John Williams runs his hand proudly over one of his coffins. “These are all hand carved in Italy,” he says.

The coffin, a very popular model with the local Italian community, features a panel chiseled in the shape of da Vinci’s Last Supper. Williams says that while da Vinci arranged his apostles in threes around Christ, he will find some variations on the coffins. “Sometimes I find them in twos or fours,” he says. Occasionally, a thirteenth apostle appears.

It seems the master craftsmen who make these coffins get bored carving the same scene over and over, so they switch it up.

Williams is the Managing Director of O’Hare Funeral Directors in Sydney’s Leichhardt, a place of space and light. His movements are slow and methodical and he radiates calm. He also loves coffins. When the grieving come calling, they are ushered in to a small side room to make their choice. At the cheap end are coffins of chipboard and veneer, which sell for about $1,000. The imported Italian coffins sit at the premium end, a riot of hand-carved flowers and apostles. If these don’t suit, there’s always recourse to the catalogue, which features the triple-steel Italian coffins that are guaranteed for 50 years (spray painted with The Last Supper, of course), which cost upwards of $20,000.00.

But fewer people are choosing these morbid masterpieces. “The younger generation doesn’t want them,” says Williams.

What young people want, it seems, are cheap coffins and big parties. It’s one of many social changes that have converged on the funeral industry, kicking off a wave of innovation that’s generated everything from cardboard coffins to fun funerals — and which is thrilling the stock market.

The Australian way of death

The Victorians had an almost ghoulish relish for death. As the standard of living went up, ghost stories, elaborate marble angels and black-plumed funeral corteges proliferated. But the killing fields of the First World War helped put an end to that, paradoxically enough, as people found reminders of death unbearable. The rise of hospitalization, which shunted the dying from view, hastened the demise of death.

Things changed in the 1980s, There was the AIDs epidemic, where men had to fight for the right to have a say in their partner’s funerals, plus feminism, which saw women enter the funeral industry; multiculturalism, which introduced practices like viewings of the body; and secularism, which took funerals out of churches. Then, at the turn of this century, the cult of individuality hit the industry, at the same time as the series Six Feet Under aired on television and made people fascinated with funerals. All this has made the job of the funeral director more complex, with more study and accreditation now required.

“Families are expecting a lot more these days, and we have to provide better services,” says John Crooks, managing director of R.J. Sidney Craig. People also want to be more involved. “They want to come in and dress the deceased.”

Since the deceased now need to look more presentable, Australian embalmers have had to lift their game. “The training used to be a correspondence course, and then working with a qualified embalmer,” says Crooks. “Now they have to go through the Institute of Embalming and do an 18-month course and do anatomy, chemistry and reconstruction using waxes.”

He adds that Australians have only recently begun to embrace embalming. Fortunately, the tools of the trade have improved. “The chemicals are very advanced these days,” says Crooks. “They’ve got chemicals for all sorts of problems that we used to strike.”

Such as?

“Jaundice. Oedema. Decomposition — we can seriously retard decomposition.”

He sounds pleased.

Why Australian funerals are different

Nothing has done as much damage to the funeral industry’s reputation as the cost of coffins, with indignant articles on the topic appearing regularly since the 1950s. The problem is that the funeral industry operates on low margins, yet has high overheads, because it’s a labour-intensive industry. Coffins are one way to turn a profit, because a coffin with a cost price of $200 can be sold for a minimum of $1,000 — and sometimes a great deal more.

Enter funeral director Keith Russell, who describes himself as the “Henry Ford of the funeral industry”. He’s designed a coffin called the Voyager, which is a curved shell over a fibreboard inner. After the service is over, the posh-looking shell is removed and what gets cremated is the cheap inner.

That’s the least of Russell’s improvisations. Russell is an industry maverick who has helped the Australian funeral evolve into something unique. The Adelaide business he created in 1979, Simplicity Funerals, halved the cost of funerals; Russell claims the low-cost, high-value funerals that he pioneered now represent more than 20% of the Australian market. He was also one of the first to allow celebrants to preside at funerals. And he helped his then wife, Vanessa Hume, create a funeral business that revolutionised the industry.

“I was running Simplicity Funerals and she was a director,” says Russell. “We kept crossing swords, so in exasperation I said, ‘start your own! You’ve got two daughters — there’s your staff!’”

And that’s exactly what Hume did, selling her home to pay for it. In 1987, she launched a female-only business called White Lady Funerals, the first of its kind in the world. Within five years, it had become a national chain.

The entry of White Lady Funerals into the male-dominated market, and their willingness to do things differently, from scattering rose petals to releasing balloons at children’s funerals, has changed the role of the funeral director. These days undertakers are expected to be both grief counsellor and event manager, and large Australian funeral companies now have female-only divisions. To the chagrin of the ladies from White Lady, their ideas have been copycatted. 

“It’s so hard to get that ‘wow!’ factor now,” said one sadly.

The secular approach

Celebrants are another Australian invention, dating from 1973; these are people who are licensed to perform ceremonies that were formerly the role of religious ministers, such as weddings and funerals. The first celebrant funeral took place in 1978 and became more widespread during the AIDS epidemic, as gay men fought to personalise the service. The celebrant concept has since been adopted overseas, particularly after September 11 in the US, when the need for non-religious memorial services became more urgent.

The degree of personalisation that’s now taken for granted in Australia is still unacceptable in many parts of the US and Europe, where things remain formal. Australians, however, expect funerals to be what the industry calls “a celebration of life”. Family and friends now get involved in decorating coffins, and funerals take place anywhere and everywhere.

“We did a service in the club rooms of a golf club,” says Clayton Scott, national president of the Australian Funeral Directors Association. “The coffin was carried to the hearse and did a round of the golf course to the 18th hole.”

What happened next: “Hole in one at the cemetery.”

Funerals have also gone multimedia. “We need expertise in PowerPoint,” says Scott. “People do presentations after the eulogy now.”

While reducing a person’s life to bullet points on a slide sounds horrifying, Scott says it’s more “about being a movie producer and presenting the deceased in the best possible way,” says Scott. “We have to know how to scan photos, add music, and zoom in and out.”

After the funeral, family and friends can take away a souvenir DVD.

Funerals in the age of terror

Australians are now becoming experts in another, sadder part of the death industry — international recovery.

“When I started, it was just plane crashes,” says Jan Field, director of the Australasian and Pacific Operations of Blake Emergency Services. “Now it’s terrorism as well.”

Any time there’s a disaster, a company like Blake will be called in to collect and identify remains. “We have forensic staff, pathologists, anthropologists, microbiologists, odontologists, fingerprint people…” says Field. “We might assist with search and recovery, identification and inventory of any human remains and family assistance. Someone has to look after the family.”

Field spends her life travelling from one disaster to another, whether that involves picking up remains from a Nigerian airliner crash, uncovering graves in Bosnia, or reclaiming bodies from the tsunami. She’s a quietly spoken woman who says she loves her work, largely due to the intense relationships she builds with colleagues in disaster zones. “The hardest part is going home, because you’ve spent a long time in a situation that’s not normal, in close quarters with people, and suddenly it’s all over.”

Field was involved in the aftermath of the Bali bombings, and says her team had to learn quickly from the British. “It was one of the most horrific things that had ever happened to us, where they’ve been coping with terrorism for a long time,” she says. “We’re having to learn things we never thought we would.”

One of the most challenging things about working at the scene of terrorism, she says, is dealing with the perpetrators. “You would never put the remains of a suicide bomber in with everybody else,” she says, hesitating as she discusses it. “You know that they have families just the same way the victims do, but it’s hard… hard to feel sympathy.”

Field says as a result of the Bali bombings, colleagues have become more tight-knit, more skilled, and far more patriotic.

“It hits home differently because inevitably you’re going to bump into somebody who knew somebody who died,” she says. “But we developed this great sense of pride at being able to do something for fellow Australians.”

Death goes corporate

The American “death care” conglomerate Services Corporation International (SCI) arrived in Australia in the 1990s, lured by the prospect of getting into the market before the inevitable baby boomer die-off. But SCI, which gobbled up chains like Simplicity Funerals and White Lady, didn’t have an easy time of it, thanks to aggressive anti-American campaigns run by independent funeral directors and a consumer backlash against SCI sales techniques. In 2021, an Australian consortium bought it out. In 2003, the shareholders sold up so the company, now called InvoCare, could list on the Australian Stock Exchange. It’s been rocketing up the charts ever since.

“We lodged at $1.85,” says communications manager Anthony Perl. “Now it’s about $5.44”

It’s not obvious why the market would be interested in the low-margin funeral business. Funerals are, after all, an inelastic product, because there is no way to grow the market short of murder. Also, Australians are notorious tightwads when it comes to funerals, not seeing the point in spending money on the dead.

But thanks to the high degree of innovation and flexibility in the face of social change, plus the use of classic service extension strategies, the Australian death industry is doing well. “Simplicity has a relationship with a credit agency,” says Perl by way of example. “They give 12 months interest free credit to pay for a funeral.”

As for the next big thing in death, Perl thinks memorials are a hot prospect. All this scattering of ashes means people can’t find out details of what happened to their relatives, and the genealogists are getting annoyed. And the future is bright. About 120,000 Australians die annually as of 2006. When the first baby boomers begin to shuffle off their mortal coils around 2011 onwards, that number will rise to 140,000. That’s enough to bring a smile to an InvoCare shareholder’s face.

The need to please shareholders aside, it’s unfortunate that the funeral industry is constantly painted as one that profiteers from death. For the most part, funeral directors do an unpleasant and necessary task with devotion and professionalism — but are regularly pilloried in the press. Yet they have helped create a dynamic, flexible and innovative industry in direct response to the needs of the grieving.

As John Williams says as he turns away from his favourite da Vinci-laden coffin, “It’s about what the family wants. That’s all that counts.”


Fluffy, Fido, Rover and Rex can now look forward to the same kind of five-star funeral treatment as their owners, thanks to the emergence of the pet funeral business. One such is Melbourne’s Pets in Heaven, founded by Taryn Bock and former funeral director Ian Robinson.

“We prepare the pet in the basket in the best way possible, so it’s a nice visual for the owner,” explains Bock. “Then we spray ‘Gentle Peace’, which has calming qualities and we leave a bottle.”

Generally a candle is lit and a poem read, and then the animal is carried to the back of a satin-draped station wagon. “We pull the back down slowly, turn out lights on, and slowly drive away,” says Bock.

Pets in Heaven also runs a free pet loss support group and allows tribute to pets on its website. The full service costs up to $1,500 and Bock says they’ve done around 100 funerals in the past year.

This article first appeared in Fast Thinking magazine in 2006. Speaking to funeral directors was one of the most interesting jobs I ever did — they’re the funniest people I ever interviewed. If somebody out there needs a beat reporter for Funerals Today, let me know ASAP.

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