Founder Friday with Jenny Briscoe-Hough: The Mission to Deliver Meaningful (and Affordable) Funerals

In a culture often intimidated by death and dying, Jenny Briscoe-Hough is determined to approach things a little differently. For the past six years, she has worked tirelessly as the founder and CEO of Tender Funerals, a community venture with a vision to provide authentic and affordable funeral services to all Australians.

However, she admits it’s a leadership position she never expected for herself.

“First of all, I’m in community development, and when you’re in this area, the whole idea is empowering others,” she said. “So it’s almost the opposite of leadership, it’s basically taking a step back. I would say the community founded Tender and I was the driver.”

Today, Tender Funerals helps thousands of bereaved families across Australia conduct meaningful funerals that reflect the wishes of the person who has died, their family and community – without having to pay tens of thousands of dollars.

The average cost of a tender funeral is between $3,000 and $4,500, compared to bills between $5,000 and $10,000 from leading funeral directors.

But Jenny’s message goes beyond making funerals affordable. It is a movement to change the culture of death and end of life by enabling conversations about rights and responsibilities and allowing family and friends to have as much (or as little) practical involvement as they want.

Since its inception in Port Kembla on the south coast of NSW, followed by a second site near Port Macquarie, Tender Funerals Australia is currently working with a further six communities to establish services (operating as franchises) in Canberra, Far North Queensland, Newcastle, Perth, Tasmania and Western Sydney.

Creating meaningful yet affordable services

The idea for Tender Funerals came about in 2008 when Jenny was put in the position of organizing a funeral for her late mother.

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“While I had attended many funerals in my 20 or so years in community development, I should not have focused on the details and cost sooner. When my mother died, we washed the flowers ourselves, drove there ourselves, we even had our own cemetery, and we still got a bill for about $10,000,” she recalls.

She still remembers her mother’s memorial card at the bottom of the funeral company’s advertisement.

Jenny explained, “My mom had an estate, she owned a property, so we were able to cover these costs. But because I was working in a community, I suddenly wondered how others could afford something like this.”

Tender Funerals aims to enable individuals to go through this already difficult process.

“They can be as involved as they want, from transporting the body to washing and dressing the body, to putting the person in the coffin. The idea is to provide people with information and at the same time give them choices. Some may say ‘I know what I want to do’ and then, after some thought, come back to us and say ‘can we do this instead?’

“It is an evolving and transparent process. You can have the most traditional funeral in the world or you can have something completely unique for you. But if you get a one-size-fits-all funeral package from a provider, that’s not so convenient.”

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A shrine at a Tender Funerals service. Source: delivered.

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Jenny highlights a case where the personal, special touch of Tender Funerals was simply a family photo.

“We once had a funeral for a young man, and all he wanted was a family photo, but they could never get the family together. So they took a photo at the funeral, we printed it out and put it in the coffin,” she said.

Other examples were simple ceremonies in people’s backyards.

“Anything can be a funeral ceremony, it depends on the intention you bring,” added Jenny.

The first challenges

However, getting Tender Funerals off the ground was not an easy road. The biggest challenge was “to get people to understand what we’re trying to do.”

“For years I applied for grants and was beaten back. One day my friend and artist Lynette Wallworth said to me, ‘We need to make a movie and show it,’ explained Jenny.

“It’s very difficult to put into words what happens when you put your hands on the body of a person you love, and every cell in your body understands that that person has died.”

The result documentary Tender, released in 2013, shared the stories of community funerals (including the death of their community center’s former caretaker) to powerfully demonstrate their message on screen.

Tender Funerals was able to obtain funding from Social Enterprise Finance Australia (SEFA) and the Vincent Fairfax Foundation. Their model, they say, is being made viable by families being able to pay full price at Tender Funerals and further support from community donations.

Jenny and team at Tender Funerals Port Kembla. Source: delivered

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Changing the culture around death

“An important thing that Tender does for people is that it awakens something in them, the knowledge that they are going to die,” Jenny noted. “Of course some funeral days are really tragic and really sad. But it also helps us realize that this life is limited.

“When planning these services, we ask people, ‘Are you religious?’ And if they say no, we move on to ‘do you have a spiritual practice?’ and often the answer is yes, because each person has different things that connect him to his soul.”

Some people who visit Tender Funerals have recently experienced the passing of a loved one. However, as Jenny points out, there have been those who want to be proactive about their end of life.

“Sometimes we have people who call and say they want to have this conversation with their kids, but the kids don’t want it. There is still a reluctance around this,” she said.

“But we say you can change the culture with just one funeral. People may come to Tender at first and have no idea what to do, but unfortunately when they have to come again, they may say, ‘I know what I’m doing.’ We give them information.”

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