• “No one knows when they are going to die and people are generally vulnerable during [times of illness]." (EyeEm/Getty Images)Source: EyeEm/Getty Images
“If you have a dollar or if you have $100,000 you are going to be treated exactly the same.”
Thomas Cunningham

21 Jun 2017 - 4:00 PM  UPDATED 7 Aug 2018 - 8:04 AM

We often take for granted the idea of our own funerals.

We assume our friends and family will all attend, and someone, as per our final wishes, will make the necessary arrangements.

But for many homeless Australians, family and friends may no longer be around, and a funeral service might be unaffordable.

General manager of Bereavement Assistance Limited (BAL), Adrian Gillman, says he deals with at least one case a week like this, where a person who has died either without family and friends or money.

"...our organisation offers somewhere you can go and be looked after regardless of how much money you have to [pay for a proper funeral service].” 

So how does someone who is homeless, socially isolated or destitute end up being buried once they die? Usually, the responsibility falls within the domain of the state and funeral homes like Gillman’s, which looks after the arrangements.

“Funerals are often not planned,” says Gilllman, who runs the only non-profit funeral company in Victoria. “No one knows when they are going to die and people are generally vulnerable during [times of illness] …But our organisation offers somewhere you can go and be looked after regardless of how much money you have to [pay for a proper funeral service].”

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At a BAL funeral service, the celebrant will say aloud what, if anything, is known about the person and offer a prayer (usually ‘The Lord’s prayer’), if appropriate. There is then a committal ceremony, where BAL staff each place a handful of soil on the coffin as it is lowered into the grave. Gillman says it is much like any other funeral, only on a smaller scale.

BAL services both those in need of funeral assistance as well as those who can afford a service but are looking for a less-expensive option.

A social enterprise for the deceased

By July this year, Gilman will have taken his non-profit funeral business one step further.

On the back of over two years of trials, the new social enterprise Potter’s Field Funerals will be launched in conjunction with BAL. The organisation will aim to provide a financial boost to the limited state funding BAL receives for destitute funerals.

BAL up until now has received 30 per cent of its funds from the Victorian state government, an amount Gillman says will only last the first third of the year. After that, he says, it’s up to private business donations or the money made from their more expensive services, which are available to anyone in Victoria.

But Gillman says the problem is that some of the wealthier clientele can be put off by the stigma around BAL being a low cost service.

“People with money don’t want to use our services, even though it’s exactly the same as a commercial funeral director,” he says.

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Potter’s Field works to remedy this by offering a separate place where those who can afford a higher end funeral can feel more comfortable in doing so. The money raised will cross-subsidise the charitable am of the business.

This is part of the enterprise’s “Choosing is Giving” campaign, which is being promoted solely on social media through Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Gilman says that, as a not-for-profit, Potter’s Field will also be able to take some of the business out of funerals for poor people.

“Looking at the commercial side of funerals. It’s all about selling and up selling…but this is different because it’s not about the money. It’s about helping the people.

This is so important, he says, as people can be at their most vulnerable when dealing with grief.

"I don’t care if no one sees them. You gotta do the right thing."

Johanna Adams has been an embalmer for the past 20 years, and is now working at BAL. In that time she says she has worked on over 30,000 bodies, some of which have been destitute. But this doesn’t matter at all to her.

“For me it’s about the person in front of me, and I am gonna do the very best I can for that person. I don’t care if no one sees them. You gotta do the right thing,” Adams says.

It is this kind of attitude that perfectly encapsulates what Gillman and his staff try to foster through Potter’s Field and BAL.

Regardless of how much money you have, it’s about a person or a family being able to be buried with dignity, Gillman says. “If you have a dollar or if you have $100,000 you are going to be treated exactly the same."

Filthy Rich & Homeless season 2 airs over three nights starting on Tuesday 14 August 8.30pm on SBS. You can also stream the show anytime on SBS On Demand. Join the conversation with #FilthyRichHomeless.

If this article has raised issues for you and you would like to talk to someone, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website by clicking here. For information about services from St Vincent De Paul, click here or for services offered by Salvation Army, click here.  

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