When The Coroner Calls

A Coroner is a government official who is empowered to conduct or order an inquest into the manner or cause of death and to investigate or confirm the identity of an unknown person who has been found dead within the coroner’s jurisdiction. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coroner

Transfer is a funeral industry term to describe the process of moving a deceased person from one location to the next, typically from place of death to the funeral home.

“I would have been in my early to mid-teenage years when I did my first coroners transfer, it was during industry work strikes in the 1970s and I did them on my way to school. Memories of some transfers stay with you for life. One of my first, involved a small van with a gas bottle on the roof, slamming into a pole on a major road early one morning. The bottle exploded and the vehicle engulfed in flames. It’s not hard to imagine why these scenes are easily recalled many years later.”

With over 6500 (Coroner Court of Victoria, Annual Report 2017-2018) coronial investigations each year what determines when the coroner is involved and why?

The coroner deals with reportable death. There are the obvious types, Violent, unnatural or unexpected deaths, these include homicide, suicide and drug, alcohol and poison-related deaths.  Accident or injury-related deaths such as road fatalities, public transport fatalities, accidental falls, workplace deaths, electrocution, drowning and animal attacks. Where a person,s identity is unknown. The cause of death is not known (the medical practitioner cannot form an opinion about the probable cause of death). Healthcare-related deaths, when someone dies unexpectantly during or after a medical procedure. Deaths of a person who was in custody or care, an inpatient in a mental facility, under care or control of Victorian Police.

Warehouse workers after an accident in a warehouse.
An accident in a warehouse.
Fatal motorcycle accident
Automotive Fatalities

The death must be connected to Victoria, the body in Victoria, the death occurred in Victoria, The cause of death occurred in Victoria the person ordinarily resided in Victoria.

Given the large parameters under which death is reportable, it is not hard to see why there are so many cases handled by the Coroner. But why do the coroners investigate matters that to many people would appear to be straight forward and the deaths obvious?

The coroners court has three roles:

  1. Independently investigate deaths and fires
  2. Reduce preventable deaths
  3. Promote public health and safety and the administration of justice

Families first contact is often with a police officer who will inform the next of kin of the death. They will often seek additional information from the family which will be passed onto the coroner. The body is transferred to the Coronial Service Building in Southbank, Melbourne. All Victorian Coronial cases are transferred to this central location.

Whilst at the Coroners a number of things occur.

  • Identification, confirming the identity of the deceased, may involve visual, medical or scientific processes, including fingerprinting, dental records or blood or DNA.
  • Forensic Processes, the preliminary process may include, visual examination, collection of personal health information, the taking of bodily fluids, imaging such as CT, Xrays and ultrasound and fingerprints.  Often an autopsy (post mortem) is requested. This is performed by a pathologist using techniques similar to a surgical operation. During this process, the major organs of the body are removed and examined and specimens are taken for analysis. The benefit of an autopsy is that it can provide detailed information about the person’s health and condition to give an understanding of the various factors that may have contributed to their death. Even if the cause of death seems clear, the person may have had a medical condition that was not obvious during their life. A family has the right and can request an objection to an autopsy.
Medical Research
Forensic Scientific Investigations
Blood test tubes in centrifuge. Medical laboratory concept.
Body Fluid Testing

Once all the investigations are complete the coroner will issue an “Order for Release”, this enables the body to be released to a funeral director and the funeral performed. Unlike deaths that are not reportable, the full death certificate can take some time before the cause of death is actually known. Your funeral director will guide you and can order an Interim Death Certificate. These look just like a regular death certificate but does not contain the cause of death. Once the coroners office has provided the cause of death to Births Deaths and Marriages a Full Death Certificate can be issued. This can take several months.

Why do some of these processes take so long? With over 6600 investigations each year, the average time to investigate takes 11.8 months? While many associates the coroners with inquests, out of 6500 investigations only 49 inquests were held over that same period of time.

Typically a families involvement with the coroner will be unexpected, it is not one of those things anyone would expect. Your Funeral Director is the best person to contact. They have regular and consistent contact with the coroners office and will arrange for the release of the deceased into their care. Funeral arrangments can occur before the body is released. The body can be expected to remain in their care anywhere from several days to several weeks.

The sudden death of a partner, child family member or friend can be a difficult and painful experience. Families can be assured that today,  Victorias Coronial Services Centre is one of the world leaders in Forensic medicine. The practices of yesteryear have long gone, replaced with state of the art facilities and highly trained professionals and skilled staff.

For more information, https://www.coronerscourt.vic.gov.au

Robert Nelson is a 5th generation funeral director with more than 3 decades in the funeral industry. He is the owner and managing director of Robert Nelson Funerals.

 

 

Choosing Your Funeral Venue

When choosing where to have a funeral your choices have now grown.

Restaurants, bars, reception centres, wineries, gardens, sports clubs, private homes the choices are now only limited by your imagination.

Funerals have always traditionally been held in churches however as society becomes more secular it would appear that many are putting great thought into the meaning and relevance of the funeral and naturally where it should be held. Since the 1960s funeral homes had become an alternative to the church and whilst many families still opted for misters or priests, the funeral didn’t seem to have the church like feel that the traditional church service did. At the same time, many churches would not allow the coffin to be opened within the church in order for families to say their last goodbyes, The funeral home provided greater flexibility.

From the 1980-s funeral homes began to offer simple refreshment services, typically tea, coffee sandwiches etc, the type of food you may have received in a church hall. Indeed some funeral homes around Australia began to offer licencing options. This was seen as quite a provocative move and created much discussion, but move forward a few decades and licensed venues are now almost seen as a prerequisite for many mourners.

The 90s began to see technology take hold. Where once music options may have been an organist or piano and hymns, more contemporary music options were becoming more common. Filming and live streaming of funerals was now available and starting to appear in many funeral homes. Simple framed pictures were now being replaced by full-blown audiovisual productions.

Technology has provided many additional opportunities for families, but the rate of technological change has been a double-edged sword. The cost of maintaining the latest equipment has been burdensome and expensive for many funeral homes, who were not geared for this.

Enter the function venues, facilities which were often idle, not having any daytime or weekday events, many of which have relished at the opportunity of doing either funerals, memorial services or wakes. The coffin once seen as almost taboo to have anywhere else other than a church or funeral home is now often accepted into these venues without any concern. Perhaps this reflects the changing way in which the community now sees funeral service and greater comfort when services are held in places with more meaning and relevance to mourners.

Most Melbourne Crematoriums have now undergone significant refurbishment, installing state of the art audiovisual equipment, refreshment lounges and large commercial kitchens and executive chefs, sourced from some of the countries finest catering companies. One large cemetery trust is serving approximately 3000 meal portions a day to mourners. Indeed some of the cemeteries now provide functions to those outside of the funeral circle, including weddings, corporate events etc.

Adorable Katering
Wakes can be anywhere, from your home to selected venues, food choices can be important for many

Although there has been a significant increase in alternate funeral venue locations, the church still holds a pivotal focus for many families. The key to the selection of a funeral venue is relevance and meaning and without consideration of these two factors, the funeral can sometimes seem hollow to some.

Finally, there are those that do not wish to celebrate or commemorate in a formal way and the rise of unattended or direct cremation is increasing at a rapid rate. we have all heard someone say, “don’t fuss over me, just bury me in a cardboard box”. For many, this has now become a reality. However, burial is not normally the chosen form of disposition in Melbourne, cremation is.

Sandringham Yacht Club
Sandringham Yacht Club, over incredible views across Port Phillip Bay

So why are families choosing unattended cremation services? For some, it is cost as it is the lowest cost option available, but for most, it is the simplest and least complicated types of services. Many families still have some type of service or event after the cremation and the can diverse, from large memorial services to small intimate lunches.

So in planning your funeral event location here are some key guides:

  1. Ensure you use a funeral professional with the skill and ear to listen to what you want from the day.
  2. Choose services and locations that are relevant to you and your family.
  3. Services can be held at any time, day, evening weekends, so choose a time that is relevant
  4. Don’t choose services based on what you think you must have or have had before.
  5. Keep in mind the number of mourners likely to attend

Robert Nelson is a fifth-generation funeral director and founder of Robert Nelson Funerals. Based in Moorabbin they service all Melbourne Areas, including Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas.

The Hearse

If I were to ask you to transport a box approximately 6 foot in length 18 inches high and 18 inches wide in your station wagon, you would quickly discover it probably doesn’t fit, and you would need to source a different mode of transport. The box, as described, is a standard size coffin in the Australian Funeral Industry and yes the Australian Funeral Industry still uses station wagons, but with a twist?

The Australian hearse is typically built from a station wagon body, the vehicle is cut and extended, and the roof also removed and heightened to accommodate the range of different coffin sizes and flowers. These vehicles include Fords, Holdens, Mercedes Benz, Rolls Royce, you name it most makes of vehicles have been made into hearses. With extensions and vehicle customisations, the hearse can easily cost between $200,000 – 300,000 dollars.

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So why is it that the funeral industry hasn’t considered using vehicles that don’t require this level of customisation and cost?

Australian funeral customs have primarily come from English funeral traditions. Of course in more recent decades, immigration has altered some of these traditions. Historically English churches often had graveyards within the church grounds. The coffin was simply carried from the church to the graveside. However, when the coffin needed to be transported further, a hearse was used.

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My forebearers first started out on the Ballarat goldfields and as carpenters would later become furnishing undertakers. In the 1850s it was still a long way off from the automobile being invented. The horse and carriage was the transport of the day.  The funeral carriage were all customs made from wood and glass, few were identical, yet all were black. Many of those with glass panels had either etched or gold gilded embellishments and others would be adorned with a crucifix or cross, symbolic of either an Anglican or Catholic Funeral. The engines were the horses, usually baring their black feather plumes and harness.

In the early part of the new century, vehicles quickly began to appear in the funeral cortege behind the horse-drawn carriages, and it didn’t take long before the horse was replaced with the automobile. From a child, I was told that the body of the horse-drawn carriage was placed onto the back of the car or ute, creating the new hearse.

Over the years, the vehicles have modernised and changed in shape and style, and the hearse body has become more stylised. Yet, one thing that has remained is the glass window sides.

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Hearses around the world vary, some countries prefer clear glass-sided vehicles while others, including America, prefer a  discreet view of the coffin. Some countries use Vans, with various degrees of modifications. There are evens small buses that can carry the coffin and family mourners. Although black is seen as the colour of mourning in most countries hearses can be any colour.

Of course, there are many specialty or even novelty type vehicles, these include Motorcycles with sidecars to carry the coffin, I have recently seen a Land Rover Defender, firetrucks, aged and historic cars, farm utes and trucks.

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So what is the way forward and what might the vehicles of the future look like. We know that many vehicle manufacturers are moving away from the manufacture of station wagons, and there is a greater emphasis on smaller and greener vehicles.

With Cremation now accounting for 60-70% of all funerals, the funeral cortege is also less frequent as many families now choose to have single service funerals, where the hearse plays no significant role in the funeral process as there is no procession to the cemetery.

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The people mover van provides a great alternative to expensive full customisation of the funeral vehicle and at a fraction of the cost.

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As consumers across the board, yes including funeral service become more cost-conscious, all aspect of the funeral industry need to be reviewed for relevancy and cost-effectiveness. The hearse is a significant cost of the overall funeral cost.

So next time you see a hearse on the road, you may have a different view as to its relevancy.

 

An Hour On The Day…. Hardly!

The funeral was only 20 minutes away from commencing and my new colleague turned to me and asks, “are you nervous because I am”. I turned to her and said, “no,  I’m OK”, I lied.

I met Fred’s  (not his real name) family almost a week before, he was terminally ill and had a young family. Fred was in his last days of life. His family had somewhat come to terms with this and were quietly calm in talking about him. Naturally, at times they would need time to compose themselves as they were coming to grips with the finality of his life.

We spoke about what type of funeral service Fred and his family might like and his preference for burial or cremation. We discussed funeral venues and styles of services. I was beginning to get a picture of what the family wanted to do. There would be quite a lot of family travelling from interstate and some from overseas. We left fairly open the choices and would finalise the details when Fred died. But, given Fred’s long illness, the family were keen to ensure the funeral was held quite quickly.

Fred died two days later.

Robert nelson Funerals
Robert Nelson Funerals

All of a sudden there was a greater sense of urgency by Freds family in organising the funeral. We took Fred,s body into our care and organised all of the appropriate certificates from his attending doctor.  A suitable celebrant was selected that we felt would bond well with his family, Coffins, flowers, service time and date for the funeral were all set. There was to be refreshments and catering including an open bar at the venue. The hourglass was now turned and we were on a fixed time to have everything in place for that “hour on the day”.

Over the next few days, there would be dozens of communications, in person, by phone and email conveying all the necessary information to ensure everything went to plan.

Remember how I started this piece when asked if I was nervous just before the funeral, well, it is about this time when I am the most nervous, knowing we have a great deal to achieve and with a limit on the time to do it. There is a golden rule, Plan, Plan, Plan, Plan and then expect things to go wrong and plan for that too. Everything needs a backup plan, so we can expect the unexpected and deal with it even at the last minute.

Behind the scenes, Freds body needs to be prepared and dressed as the family wants to see him the night before the funeral. The coffin has been ordered and delivered and we now have Freds clothing, preparation will take 1-2hrs by skilled qualified staff. The Government Medical officer had visited our mortuary at 2am the night before to finalise cremation documentation. It’s all go, go , go.

Our in house Audiovisual specialist is busy preparing video tributes for the service and the wake following. with over 125 images and 16 tracks of music for the service and wake, there were many hours of work into the night ahead. the service would also be video recorded, so there was a stack of gear we would also be taking along. This is also unpacked, checked and repacked to go.

Audio Visual
Audio Visual

As we neared the day of the funeral, numbers still had to be finalised for the wake at the venue. What had started out as 60 people had now grown to 125? It’s impossible to guess the actual number of people that will attend, but there is always sufficient food to cover another 50 or more. People don’t generally come for lunch.

By this time our celebrant had met with the family and formed an order for the service now only 48 hours away. She would be in regular contact with them over the following days. The sand in that hourglass was running low.

The family hadn’t yet organised the printed order of service  and there was still a potential that we may have to do it at the last moment. Remember Plan and plan for the unexpected.

The family arrived the night before the funeral to see Fred, they were no doubt very sad but pleased they could say their last goodbyes. They advised the order of service was in hand and all would be ready by tomorrow.

The following morning flowers arrived at 4.30am and we arrived at 6am to get the vehicles prepared for the 2pm service. To my aghast, the flowers weren’t quite right. A quick call to our florist and a pick up from the local wholesaler and we were back on track.

Coffin Flowers
Flowers by Gradiflora

All of the audiovisual had been triple checked the night before, but a laptop was left running and you guessed it was doing a new software install. Now, really! Sure enough, it loaded on time and we were now back on track, but now almost no sand left in our hourglass.

With all the gear packed and the hearse carrying Fred all clean and shiny, it was time to head off to the venue, some two hours before the start of the funeral. There was much to set up. On arrival, gear unloaded, set up, venue staff briefed and one hour left before service time, there is now no time to be nervous, we have planned, tested, planned, tested everything.

There were hundreds turn up to Freds funeral. The family loved everything, as much as you can at a funeral. At the conclusion of the service, family and friends stayed behind to chat and have refreshments. we still had Fred to deliver to the crematorium. I would later return to ensure everything was still going well. At 5pm many of the mourners had now left the venue, yet there were still many interstate friends and relatives. A few quick discussions with the venue team and I had another room within the venue sorted and the wake would continue on for many hours to come.

Springvale Botanical Cemetery - Function Rooms
Springvale Botanical Cemetery – Function Rooms

I arrived home, about 8pm a little tired and with a slight smile, maybe of relief that everything had gone to plan and the family happy with our services.

Was it a hectic week for us, possibly, but what I didn’t tell you is we also dealt with a number of other families at the same time. It matters not to them, that we have other families or clients, everyone is special and everyone deserves to treated like they are the only person we are dealing with.

Next time you see us for that hour on the day, remember our day may have started days ago.

Robert Nelson is a 5th generation Funeral Director. His company Robert Nelson Funerals is based in Moorabbin, Victoria, Australia. He provides Meaningful, Affordable Funerals across Melbourne and the Mornington Peninsula.