The burgeoning business of death
- January 28, 2014
Baby boomers are fuelling a massive rise in death services.
Want to go out with a bang? Why not have your ashes sent above in a dramatic fireworks display?
Or you could choose to spend eternity floating in a man-made reef purporting to be the ultimate in “green burials” – the Neptune Memorial Reef under the sea in Miami, Florida.
In the past few decades, the options for laying your loved ones to rest have increased dramatically, as many veer away from traditional religious services to select highly personalised farewells.
In Australia, many members of the ageing baby boomer generation are opting to prepay their funerals, and are often choosing more environmentally friendly options.
By 2018, according to IBISWorld figures, the post-World War II generation will make up more than 16 per cent of the population, leading to an inevitable rise in the average number of deaths in Australia each year.
Last year about 142,000 Australians left this earth, with the figure predicted to rise to more than 300,000 by 2050, providing a boom for the many small businesses that make up more than 60 per cent of the “death care” industry.
In Sydney, where burial plots are expected to reach capacity by 2035, small development company Zinnia Group has created plans for a natural burial site south-west of the city.
Acacia Remembrance Sanctuary, billed as Australia’s first natural burial park, would offer an alternative to “the old morbid, concrete-looking cemeteries” of old, says group financial controller Danny Masri.
He says a new cemetery hasn’t been built in Sydney since 1960, and Zinnia’s parkland site, which is up for sale, will include 7500 burial plots and potentially bring in revenue of $250 million over a 25-year period.
Plans for the sanctuary include online memorials, and a smartphone app that would use GPS technology to direct visitors to grave sites. Instead of tombstones, the spot might instead be marked by a rock with a small plaque.
“It’s all in keeping with the philosophy of having a very natural site. It’s more about the loved ones going and having an uplifting experience,” says Masri.
While many Australians are steering away from traditional ceremonies, they are also asking to be cremated in much larger numbers.
IBISWorld figures show that around 70 per cent of people are now cremated, as they choose a less expensive option or become more aware of a lack of cemetery space.
Ellese Templeton, who owns Templeton Family Funerals in Melbourne, says many people are also choosing a “no service cremation”, where family or friends hold the service down the track.
“It’s becoming more common to do a no service cremation rather than doing a $5500 to $6000 service,” she says.
“A lot more people are prepaying and pre-arranging their funerals. Because it’s for them they don’t want to spend the money.”
She says people who prepay their own funerals often say they’d prefer to spend the money on an after-party of sorts for their loved ones. For funerals likely to have fewer guests, many people opt instead for a celebration of the person’s life at a restaurant or other venue, says Templeton.
“The other thing that people are doing a lot more of is photography. They hire a professional photographer to come in and photograph the entire service.”
Skype is also becoming a fairly common feature at funerals, allowing people living interstate or overseas to see – and record – the service via the internet, says Templeton.
Funeral director Warwick Hansen has been in the game for more than four decades, and says funerals “have changed dramatically over the last 10 to 20 years”.
“Twenty years ago, probably 90 per cent of funerals would have been carried out by clergy, whereas now about 50 per cent are carried out by clergy,” he says.
Hansen is also now the New South Wales regional manager for LifeArt Australia, a business now owned by industry giant InvoCare. LifeArt creates personalised coffins created with a mix of environmentally friendly cardboard and sugarcane.
The company now sells about 2500 cardboard coffins each year, with many buyers selecting personalised prints reflecting the deceased’s interests and lifestyle.
“They might have been a very keen surfer or like to go walking through forests,” says Hansen.
Others opt for a plain white coffin where guests can write their own messages on the day.
The sturdy cardboard coffins, comparable to the price of a timber coffin, weigh about 12 kilograms compared to the usual 30 or 40, and are set to get cheaper as more people buy them, says Hansen.