The Australian Seniors Series: The Circle of Life Survey

It might not be the most cheerful topic to discuss but there’s no avoiding the fact that we are all going to have to deal with death throughout our lifetimes. Whether it’s confronting our own mortality or dealing with the passing of someone else it’s an inevitability effecting every one of us, yet rarely talked about.

Opening the dialogue on death

According to the ‘Circle of Life Survey’ – the most recent instalment of our The Australian Seniors Series, Australian seniors want more open, honest and candid conversations about dying. A large part of our suppressed desire to raise the topic with friends and family is fairly practical – to minimise the impact on the bereaved and to ensure our lives are commemorated in an appropriate way.

So, far from shying away from the issue, we have shared some enlightening findings to kick off the conversation…

The Australian Seniors Series: The Circle of Life Survey (infographic)

Dying to talk about death

Despite common belief, it would seem that we are actually quite comfortable talking about death. From the survey, we know that 86% of people have thought about their death, that 79% of people are comfortable talking about dying and that 74% of people think it’s an appropriate topic to discuss with friends.

We know that the respondents want to have these seemingly morbid conversations with 75% believing that more conversations about dying are needed.

The fact that death is both natural and unavoidable topped the list of reasons as to why people believe that we need more discussions on the topic. Ensuring the deceased’s wishes are met was the second most popular response, while easing the grieving process and minimising the financial burden on family were also strong motivating factors.

Cremation vs burial

The need for more open discussions around dying is evident when you look at the changing nature of people’s preferences regarding the treatment of their remains and the factors that motivate them.

Australian seniors are now three times more likely to prefer cremation to burial and the major reasons for this change are ones that probably didn’t exist even 50 years ago. Respondents viewed cremation as ‘better for the environment’ and a preferred option because ‘we are running out of space’, which are both popular and thoroughly modern considerations.

Added to this, many Australian seniors are considering the financial costs – 85% of those surveyed believe that funerals are too expensive these days and regardless of who is picking up the tab, 31% prefer cremation to burial for the simple reason that it’s a more economical choice.

And what to do with the ashes? Previously, the tradition was to keep the ashes in a safe place in your home but even this custom is outdated with only 29% of people preferring for their ashes to be stored rather than scattered.

Instead, respondents who prefer cremation overwhelmingly want their ashes scattered in a place that’s dear to their heart, with the most popular option being a nearby body of water such as river, lake or ocean. Other popular choices include at their favourite place, with their pets or in the garden.

Interestingly, 27% of respondents simply didn’t care where their ashes are scattered, leaving the decision to family and friends. Along with the bill it would seem…

Funeral costs and preferences

With an estimated $1.2 billion spent on funerals each year in Australia, it is a troubling thought that many are performed without any consultation between the deceased and their families and friends prior to passing away, especially when you consider the average funeral bill comes close to $8000.

The survey showed 87% admitted to making little or no plans for their funeral. Even among those who have planned for their death, less than 3% have made provisions for how it will be paid for.

There is clearly a gulf between belief and action in this instance and there are real costs, both financial and emotional, being incurred because of this fact.

While this may be the case, among the respondents who say that their partner or children will pay for their funeral, most (69.3%) do not believe that the financial burden of a funeral will add to the emotional burden of their loved ones.

Interestingly, while most seem reluctant to discuss costs, aspects like their interment preference and even which song to play at the funeral are far more openly discussed, with 74% and 43% people respectively saying that this has been addressed.

And which songs do people want to have played at their funerals? ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ by Bette Midler is the most popular followed by Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’ and ‘Over the Rainbow’ by Eva Cassidy.

And proving the sometimes naughty humour of some Australian seniors, AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’, Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ and Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ also rated a mention.

And perhaps this is just the sort of attitude that people should approach this issue with – death is inevitable and will always be a sad time but being able to see a light side and discuss all aspects of death may help us when the inevitable happens.

It might not be a comfortable topic to raise, but discussing death openly and honestly is the only way to minimise the difficulties and complications at an already sad time. The survey clearly shows that it’s a conversation Australian seniors want to have and now’s the time to have it.

Keep an eye out in the weeks to come for more from the Australian Seniors Series.


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Circle of Life Survey [pdf]