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As Oz warms up, funeral homes struggle

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Global warming, that great villain of the 21st century, is now prime suspect in a scandal threatening the viability of Australian funeral homes.

Australia's warm winter has been blamed for a deficit of dead bodies for undertakers who rely on Aussie winters to liven up business.

The Sydney Morning Herald last month exposed the mournful turn of events echoing a lament in one of Australia's most famous folk songs.

True, The Funeral Home with No Cadaver might lack some of the bounce of the The Pub With No Beer, but the theme of a fracture in a symbiotic relationship holds true.

In the competitive world of Sydney undertakers, the dearth of customers has caused serious concerns, given sympathetic expression by Herald journalist Tim Elliott, who unearthed the story a few weeks back.

"We've seen the biggest drop in business in a generation,'' said Andrew Smith, chief executive of InvoCare, the largest private funeral, cemetery and crematorium operator in the Asia-Pacific region.

"Winter is usually our busiest time, but there's been no real flu season this year and no real cold snaps, and that's being reflected in a big drop in business.''

Sydney is rounding out an unusually warm winter, which in some quarters is not merely a sign of fluctuating temperatures but evidence supporting the theory of global warming.

The harbour-side city, which usually enjoys an average of 12.2 C in July (averaged over day and night), was up to a whopping 14.6 C average this year.

On Tuesday, massive bush fires broke out outside the city in a sign the nation may face one of its worst fire seasons on record.

While Australian winters may be regarded as chicken-hearted weather events by Canadians, they can be lethal to the aged, partly because few people prepare for them.

Three years ago, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology warned Australians failed to rug up sufficiently during the colder months, placing extra strain on their bodies.

Adrian Barnett, from the QUT's Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, said Australians could easily cop 30-degree heat, which might knock northern Americans and Europeans about.

But when the temperatures drop slightly, we're vulnerable, especially if elderly.

"We are not very good at protecting ourselves against the cold weather -- we don't wear the right sort of clothes in winter and our homes are often not well-insulated," he said

"When the temperature goes below 19 degrees in Australia, the death rate from heart and circulatory problems goes up."

But there are sunny financial skies ahead for the nation's undertakers if global warming proves to be as potent as science predicts.

Barnett and his fellow researchers have discovered while cold can be a killer, the rise in temperatures in recent years might be too much even for Aussies hardened by the heat.

Over the past 40 years, the move toward summer deaths rather than winter deaths has increased by around 15 per cent.

"In the future, it looks like if this pattern continues, that heat-related deaths could outweigh cold-related deaths,'' Barnett said.


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 13, 2013 0

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