30 November 2022

Forget $3000 caskets, meet the guy who paints cardboard coffins in Canberra

| James Coleman
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Gregory Andrews

Gregory Andrews painting a cardboard coffin for Tender Funerals. Photo: James Coleman.

The wooden stick dips into the jar of ‘green curry paste’ and heads for the cardboard, charged with light purple acrylic paint.

Gregory Andrews is a Dharawal man from southwest Sydney but today he’s in his South Canberra garage, adding the finishing touches to a traditional dot-style artwork on the lid of a cardboard coffin.

“The four roundels represent the four stages of life – infancy, youth, adulthood and old age,” he explains.

But the artwork also goes to show just how flexible a funeral can be. Forget about the $3000 wooden casket, gleaming hearse and mountain of flowers: there’s a new funeral service coming to Canberra that pares back the years of tradition to “do death differently” – simpler and cheaper. It’s called Tender Funerals, and Gregory is an ambassador.

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“When I die, I’d rather people have a big party to celebrate,” Gregory says.

“And I’d rather go in the back of my father-in-law’s trailer we’ve used so many times to take mulch to and from the green waste tip to the garden.”

Tender Funerals is a not-for-profit, largely volunteer-run funeral company with operations in Sydney, the Illawarra region, and the Mid-North Coast. Giving the family maximum control at a low cost is their unique selling point.

Gregory first heard about them a few years ago while serving as High Commissioner to Ghana in West Africa, when he flicked on an episode of the ABC’s Australian Story series, called ‘A Community Undertaking’.

“That really resonated with my wife and I,” Gregory says.

“I didn’t realise you could have so much choice in how you say goodbye to your loved one. There doesn’t have to be a hearse and a formal ceremony at a church, and an extravagant coffin with flowers everywhere. It can be affordable.”

A cardboard coffin like the one in his garage wholesales for $135 at Daisy Box Australia. Tender Funerals adds a small fee and sells them to members of the public to decorate as they please.

Gregory cites examples where photo prints and glitter have been used, although the latter left the mortuary full of glitter for years afterwards.

Tender provides assistance with all the usual arrangements of death certificates and other paperwork, transport, ceremonies, cremation and burial options, vigils and viewings. But they also supply cool cots or plates for keeping the body cool if the family chooses to keep it at the home for a period of time after time of death. Members of the family are also invited to help wash the body.

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Tender Funerals director Ellen Collins says while they can sell coffins to the public, the lack of space for arrangement rooms and a mortuary mean their Canberra services are “really limited at the moment.”

“Our biggest challenge right now is finding a suitable site in the ACT.”

A mortuary requires very specific zoning and an allowance in the purpose clause for a funeral parlour. This limits Tender to a handful of sites in Fyshwick and Mitchell, whereas Ellen would prefer to have a place alongside other non-profit community organisations.

“Our ideal ‘home’ will include a garden, workshop and ceremony space, but such a site is well over our current budget.”

Gregory Andrews

The cardboard coffin will be auctioned to raise more funds for Tender’s Canberra home. Photo: James Coleman.

Tender made a submission to the ACT Government’s ‘Inquiry into Planning Bill 2022’, which closed 16 November, asking for these zoning laws to be adjusted.

In the meantime, Gregory says more than $2 million has been received in donations. The coffin in his garage will also be auctioned to raise more funds.

“I know that funerals can really drive a lot of families into deep poverty,” he says.

“This puts extra strain on people and stops them from being able to recover in the healthiest way possible from grief. Tender Funeral services not only cost a lot less than conventional funeral services, but the family also has more choice – the funeral is in line with what they would like. They can farewell their loved one exactly as they would have wanted.”

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People are just sick of coffin’ up so much money for caskets!

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