Ben Hills

As luck would have it, I am just in time for “an insertion”. The steel door is flung open, revealing the roaring orange maw of the furnace, the trolley is trundled into place, and two strong men heave the heavy wooden coffin into the flames.

The soul of Mrs Jones, as we’ll call her, may be on its way to heaven. But within 60 to 90 minutes, depending on her size, the 1,100-celsius inferno will have reduced her mortal remains to ashes, calcified pieces of bone, blackened tooth fillings, artificial joints, and any other pieces of imperishable medical hardware.

When the fires have cooled, the residue will be raked out of the oven into a large roasting pan, the bits of metal will be dumped into a bin, and the bones placed in a sort of spin-dryer full of ball bearings which will grind them up. “You finish up like Kitty Litter,” says the manager, Steve Barwick, brushing away a few leftover particles from one of Mrs Jones’s predecessors.

I have come backstage at the Northern Suburbs Memorial Garden and Crematorium, the oldest in Sydney, now owned by the world’s largest and most influential funeral company.

Barwick is an engaging man with a toothy smile, a spiky crew cut and a distinctly unfunereal tie in psychedelic abstracts, the very model of the modern manager in the death-care industry, as those in the burning and burying business now like to style themselves.

After the eulogies are over, the organ falls silent and the green brocade curtains close, the mysterious metamorphosis from loved one to a kilo of grey grit takes place. We all have a morbid fascination with the process, not least because – at $4,000 or $5,000 for the simplest arrangements – death has become the third most expensive purchase of our lives, after the house and the car.

Steve Barwick can satisfy all curiosities.

Yes, what the relatives get in the urn will be the remains of Mrs Jones, and nothing and no-one else – each of the five furnaces is raked clean after each cremation, and the name-plate from the coffin follows the ashes through the system. If there is any surplus from an especially abundant body (the largest urn holds only 3.5 litres) it is parcelled up with black plastic and duct tape.

No, there is no ghastly “ratting” of the bodies here, as an Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiry discovered had occurred at the Glebe morgue, where clothes, shoes, even false teeth of the deceased were stolen by attendants. “Any pilfering means instant dismissal,” Barwick says sternly.

As for rumours that the crematorium profiteers by recycling coffins, I watch through a peephole in the furnace as, with a faint whiff of scorching varnish, $2,000 or so of hand-crafted plantation timber goes up in smoke.

The handles are broken, the wreaths (which can’t be burned because the sponges that keep the flowers alive are toxic) are taken to a dumpster and jumped on by the staff so that unscrupulous florists can’t resell them.

It’s a typical winter morning’s work at the crematorium, which is set in 10 hectares of gum trees, camellias and 15,000 rose bushes on a hilltop in North Ryde. The car park is full, a battalion of elderly bowlers smoke furtively in the shrubbery, two of the four chapels in the pantiled and whitewashed faux-Mediterranean villa are occupied and 20 more cremations are scheduled for the day.

Winter is the busiest time of year, pneumonia the undertaker’s friend.

Superficially, little has changed in the 67 years since they built this crematorium, which has become the last resting place for more than 100,000 Sydney citizens. Superficially. Behind the scenes, a quiet revolution is changing the way we commemorate our dead – and the price we pay for it.

The Americans have arrived.

IN just four years, two huge multinationals have quietly bought control of the funeral parlours, the crematoria and the cemeteries where more than a third of us will wind up.

And, with a combination of aggressive marketing, a line-up of expensive new death-related products, and the economies of scale involved in “clustering”, they are discovering that there’s gold in them thar corpses.

With about 126,000 people dying every year, the Australian industry is worth a fairly static $500 million – but the newcomers are smart enough to calculate that a demographic bonanza will arrive beyond the year 2020, when the baby boomers begin to die.

The larger of the two by far is Service Corporation International, which from its headquarters on the banks of the Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas, has become the behemoth of the industry, a multinational that owns 3,012 funeral parlours, 365 cemeteries, and 156 crematoria across North America, Britain, Europe and the Pacific rim – and is expanding at the rate of one new takeover a day.

THE New York Stock Exchange (which classifies SCI under “consumer non-durables”) values it at $12 billion, which would make it Australia’s ninth largest company, not far behind the mining multinational Rio Tinto.

The SCI’s latest quarterly report boasts that this ubiquitous chain performed 126,400 funerals, which means that somewhere around the world the company is burying or cremating a Mrs, Sen~ora, Madame, or Mevrouw Jones almost every minute of every day of the year.

In Sydney, SCI’s extensive funeral interests are known to include George Andrews, Labor, White Lady, Sydney Funerals, Simplicity, Dignified, Butler, Hills District/Allan Drew, Parkway, Funerals of Distinction/Westside, John Keeler, A. F. Anderson, J. and C. Hardy and Guardian.

(The other American entrant, Funeral Services of Australasia Pty Ltd, a subsidiary of Stewart Enterprises of Lousiana, is understood to own the Timmins group, Allan Walsh, Ernest Andrews, Bruce Maurer, F. Tighe and Co, Fairfield, Gregory and Carr, and Boland.)

The US takeover has gone largely unnoticed. SCI’s initial toehold here was the 1993 acquisition, for $102 million, of the Pine Grove chain, the largest in Australia. This was the only one requiring approval by the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) – the others cost less than $10 million and were thus exempt – and it got it, even though Pine Grove controlled 43 per cent of the funeral market in Sydney, 33 per cent in Brisbane and 12 per cent each in Adelaide and Perth. Eight months later SCI completed its national network by buying Le Pine, a century-old Melbourne chain. Since then, SCI has been stealthily acquiring other firms, many of them traditional small businesses that have been in the same family, serving the same community, for up to five generations. It now owns 22 per cent of the Australian market – 123 funeral businesses, 11 crematoria and seven cemeteries – and is eagerly lobbying to buy another $100 million-worth of publicly owned cemeteries and crematoria in Victoria that Jeff Kennett is keen to privatise.

However, look at the shop fronts and the advertising and you would never know these businesses were now American-owned. The name SCI does not appear. Slogans like “serving the community for 30 years” abound. One SCI-owned undertaker in Toowoomba, Queensland, incenses the competition by flying an Australian flag.

In some regions, SCI has established a monopoly, owning the only cemetery or crematorium. It owns three cemeteries and five of the seven crematoria in Sydney, both in Brisbane, and the only ones on the Gold Coast (“a huge growth area,” says a rival, envious of the surrounding catchment of rich retirees) and in Cairns.

Harry Wallace, the feisty, nationalistic president of the Australian Owned Companies’ Association, was horrified to discover when his 93-year-old mother died at her home in Beecroft that the closest Australian-owned crematorium was half a city away in Matraville: “It was impossible to ask people to traipse all that way,” he said – so she was cremated at Northern Suburbs.

“There is absolutely no way we should be allowing the Americans to dominate our funeral industry,” he says. “There is no export advantage – you can’t export bodies – and there is no technology transfer – all you need is a backhoe. They have nothing to bring to the industry apart from their marketing techniques. They are adding to our foreign debt and looking to take advantage of Australians in their bereavement.” SCI Australia, understandably, disagrees. In a written response to questions, the company’s chief executive officer, Richard Davis, said: “Since SCIA’s entry into the Australian market, service has improved and competition between funeral operators has increased to the benefit of all Australians.”

Wallace, however, is so incensed that his organisation is publishing a booklet identifying the ownership of funeral homes and urging people to specify an Australian funeral in their wills. He says it is “incomprehensible” that the FIRB approved the sale of the Pine Grove group, and is urging the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to invoke its anti-monopoly powers to stop SCI.

This has in fact already happened elsewhere. In Britain, SCI launched an aggressive takeover strategy three years ago – The Economist reported that in its London headquarters the company displayed “tasteless” polished marble tombstones inscribed with the details of various bond issues used to finance the takeovers, and headed “Invasion of UK 1994″.

Although SCI controlled a smaller share of the market in the UK than it does in Australia, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission ruled that its purchase of two large funeral firms that conducted 12.8 per cent of the country’s funerals “may be expected to operate against the public interest, resulting in reduced competition and excessively increased prices”. The commission ordered SCI to sell off businesses in 10 areas to reduce its market share to under 25 per cent – and told the company to disclose publicly its ownership of funeral businesses it took over.

In Ontario, Canada – where a takeover battle was threatening to result in a vertical monopoly – the provincial government went one step further. It prohibited funeral parlours from owning cemeteries and crematoria (and vice versa) and banned soliciting for pre-paid funerals, a highly profitable business rife with consumer complaints. In Australia, most of the complaints against SCI have involved the range of expensive add-ons the company offers, and the sales tactics used to push them. Just as in the retail car business the money is in extras like alloy wheels, metallic paint, air-conditioning and automatic gearboxes, so in funerals the coffin, the cremation urn, the plaque, the memorial book, and the “coffin protector” (a concrete or fibreglass slab that is supposed to keep the coffin lid from caving in after a burial) are nice little earners.

“The significant change since they bought out the old trusts,” says Maurice Raymond, a cheerful Sri Lankan third-generation undertaker who manages the T. J. Andrews chain of five funeral parlours and lives above the shop in Newtown, “is that SCI quickly decided ‘Our business is not burning people – our business is memorialisation. That’s where the money is’.”

Employing an eager, commission-driven sales staff (with bonuses for hitting sales targets as high as $300,000 a month) SCI launched a telephone marketing campaign directed at relatives of people interred at its crematoria, trying to persuade them to spend hundreds of dollars to upgrade, or “re-load”, the niches where the ashes repose.

A price list supplied by a former SCI manager, who left because he disagreed with the company’s tactics, shows that at one Queensland crematorium prices trebled after the Americans took over. A single wall niche went from $460 to $1,410, by including a totally unnecessary stainless steel lining for the niche, a plaque made of bronze instead of steel and an urn of bronze instead of the usual plastic.

INDEED, when I price a place for my parents’ interment at Northern Suburbs, a young saleswoman – sorry, “service consultant” – named Kelli quotes the cheapest niche, on the bottom row in a cream brick veneer wall, at $1,540. A double plot a foot square in the “golden fuchsia” garden is $5,575. Even if I want only to scatter the ashes in the grounds, with no memorial, they will charge me $100 – and I am not allowed to put them on the roses because “the ashes were killing them”.

What Kelli does not tell me is that she has been pricing in a bronze urn, rather than the standard plastic container, at an additional $495. When I ask why this is necessary, Steve Barwick quotes a line from a company sales memo that I had previously thought was a joke: “When they are digging the garden it wouldn’t be very nice to have a fork go through your mum.”

Alternatively, I could spend the money – a lot of money – on an urn in which my parents’ ashes could sit on the mantelpiece. Kelli thinks a cast iron pieta` would be rather fetching, or an odd sort of hollow green rock with three brass dolphins leaping over it. I demur at the prices — $3,900 and $2,800 respectively.

Similarly, when I call on an SCI undertaker, Dignified, in Five Dock, another saleswoman shows me through a showroom full of coffins and caskets (caskets are rectangular, rather than body-shaped, and cost a lot more) priced at up to $40,000. Catherine thinks a red-lacquered model called the Majestic ($1,550) would be suitable and dismisses the $540 chipboard “Essential” as “cheap and horrible”.

In some cases, this salesmanship goes totally over the top. A Baptist clergyman on the Darling Downs tells of two parishioners in their 80s who had prepurchased a grave site in a cemetery taken over by SCI. One morning two salesmen arrived at the door and proceeded to spend the entire day – including taking morning and afternoon tea and lunch – trying to persuade the couple, to their enormous distress, to spend an additional $10,000 “upgrading” their last resting place. Like several other ministers of different denominations, he is now advising his flock to “buy Australian”.

There are complaints, too, about SCI’s tactics in selling “pay now, die later” funerals, which it calls the “pre-need market”. Worldwide, the corporation has signed contracts worth nearly $4 billion, and in Australia in its first 12 months SCI’s “Guardian Plan” signed up $10 million-worth of future funerals in NSW, Victoria and the ACT alone.

Bereaved relatives tell of being approached by SCI salespeople at crematoria and cemeteries and asked to plan their own funerals. At Galston, an outer Sydney suburb, and in Brisbane, SCI has been doorknocking for business. Old people are approached in nursing homes – though the company denies it offers the proprietors of the homes a commission for any sales of pre-paid funerals, a charge levelled against it in Britain.

No-one is arguing that it may not be a good idea to plan and pay for your funeral now in easy interest-free instalments – though, in the past, some such schemes have been financial disasters. They are criticising tactics which, in a leaked memo from a former executive that the company says it did not approve, encourage salespeople to soften up potential customers by telling a story “of a sad situation … to make him/her cry”. The trickle of complaints has become a deluge. Faye Lo Po, the NSW Minister for Consumer Affairs, told Parliament she had “received numerous letters from members of the public who are very distressed about the high cost of funerals” – she has written to the chairman of the Competition and Consumer Commission, Professor Alan Fels, asking for an urgent examination of SCI’s operations in Australia.

Meanwhile, Australian mourners seem to be voting with their feet. Rival undertakers say they are taking market share away from SCI businesses. Phil Connolly, a funeral industry maverick who runs the Newhaven chain in Queensland, says he has poached 572 funerals from the SCI monopoly on the Gold Coast to his crematorium near Beenleigh.

“I’m the black sheep of the industry,” he boasted by car phone. “Most of the other funeral directors are bound by what they call ethics, which translated means that what their great-grandfather used to do is right, and what people do today is wrong. We are innovative and modern and we are going to walk right past those staid old fuddy-duddies.”

To show he means business, Connolly recently won the contract to dispose of the 800 suicides, murder and road accident victims a year notified to the Brisbane police for a highly competitive one cent a head. The profit will come if the relatives can afford a funeral, which Connolly would be well placed to arrange – in much the same way as the repair shop to which a tow-truck takes a wrecked car has an advantage in bidding for the repairs.

AS well as a full-scale price war raging behind the black brocade (“shop around!” urge all the independent undertakers), SCI’s ambitions may be curbed by a trend among Australians away from traditional funerals. At Murwillumbah, a course on making your own coffin (some of which can double as cocktail cabinets until needed) is popular. David Blake, president of the Australian Cemeteries and Crematoria Association, says there is an “increasing problem” with people simply taking the ashes from crematoria to store at home or scatter – house-buyers occasionally discover people’s ashes in the garage and there have been complaints of plastic urns washing ashore around Sydney Harbour.

Since funeral prices began to escalate a few years ago (Blake says they have increased 30 per cent), these “takeaways” have doubled to about 70 per cent. Because fewer than half of us are now being buried, choosing cremation instead, this means that about one in three Australians dying today will leave no memorial at all.

Perhaps Australia’s revenge against Wall Street’s attempt to Americanise our way of death means there will be no tombstone, no niche, no bronze plaque or stainless steel urn left to show posterity that we ever existed.

The Cost of a Dying American

Professional fees: $1,095
Facilities and equipment: $420
Transport (hearse and one car): $475
Death certificate/cremation papers/registration: $146
Coffin (wooden “Majestic” model): $1,550
Flowers/clergy/newspaper death notice: $350
Memorial book: $95
Cremation fee: $550
Wall niche at Crematorium, urn, plaque: $1540
TOTAL $6,221

Source: quote for a “basic” pre-paid funeral provided by SCI-owned Guardian Plan, from Dignified Funerals, Five Dock.

The Australian Way of Death

Q:    Do you have to have a coffin?
A:    Yes

Q:    Do you need a hearse?
A:    No. Any vehicle will do, providing there is a partition between the driver and the body (e.g. a utility).

Q:    Can you bury someone in the backyard?
A:    Yes, providing it is bigger than five hectares and does not contaminate a watercourse, and you get council approval.

Q:    Do you need permission to scatter ashes?
A:    No, though anti-littering and anti-pollution bylaws could apply if you dispose of someone in a public place or a watercourse.

Q:    Does a body have to be embalmed or refrigerated?
A:    No, providing the journey to the last resting place is less than eight hours.

NSW Health Regulations 1991

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 2 August 1997
Edition: Late
Section: Spectrum
Sub section:
Page: 1
Word count: 1548
Classification: Industry/Funeral Company/Service Corporation International/Sci
Geographic area: Australia