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‘Tender’ Funerals To Make a Difference

27 August 2014 at 11:17 am
Lina Caneva
A failed crowdfunding campaign has not dented the hopes of a small NSW community battling to open its own social enterprise funeral service, writes Nadia Boyce in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.

Lina Caneva | 27 August 2014 at 11:17 am


‘Tender’ Funerals To Make a Difference
27 August 2014 at 11:17 am

A failed crowdfunding campaign has not dented the hopes of a small NSW community battling to open its own social enterprise funeral service, writes Nadia Boyce in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.  

The push to get Not for Profit Tender Funerals up and running in the Wollongong suburb of Port Kembla has already been featured in a documentary and national media, yet the required funding goal of $200,000 remains elusive.  

The project is being driven by Port Kembla Community Project, a community organisation servicing Port Kembla’s 4,500-strong population. Their mission is to develop a people-centred funeral service using a social enterprise model, with a long-term focus on working with disadvantaged and indigenous communities.

The social impact of Tender Funerals will be empowerment, choice and education, with the goal of re-aligning care of the community’s dead with the changing values of the community.

It is a bold move. The intent is for Tender Funerals to provide comprehensive, holistic care, from body management immediately after death through to services and burial. Right from startup, it will require paid staff, a morgue and a funeral parlour.

A recent setback in the form of an unsuccessful crowdfunding campaign last month has forced the Port Kembla Community Project to rethink its approach – yet the organisation continues to stand behind its vision for a new approach in the funeral industry.

Worlds Colliding

Tender Funerals is being driven by Jenny Briscoe-Hough, Manager at Port Kembla Community Project.

Her own experiences with death and dying, combined with the changing needs of the community, were the catalyst for her to take action.

“It was like a whole lot of worlds colliding,” she says. “My mother had died, and we did everything…looked after her body, did the eulogy, did the flowers, and she had a burial plot..and still we got a bill for $10,000. We couldn’t work out where that came from.

“Also, the funeral home had put their branding on her memorial card, and I found that really shocking. I was outraged.

“What really struck me about the whole process was that I hadn’t asked any of the questions I would normally ask in any normal purchasing environment. I hadn’t asked one question around cost.”

At the same time, Briscoe-Hough was noticing struggles within the Port Kembla community. The organisation was offering microfinance – albeit on a scale insufficient for funerals – which saw an influx of people needing to get loans for end of life services.

Briscoe-Hough believed her organisation was able to tackle the problem.

“We're a citizenship-based model rather than a client based-model,” Briscoe-Hough says. “That’s not to say we’re not service driven, but we’re working a lot with culture…the idea of who’s going to decide the way we do things around here – that’s what culture is.”

“We grow projects from the grassroots up. If someone from the community comes in with an idea we’ll try and grow that and get the funding for it. It’s really about empowering the community to have projects that are meaningful to them.

“I made a suggestion at a meeting that we start a Not for Profit funeral service, and people were rising from their seats in support,” she recalls.

Tender Funerals will mark a fundamental shift in the approach to funerals.

“The business model is different in that you’re having a different conversation. You’re not saying we’re going to do this for you, you’re saying we’re going to do this with you,” she says.

“We might say, do you want to buy flowers or do you want to pick flowers out of your garden? You’re offering them a choice, and it’s in a different context. It’s taking a professional approach to making it very personal.

“I can say ‘do you really think your mum would want you to spend that much money? Whereas [mainstream funeral directors] might say ‘don’t you want to give your mum the best?’

“That’s not to say people working in funeral homes aren’t compassionate, but it’s about providing choice, and a culture around that choice that says, ‘this is an ok way to go, and actually, this is a beautiful way to go.”

While initial steps were led by Briscoe-Hough’s own intuition, Port Kembla Community Project has since undertaken an extensive research and self-education process.

“You have a feeling for something, but then you have to find out if that feeling’s true. I did some training in the US and the UK wanted to look at different models and how different models worked. It’s quite a nebulous project in a way in that there’s a lot that goes into it.

“It’s a long timeframe. We didn’t know anything about it. Which was kind of great actually.”

Local researchers undertook a scoping project talking to people in Port Kembla about their experiences with funerals.  Briscoe-Hough says it was about finding out about the status quo – understanding why things were the way they were.

“What was interesting was that they gave priority to the ceremony when it’s actually the lowest paying part of the funeral,” she says.  

“There’s only been a big funeral industry for two generations. Before that people did it more on their own…I think it’s about breaking it all down. It’s been a process of educating ourselves and educating our community. It’s been a fairly organic process.”

Battle for Capital

Funding has been, and remains, the primary obstacle to Port Kembla Community Project realising its goal.

“The process of funding – for me, it’s been the most frustrating part,” Briscoe-Hough says.

“It’s got a fairly capital intensive setup. We run other social enterprises here, but we’ve been able to build those.

“With this project, you can’t do it unless you’ve got all the infrastructure up front. You need a facility, you need a funeral director, you need a van and you need a morgue. All those things cost money. You can’t just say, ‘we need money for a van and we’re going to wait for the rest of it’.”

“I can’t tell you how many grant applications I’ve written, and we haven’t got any of them. I think its because people just can't imagine it. It’s been about selling the story at the same time.

Last month’s failed crowdfunding campaign had a goal of $200,000. Despite commitments of $86,025 by 391 people – proof, Briscoe-Hough says, that the service is desired and needed by the community – the campaign failed, falling short of its $200,000 tipping point.  

Tender Funerals requires an initial investment of $199,032, with hopes for a further investment of $236,702 over the following three years to increase market share and become a sustainable social enterprise.

“”Even though we weren’t successful in the campaign, it was like the third biggest crowdfunding campaign in the country – and it was about funerals!” Briscoe-Hough laughs.

“So even though it wasn’t successful, it was incredible. I have now had calls from people, all around Australia wanting to start a Not for Profit funeral service. What it’s done is that it’s ignited those conversations. It’s actually being used as an ongoing tool.

In 2013, the mission to get Tender Funerals up and running gained more traction when the project was featured in the documentary film, "Tender", which screened at the Adelaide, Sydney and New Zealand Film Festivals.  The film was directed by one of Briscoe-Hough’s close friends.

“This project has been in our conversations for a long time. She was with me when my mother died. The conscious [aim of the film] was to get to talk to people, to say, let’s bring death and life back into our conversations,” Briscoe-Hough says.

“One of the things about film is that it allows people to imagine something. It allows you to think directly. People have really responded, mostly to the love in the film. Mostly because what they’ve responded to was seeing something that we all innately know to be happening – seeing that we need to have more choice, that this is important stuff.

“It follows our caretaker who was diagnosed with cancer. He was diagnosed with cancer two days before the film shoot started. Someone in the community is dying – how do we approach it? How do we make the funeral a helpful healing experience, and how do we talk about grief?”

A Long Life Ahead

As the hunt for funds continues, Briscoe-Hough recognises the ambitious scope of the project.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is not only start a social enterprise but also shift a culture,” she says.  

“If it means that people go into their funeral director and know that they can ask a question like ‘can I bring my own coffin?…If people are aware of their rights, then that starts to shape the industry as well.

“We’re already getting social outcomes from this project [from the film and crowdfunding campaign] and we’ve haven’t even done anything!

“It’s been an enormous market research exercise…but we know there’s enough people interested in this project now. I’m getting three calls a week from people who want funerals.”

She says the intent is to create a transferable and scalable model that extends to marginalised communities.

“We will be developing a model that will be able to be franchised around the country.

“The other really important aspect is the cultural aspect, refugee communities and aboriginal communities being able to have the funerals they want to have. We’re in contact with both those communities.”

Despite the ongoing burden of start-up costs, there is no alternative in Briscoe-Hough’s eyes.

“What we’re now looking at doing is by the microcosm,” she says. “There’s a building we want to buy. Once we have this building, we can do what we couldn’t do before is make it all imaginable.

“You can’t just say, we’re going to just cut this bit out and just do the funeral. It’s this whole cultural approach to not only end of life, but life itself.

“And the biggest thing about this, is that life is precious, because it’s limited.

“The thing about death is that it touches on everything to do with life – and especially, love.”

Lina Caneva  |  Editor  |  @ProBonoNews

Lina Caneva has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She was the editor of Pro Bono Australia News from when it was founded in 2000 until 2018.

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