Professor Tamara Kohn, Professor Michael Arnold, Dr Fraser Allison, Dr Hannah Gould, Samuel Holleran, University of Melbourne; and Professor Alex Broom, University of Sydney argue Australia’s death-care system is already showing cracks, but the pressures will only worsen, especially as the baby boomer generation takes us into ‘peak death’.
death is a phenomenon like no other. It touches all dimensions of human experience, as a biological process and as an event of profound cultural, spiritual, economic, legal, and social significance.
Despite this, we lack a comprehensive system for dealing with death that respects people’s wishes and dignity, that is sustainable from both environmental and financial perspectives, and that responds to diverse and changing needs and values in our society.
And this is a serious problem because as baby boomers age, Australia will enter a period of “peak death” and the need for creative, effective and lasting solutions is now urgent.
Since 1950, Australia’s population has tripled, but so far deaths haven’t kept pace as advances in medicine, nutrition and care have kept people alive for longer. This has led to a fifteen-fold increase in the proportion of society made up of the “oldest old” – people aged 85 years or more.
The Urban Squeeze (for the Dead)
A comprehensive survey from 2020 in Sydney shows that there are virtually no available burial plots in cemeteries close to the communities that most people live in, identify with, and want to remain in after death.
For those marginalised in life, death often adds insult to injury. “Destitute funerals” typically result in cremation, but otherwise can involve interring two, three, or more dead bodies together in common graves, their names unmarked.
Home for the Dead?
Modern western burial and cremation practices have serious environmental impacts. Their outputs contribute to global warming; the depletion of the ozone layer; human, aquatic and terrestrial toxicity; the acidification of soil; and land competition. There is growing public concern about the unsustainable nature of body disposal methods, and funeral industry innovators are responding with new methods to reduce environmental impacts.
It is time to care for, and effectively regulate, death
So, what should we do? First, we need to recognise that death is both a systemic social issue and a continuous responsibility, not a momentary issue to neglect until brought to the fore by a pandemic or other crisis.
Policy and governance for the death-care sector need to be directly and cohesively refigured. This refiguring would include establishing a Commissioner for Death in this country, and an agency to oversee the quality of death care that goes beyond end of life care.