10 Commonly Asked Questions – Ravens Website

1. Do I need a funeral director?

In fact Funeral Directors are really just highly skilled event planners. If you have ever been involved in organising a wedding over many months, funeral directors do a similar event in about 48 hours… but with a number of extra legal requirements and lots of practical issues like medical certificates, body handling, mortuary care, cool storage, possible embalming, etc.

Legally families do not need funeral directors, and can do everything themselves. (In fact Lonergan & Raven are quite happy to offer free advice to those who want to do some, or all, of the job themselves!)

Practically however, the requirements of moving the deceased, storing and preparing them, and meeting all the legal and Occupational Health and Safety rules associated with turning up at a cemetery or crematorium, mean that DIY funeral directing is only for the brave.

(A family is perfectly entitled to turn up at the Coroners Court in a ute with a coffin from Costco, but don’t imagine the experience will be easy. Most hospitals will not even release to people who do not have the correct adjustable trolleys and properly equipped vehicles to satisfy their OH&S rules. Even then, if you try to book into a cemetery, you better have your OH&S safety procedures documented, and your public liability insurance ready to show, and be able to demonstrate that your ‘staff’ has been appropriately trained for the handling and ‘fall from height’ risks involved at graveside!)

But in general, a funeral director is mainly a useful way to outsource the dozens of hours of administration and organisation – and other practical elements – needed to make the desired type of funeral work smoothly, at a time when the family usually needs some space to focus on their own mourning.

2. What to do when someone who has been ill dies?

The majority of people die after an illness that involves hospital, age care, or palliative care, where the appropriate medical staff have been able to develop good documentation that death is likely. In that case the Registered Nurse on duty can usually verify death, and the case Doctor can issue a Medical Certificate Cause of Death (MCCD).

At hospitals with their own mortuary the MCCD is usually written the following day, before the funeral director does the transfer. Most nursing homes ask the funeral director to transfer immediately, and the certificates are done later.

Some lucky people in palliative care still die at home, being cared for by families in their final days. In these cases the death also needs to be verified by a qualified medical practitioner, nurse, or ambulance officer, before a funeral director can be called. At that point the normal practice would be for the deceased’s GP (General Practitioner) to write a MCCD, and provide it to the funeral director.

GP’s are required by law to provide MCCD within 48 hours of death (though this is sometimes unofficially treated as 2 business days if death occurs late on Friday, or on weekends).

If for any reason this is not forthcoming, or if the GP refuses to write a MCCD, the death may become a Coroners Case. (See 3.)

3. What to do when someone dies accidentally or unexpectedly?

The Victorian Coroners Court becomes involved in the following cases:

  • – If an accidental or unexpected death occurs;
  • – if the deceased has not been seen by their GP for several months;
  • – if there has been a medical complication such as a recent fall in the hospital.

In many cases the Coronial Services Team can do simple blood tests, or make other arrangements with the GP, to avoid the need for an autopsy, but in certain cases (such as a recent fall in hospital) the rules require an autopsy be performed before the deceased can be released.

The Coronial Services Team must give the family 48 hours to object to an autopsy. Then there is usually another two or three days for the autopsy process to be completed, and the deceased released. So allow four to five days on average if an autopsy is required.

We recommend that a family which wants to hasten the process give written permission or objection as soon as possible to avoid the 48 hour waiting period before the process starts.

An objection will always be considered, but the Coroner reserves the right to order that an autopsy is necessary anyway. (At that point the only higher level of appeal is the Victorian Supreme Court, an option can be quite expensive.)

Once the process is completed the Coroners Court releases to the funeral director, and provides a ‘Coroners Order’, which simply states that the Coroner no longer needs the deceased for assessment, and that burial or cremation can take place.

4. What is a Death Certificate and how do I get a copy?

The Funeral Director needs to collect the death certification, because it is required for the funeral. They should provide copies of the basic certification to the family, and order official certificates to be sent later.

There are multiple levels of ‘Death Certification’.

The simplest, provided by most GP’s, is called a Medical Certificate Cause of Death (MCCD). This is not a full legal ‘death’ certificate, but is the document, used by funeral directors, to satisfy the legal requirements of cemeteries and crematoria. The older type is handwritten, and the newer is completely digital.

(Alternatively the Coroners Court might provide a Coroners Order for the same purpose.)

These documents provide a limited ‘proof of death’, that can be used for some organisations like Centrelink, local council’s, and some utilities.

Banks are also required to write a cheque for the funeral of a deceased on sighting the MCCD and an invoice from a funeral director (as the funeral director is always the first creditor on any estate). However higher level account functions at Banks, Super Funds, and even Mobile Phone companies, will require the full ‘Certified Copy’.

The true ‘Certified Copy of a Death Certificate’ is provided by the Department of Births, Deaths and Marriages (BDM), usually two or three weeks after the funeral takes place. In fact the funeral director cannot usually apply for this Certified Copy until they can verify that cremation or burial took place on such and such a day, at such and such a place.

Please note – despite the fact that the funeral director is legally obliged to order the Certified Copy, and to pay for it, for some reason the Department of BDM refuse to tell the funeral director whether they have completed the task or mailed the certificate. It is only if families contact us – often many months later – to say that they have not received the document, that we can follow up.
If the Certified copy has not arrived within six weeks, please contact your funeral director to follow up.

5. Do I have to have a Coffin?

Well yes, and no…

There is a lot of confusion in the market place over coffin requirements. Deceased must arrive at cemeteries or crematoria in coffins, but may then be removed from the coffin at graveside for ‘shroud’ burial, in a proper wrapping, if the grave site is suitable.

This practice was introduced for Muslim families who wanted to meet traditional practices, but is now available to all who would like to be buried wrapped in a simple calico or silk shroud.

Most cemeteries are happy with this practice for lawn graves, where there is easy access. Many cemeteries have reservations about this sort of handling on monumental graves, particularly in old areas where access and lowering can be quite tricky.

In theory we also have shroud cremations in Victoria. However most of the major Crematoria refuse to allow the double handling – removing the deceased from the coffin and putting them on an appropriate cardboard tray – to happen in their facilities. At the moment only Bendigo Crematorium allows this to happen, which requires sending extra staff on long trips to do the manual handling. So shroud cremation in Victoria can be quite expensive for people from Melbourne.

The standards acceptable for coffins are set in legislation, and many non-standard coffins – including some of the excessively cheap soft cardboard ones the corporate chains were trying to use – have been banned by most crematoria because they fail OH&S safety practices for their staff.

6. Are coffins overpriced?

There has been a lot of media fuss recently about the big corporate chains (and some ethnic providers), charging several hundred percent markups for coffins. Some of this is perfectly reasonable, as some chains do overcharge, but a lot is quite exaggerated.

Lonergan and Ravens retail prices are based on the same approach used by any retail shop but are more set at the level of Target than at the level of Armani!

Coffins in our standard packages are discounted because we offer limited choice to save families money. The simplest chipboard coffins with a coat of brown paint, no handles, and no lining for viewings, start at only a few hundred (but are only suitable for crematorium chapels, with no difficult handling, and no viewings).

A simple polished veneer finished coffin, with solid handles to allow movement up and down church steps, and a simple cotton lining suitable for a viewing, would double that.

If people want a wider choice they can select from a much wider range, at closer to market prices - high gloss fancy coffins from an additional $400, solid timber from an additional $800. Even our fanciest Batesville metal caskets will be several thousand dollars under the same product from a large corporate funeral chain.

(Please note our standard double raise solid timber rosewood finish coffin is apparently a similar price to Costco's similar looking coffin – which is apparently made of veneered craftwood, not real timber.)

7. Can I make my own coffin?

Naturally if you want to make or purchase your own coffin we are happy to use that… if it meets legal requirements.

(And happy to advise you on meeting those requirements. Some homemade coffins are reasonably well made, indeed some – like the above – are works of art: but we have had people turn up with coffins that are too long for cremators, too high for graves, made of inappropriate materials for burning, or simply too heavy to meet legal requirements.)

There will of course be handling fees, depending on how much inconvenience to our staff is involved. For instance there is a fee of $50 per hour for each hour we have someone waiting to receive the coffin (most delivery company's give us a window of 'between 10am and 2pm' for instance).

We also reserve the right to refuse some coffins, or to have families sign waivers for some risks associated with non standard coffins.

(For your information, the National Funeral Directors Association recommends that funeral directors who take the risks of home made coffins definitely need to have waivers, and should consider having the family indemnify them for all negative media consequences should the coffin fail.)

8. Ashes, Aquamation and Cryomation

Cremation is the traditional process of dissolving human remains in fire. You are left with ash, and fragments of bone. In Australia the fragments are usually ground to a lumpy powder (sample shown here), though some cultures prefer to allow the family to remove some of the long bone fragments for ceremonial purposes, so some crematoriums have ‘bone rooms’ for families to use.

The ashes come to you in a plastic container in a cardboard shoebox, and usually weigh between 1 and 3 kilo’s. You can bury them, scatter them, or memorialise in an incredible range of urns, jewellery, glass paperweights, or even have them compressed into artificial diamonds!

A couple of new technologies are available as alternatives…. At least overseas.

Aquamation is the process of dissolving human remains in high pressure, high temperature water. You are left with a similar amount of powdered bone fragments to cremation, but in a less sterilised form that is less toxic to plants. A few Aquamations have occurred in Queensland and New South Wales, but only erratically, and the practice is not generally available in Australia yet.

Cryomation is the process of dissolving human remains by ultra-freezing, and then shattering into powder, that is then refined to be more pure. It is experimental in other parts of the world, but is not available in Australia yet.

These, and other technologies, will come on line in the next few years.

9. Can I have a burial on my family’s property?

Again, yes and no…

If your family property is large enough (big farm), and has a history of family burials going back generations, then probably yes.

If you want to bury in your back yard, then no.

A couple of years ago a long term ‘commune’ in the hills asked if they could do a burial. Because they had a community of 60 odd that had been there for 70 years or more, we said setting up a private cemetery could probably be arranged… if they could wait a year or so while we did the paperwork with the Health Department! They finished up doing a cremation.

If you would like to explore this option, you definitely need to plan well ahead. Preferably years ahead. Feel free to call for advice.

10. How do I become a donor to Medical Science or an Organ Donor

Lonergan & Raven have handled donations to medical science in Victoria for generations, and we get this question hundreds of times every year.

The active word here is ‘I’. No one can be donated to medical science in Victoria after death, as current legislation requires they fill out the forms and make the request while still capable of making decisions for themselves.

So if you want to become a donor, you need to contact the Department of Anatomy Body Donor Program at the University of Melbourne and sort out the paperwork well in advance. (Many donors do this when they retire, and do not actually enter the program for decades.)

Donation of organs is different. Assuming you die on life support, your family or executor can arrange to donate organs after you pass away even if you have not prepared paperwork. So simply expressing this wish to your family. (But this is rarely possible unless you die under hospital conditions.)