Death To State Funerals

Kerry Packer was not a poor man, but when the end of the financial year rolled around and it came time to fill in his tax returns, the reptilian billionaire got quite good at appearing destitute.

Anyone who didn’t try to slither their way out of paying taxes must be barmy, he said. Governments were simply too stupid to spend it on the right sort of thing.

And when Mr Packer died in 2005, the Government, in what must count as the most expensive practical joke in Australian history, decided to prove that the old man had been right, at least about government spending. Mr Packer was given a state funeral, procured for the blushingly modest sum of $73,000.

Exactly why the government was playing funeral agent for a media tycoon was never really explained.

In response to a few murmured protests, it was noted (by former ANU Chancellor Kim Beazley, no less) that Mr Packer was a “business leader”, which presumably meant that the Government owed some kind of special duty to his carcass.

Last week, two rather more likeable Australians died: Margaret Whitlam, wife of the former PM, and Jim Stynes, the footballer and philanthropist. Their families were offered state funerals. (The Whitlams declined; the Styneses accepted.)

Both, in my opinion, had done more to deserve the offer than Mr Packer, a man who knowingly sabotaged the cricket boycott of apartheid South Africa.

But who gets to decide which funerals will be government-sponsored? I’m no small-government type, but I find it somewhat creepy when politicians start sorting through the death notices, deciding in which funerals they want the taxpayer to invest.

But this is of course merely a symptom of a wider, rather gruesome obsession we have with death, an event upon the commemoration of which we lavish vast sums every year. The death industry in this country is worth more than a billion dollars annually, with one funeral company, Invocare, making $15 million in after-tax profits from a revenue base of $140 million.

The average Australian funeral costs somewhere north of $7000, a figure which doesn’t include many ancillary costs – like the purchase of flowers and burial plots – that one seems to impose on one’s family simply by no longer being alive.

Now, there are reasons – religious and cultural – why people spend money on funerals, and though I personally can’t see the point in buying flowers for someone who cannot by definition enjoy them, it is, in the end, a matter of personal choice.

However, our governments need not be quite so sentimental. Having already eliminated estate taxes – efficient, fair and not particularly difficult to administer – in a miserable sop to the mortality entrepreneurs, state and federal politicians might perhaps think twice before they volunteer to bury private citizens at inflated prices.

By all means, let us each in our own way pause to remember the dead. But any government that tries to insert itself (and its purse) into the burial ritual is, as Kerry Packer would have appreciated, a government stepping over the boundaries set by its own competence