Death brings no relief from council charges

DEATH can come quickly when a person least expects it. Or it can stalk the unsuspecting for years, slowly wearing down the body. It can also be a long, drawn-out, exhaustive process with the end  coming as a bittersweet relief, or it can send shock waves of devastation through a community.

However death comes, it is final, mournful and unfortunately it is becoming increasingly expensive.

In an effort to save grieving friends and family that are left behind the added stress of paying for the funeral and the burial expenses, many people are opting for pre-paying for their funerals and reserving their plot.

In theory the practice works, with one exception.

Many funeral homes are no longer including the council mandated burial charges into their costing because as local Funeral Director, Denise Beavan, is finding, they can’t keep up with the price rises.

“Burial charges have increased for the Tumut Cemetery 30% over a three year period,” Mrs Beavan said. “Along with that people who think they have paid all they need to before they die are now finding out that the money they are paying to reserve a plot does not come off the council charges when the time comes.”

Over the past few weeks the reality of these price increase have hit home with several mourning families learning they have to pay the minimum of $2,733.50, plus the cost of a plaque, on top of a reservation fee of $609.40 that may already have been paid, before a sod of cemetery soil will be turned.

“At times like these people have enough grief without having to face this from the council,” Mrs Beavan said. “It is absolutely disgraceful that council are no longer deducting the reservation fee form the burial costs.

“Families are appalled that the fees are so high and you don’t even get to take off the money that has been used to reserve a place. There is no compassion.”

The council are not quite sure what the fuss is about as they say there have always been charges associated with burials and not deducting the reservation fee has been common practice since April 2006.

“In 2006 council substantially increased cemetery fees to have a balanced budget as the cemetery was generally running at a loss,” Paul Mullins, Director of Development and Environment for the  shire said. “It is a service. There is this perception that people pay their rates so it should be free to be buried. Council has adopted a user pay approach, the general community should not have to subsidise the interment of other people.”

Mr Mullins said they had received several complaints of late in relation to not being able to use the pre-paid reservation fee as part of the interment payment and is the first to admit that the interment fees have surpassed the CPI, but for good reason.

“The reservation fee is for the right to use a particular plot,” Mr Mullins said. “It is not a purchase fee but covers the maintenance of the plot until burial. It is not a down payment on interment. In 2006 council also made the decision not to deduct the reservation fee from the burial fee.”

The council decided not to notify all those holding reservations at the Tumut Cemetery of the changes due to the sheer number of reserved plots and the difficulty in finding contact details for each one of them as many were simply taken out in family names.

Mr Mullins is concerned there is a state of miscommunication brewing and would like claims of council ‘double dipping’ put to rest.

“Council is not double dipping, people are paying for a service,” Mr Mullins said. “The Tumut Shire is more expensive than Gundagai in terms of interment costs but we are not going to subsidise the cemetery from another area.”

Gundagai is a considerably cheaper place to be buried at an inclusive rate $1680. This fee includes a plaque and is for both single depth or extra depth.

Payment for burial in the Tumut Shire needs to be either paid in full prior to the burial or a payment plan contract initiated due to the council being caught short previously.

“Payment needs to be arranged immediately,” Mr Mullins said. “We have had a number of outstanding costs we have had to chase before so we changed it to an up front payment for a service approach. We find it is generally working okay.”

After the three burials that took place in Tumut last week, the Times received five separate complaints regarding the long length of the grass that mourners had to walk through the attend the graveside and the less than compassionate approach the council had demonstrated regarding payments.

One lady, who did not wish to be named, said prior to burying her mother, she had no idea about the connected charges.

“Mum had bought the plot 24 years ago for $164 as she wanted to be buried next to dad,” she said. “When I inquired to the council why the reserving money did not come off the burial fee they said it was paid for maintenance yet we were walking through ankle deep grass at the cemetery last week.”

Questions as to why parks and gardens rates are not used to maintain the cemetery have also been raised with many holding reserved plots questioning why they bothered with the extra expense. Presently the entire row of graves is mown, not just the ones that have paid the reservation fee, calling into question what is the fee really for.

“There is no earthly benefit in paying to reserve the plot if you have to pay the fee of maintaining the plot again, after you die,” Mrs Beavan said. “People are being charged the same reserving fee in all sections of the cemetery, even if there is no grass and in some cases they have already put their headstones on the vacant plot and still have to pay full cost upon dying, despite the area receiving no care.”

A local man recently was required to pay $2451.90 to council just to dig the ground extra depth on an existing gravesite.

“There is no thought and no compassion in all of this,” Mrs Beavan said. “If you can’t afford to pay for your burial then you are considered a destitute and buried wherever there is a place. It is not fair for people who have the peace of mind and only think they have to pay for the digging when there is more that is required to be paid.”

After 38 years in the funeral business providing compassionate care to people who are at their most vulnerable, Mrs Beavan is hoping that council will adopt a more merciful approach towards interment, instead of the cold business deal that currently exists.