How Port Kembla community grapples with death

Monday, June 16, 2014
Tender is a joyful film that shows that death does not have to be faced alone.

Written & directed by Lynette Wallwarth

A new documentary film, Tender, screened at the recent Sydney Film Festival, follows residents of the Wollongong suburb of Port Kembla who are working to start a not-for-profit funeral service in their local community.

Recognising the local need for affordable and meaningful funeral services, the Port Kembla Community Centre decided to provide them. The film follows their journey as they gather community support and explore alternatives.

Sadly, during filming, the centre's much-loved caretaker Nigel Slater is diagnosed with cancer. His response to his diagnosis, and of those around him, forms the heart of the film.

The film delves into how we, as a society, respond to death ― our own and those who we love ― and asks why it is so difficult to talk about.

Manager of the Port Kembla Community Centre, Jenny Briscoe-Hough, told Green Left Weekly that, much like the movement to allow more people to give birth at home, she welcomes a renewed push to allow people to die at home with their family.

Briscoe-Hough said: “It was the advancement in medical care that meant people ended up going into hospital to give birth, but not everyone needed to go to hospital, it just became what you did.

“I think the same thing has happened around death.”

One outcome is that death has been removed from everyday life, and is something most people prefer not to think about.

The film explores how expensive funerals have become and the impact this has on people. In Australia, small family-run funeral businesses have given way to large international companies that now dominate the market.

The largest funeral company in Australia owns more than 220 funeral homes and made a profit of $48.9 million dollars last year.

Taking into account the price of coffins, newspaper notices, hiring a chapel, storage fees, funeral directors' fees and burial plots or cremations, a funeral can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Several people in the film spoke about their experience of taking out funeral insurance but, having missed three payments in a row, lost their entire savings. Briscoe-Hough said: “Unfortunately, it’s people who have not got very much money who buy insurance. If there’s money in the estate, it can be used [to pay for the funeral].”

Unlike most other major purchases, people are required to make decisions about funeral arrangements quickly at a time when they’re grieving, putting them at a disadvantage in negotiating price. It can also seem disrespectful to haggle over the price for sending off someone you love.

A lower cost is not the only benefit in having a community funeral service. It can also allow people to choose a more personal way to say goodbye.

The film explored options such as keeping the body at home for several days, allowing family and friends to wash and prepare the body for burial, decorating the coffin, or personalising the funeral service according to their own values.

These possibilities may not be widely known, but Briscoe-Hough said: “There are choices. You don’t have to have a funeral director. You can do everything yourself, legally.”

So far, the community centre has bought a cold plate that they lend out so that a body may legally be kept at home for up to five days. But to take the next step, a large initial cost is required to buy a building and fit it out in line with regulations, and employ a professional funeral director.

To raise these costs and be able to get the service off the ground, the centre is running a crowdfunding campaign.

Briscoe-Hough explained the start up costs are expensive but sees it as an investment by the community. “If everyone pays a bit now, in the long run they won’t have to pay so much. It allows us to do it cheaper.”

Their initial target is $200,000 with the aim of eventually becoming a sustainable social enterprise. To donate, visit Tender Funerals - a community undertaking on Start Some Good.

Tender is a joyful film that shows that death does not have to be faced alone. It can be shared with a close community that takes on the responsibility of caring for the dying and farewelling the dead.

“The dying process is about living, it’s about being alive,” Briscoe-Hough said. “You’re never more alive than when you are around death because you really get it. You realise ‘Here I am, I’m going to die, so what is my life about? How am I going to live?’”

[Tender will be screened on the ABC on June 22 at 10.30pm and afterwards will be available online at ABC’s iView. Back Tender Funerals online here.]

From GLW issue 1012