% had no plans at all, with only 18% believing their families knew exactly what they wanted.
77% believe it is acceptable for an individual or family to choose not to host a funeral service or memorial at all.
66% said it was important to hold a ceremony after someone dies but preference is for a small, family gathering, rather than a larger public ceremony.
71% would choose cremation, 25% burial and 4% an alternative method such as donation to medical research, sea burial or eco-burial. This trend coincides with the substantial decline in Christian church attendance, the rise of other religious practices, and environmental concerns.