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Upright burials: Standing up six feet under

When Tony Dupleix’s old ram Cecil died, he put the carcass in an industrial freezer and promptly buried the frozen corpse. Then dug it up. Then buried it again. Odd behaviour, even for a sheep farmer, but Dupleix was preparing for a big event: the first official human upright burial in Australia. Dupleix and his business partners wanted to be sure nothing would go wrong when they buried cancer victim Allan Heywood on 4 October this year.

About 200kms west of Melbourne, in the back half of a quiet cemetery on Kurweeton Road, Heywood is buried standing on his feet, facing east, in a grave that is three metres deep and just 70 centimetres wide. His grave is unmarked, and the field he now stands in is landscaped only by a herd of grazing sheep. He was the first of what Dupleix hopes will be many customers to choose a simple, low-impact, inexpensive burial. The Upright Burials process strips back burial to the bare minimum. Corpses are frozen solid rather than embalmed (a costly practice involving toxic chemicals). They are buried in a biodegradable shroud rather than an expensive coffin, and need a much smaller (and thus cheaper) burial plot. The whole process costs $2,750. Mourners are given GPS coordinates to remember where their loved one is buried, and a tree is planted in their honour in a separate location. “We just said what isn’t essential? What can we leave behind (and remain legal)? We thought it would be nice if it could also remain publicly acceptable, but I daresay we’ve sailed a little close to the wind there,” Dupleix says.

Getting (into) the ground

Upright Burials was born out of a morbid (but lively) discussion at a dinner table nearly 20 years ago. Chairman and founder George Lines was musing about death, and shared his belief that funerals had been “pirated” by the funeral industry. Together with 19 others (including now managing director Dupleix), Lines began to investigate the idea of an upright burial – a practice he had seen in Ethiopia, where arable land is too valuable to waste on burials. “The rationale was to have a look at burials and see if we could simplify the process, and maybe establish a more honest and straightforward process. We thought it might turn out to be more economical and more environmentally friendly along the way,” Dupleix explains. The 20 unit holders each contributed $5,000 to a fund, with the goal of eventually starting a business which would “give funerals back to the bereaved”. Eighteen years later, the business has buried its first customer.

As the idea for Upright Burials took shape in the mid 1980s, the unit holders bought a shell company and held their first board meeting. Their first step was to find a cemetery willing to accept unconventional burials, but this task proved difficult, posing hurdles of securing land, local approval and bureaucratic support. “If we were a dedicated company where the only thing in our lives was to get this going we would have gone broke straight away!” Dupleix says. As burial sites in Victoria have to be Crown land, Upright Burials planned to buy a piece of land and donate it to the Crown. But cemeteries are a touchy area, and local objections knocked more than one planned venture on the head. It wasn’t until 2006 that Dupleix and his team secured the Kurweeton Road site after four years of bureaucratic wrangling. With the assistance of the Victorian Civil Arbitration Tribunal, the site was gazetted as a cemetery and the innovative company had somewhere to operate.

“Once we knew that we could actually bury people, we decided we better form a business, so we created our brand of Upright Burials. We developed the technology suitable for identifying graves, digging graves, and transporting and lowering the deceased into the graves (a specially designed catafalque),” Dupleix says. By 2008, Upright Burials had also leased a holding facility, bought an industrial freezer and organised a contractor to transport bodies. Now, they just needed customers.

Capturing the market

“Even though we’re rural people and we’re operating in a rural environment, we were really targeting the Melbourne metropolitan market all the time,” Dupleix says. “And that’s purely a numbers thing.” Over time, Upright Burials hope to achieve economies of scale by conducting up to six burials on any one day. Naively, Dupleix says that all along they had hoped “the miraculous wonderful interweb” would be all the marketing they needed. “It’s a classic marketing principle that 10 percent of the market will go for the product that is the cheapest. Because this is an emotionally sensitive issue, we were conservative and said we’d go for 10 percent of that 10 percent. We did all our sums on capturing one percent of the Melbourne metropolitan market.”

That has yet to happen, Dupleix says, and his team are currently working with advertising consultants to determine a strategy. While remaining solvent will be a challenge in the next 12 months, the men and women behind Upright Burials have passionately supported the business with time and significant financial investment since 1985, and Dupleix expects that to continue. The initial seed fund has dwindled to 20 percent of its value, (“it’s just been pouring out like billy-o,” Dupleix laughs), but Heywood’s burial marks the start of a time where Upright Burials will begin to make money. Already, a large number of people have pre-registered their intent to engage Upright Burials to look after their remains, and that should increase in the wake of the publicity around Heyward’s burial. “That doesn’t help our cashflow at all because we don’t receive the money until after the burial is performed.”

Dupleix is confident in the future of his business. He says that the five directors all have different ideas of how successful it will be. “I personally believe it’ll be 20 years before there’ll be sufficient acceptance. We’re in here for the long haul.”

The demand already exists – Heywood had been chasing Dupleix for a couple of years, and was relieved when Upright Burials opened orders in December 2009. “When we were finally able to declare ourselves open for business Allan was very pleased, because he was on a fairly short rope at that stage,” Dupleix says. Before his death, Heywood said the idea of vertical burial didn’t disturb him. “I’ll be dead, so I won’t be uncomfortable! I certainly don’t mind being Upright Burials’ first customer. I just want my burial to be a respectful process that isn’t overwhelmed with false sentiment.”

Innovating for the future

With Melbourne metropolitan cemeteries overflowing, the Victorian Department of Health has long been looking for ways to open new outlets and rationalise the industry. But entrepreneurs in the funeral industry are few and far between, as a nationwide shortage of embalmers puts pressure on existing facilities. Upright Burials may eventually be a necessity, rather than an option.

Apart from the environmental benefits of the Upright Burials process, Dupleix sees his business delivering significant economic benefit to customers. The financial stress of traditional funerary arrangements can intensify grief when a loved one passes, but the cost of an upright burial is manageable on most peoples’ credit cards, Dupleix says. “As one delightful woman in Melbourne put it, if I can save $5,000 at my funeral then my family will be able to enjoy a better type of champagne at my wake.”

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Jennifer Blake

Jennifer Blake

Jennifer Blake is a staff writer for <i>Dynamic Business</i> magazine. Fascinated with the power of media, she's previously worked for Sky News and <i>The Jakarta Globe</i>. In her time off, she's likely cooking up a storm, haunting vintage stores on King St, Newtown or trawling design blogs for things she can't afford.

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