Port Kembla's Tender Funerals reinvents final farewell

Ten days after she died, Effie Corbett came home. 

She had spent the final three weeks of her life in palliative care, too sick to return to her granny flat at the back of her daughter Karen Wilmott’s Tullimbar home. 

Through her grief, Mrs Wilmott found herself looking forward to the unconventional homecoming.  

“It was lovely that I could dress her and talk to her and laugh with her,” she said. 

“In the end I couldn’t wait to get her home and see her again. I didn’t feel the least bit odd about that. Isn’t it strange?”

Mrs Wilmott is one of 21 people who have used the services of fledgling Port Kembla funeral service Tender Funerals – an Australian-first not-for-profit operation that has reinvented the final farewell to touching effect.

The service places great emphasis on the human touch – on unhurried affairs, led by the family and with the option – never pushed – of involvement in lost rituals like bathing a loved one’s body. 

During her November 4 funeral, Mrs Corbett’s body was nestled inside a handmade basket that spoke of her own basket-making skills and her lifelong habit – honed during the Great Depression – of using her hands, making things and collecting practical skills.

“It was beautiful - this lovely, creamy-coloured cane,” Mrs Wilmott said.

“It was like a big picnic basket, complete with toggle clips on it.”

“I had no idea something like that existed. You think there are rules with funerals; there’s not. There’s very few – but you don’t realise that.” 

Mrs Wilmott believes the time she was given, and the control she had over the process helped to ease the grieving process and demystify death. 

She accompanied her mother to the crematorium on November 4. 

Before they went, about 40 people milled around the vegetable garden Mrs Corbett had faithfully tended, stood at her side, and said a proper goodbye. 

“I will always remember mum’s hairdresser of 20 years, reaching in and stroking mum’s hair,” Mrs Wilmott said. 

“It was not a viewing as such – in a cold funeral parlour. It just seemed to be so right.”

Not-for-profit funerals a reality

Seven years in the making, a Port Kembla not-for-profit funeral service has opened to strong demand. 

Tender Funerals began trading on September 1 and has since handled 21 farewells, the service’s funeral director Amy Sagar said. 

“A vast majority of them have been alternative funerals that have used interesting destinations,” said Miss Sagar, at the service’s launch on Thursday. 

“We’ve had a few backyard funerals, we had funerals in a scout park and also in a bowling club.”

Miss Sagar said funerals had so far cost between $2500 and $5000 – “thousands less” than traditional services – and had ranged from a simple visit to a crematorium, to a service with people in attendance. 

Fundraising for the project, based out of a converted fire station on Military Road, was spearheaded by Our Community Project general manager Jenny Briscoe-Hough.

It received $100,000 in donations when it became the subject of an award-winning documentary made by Briscoe-Hough’s close friend Lynette Wallworth and aired nationally.