Blog Archives: August 2008

The bargain bites back

Thursday, 28 August 2008

It took just a couple of playful chomps for the bull terrier to sever the puppy’s retractable lead, rendering it a total loss. Fruitless to pelt him with acrimony: when a bull terrier does a bad thing the accompanying expression of comical delinquency disarms all rage.

Expensive things, these retractable leads. Sharon found a replacement on ebay. Buy it now, just £1 plus £2.95 p & p. “Bargain!” she cried.

It arrived a few days later. She pulled it from its padded envelope and we cursorily inspected it. I stepped on the pedal of the bin and she dropped it in, no word spoken. By way of consolation I revealed the German model I had bought from Pets R 4 Xmas just in case. £8.95. Best buy.

There will always be those who seek a cheap funeral.

There are the puritans, hair-shirted, often green, left-leaning types for whom even sackcloth and ashes are luxury lifestyle accessories. They resist the solicitous intervention of undertakers. The cardboard coffin is emblematic of their often joyless rejection of the follies of frippery.

You could generalise and say that it’s the educated middle class which inclines towards palaver-free, cheap funerals, and it’s the working class which likes to put on a bit of a show. This would be a mistake. It’s social confidence that empowers people to ignore what the neighbours think and say no, if that’s how they feel, to posh coffins and long black limousines.

To the puritans and the socially confident you can add the skint. All these will be attracted to a cheaper funeral. They may or may not suppose that funeral directors make more money than they ought.

None of us wants to pay more than we need. When a dead cheap funeral suddenly pops up, we all sit up and take notice.

Direct Funeral Services will do you a funeral for just £960 plus disbursements. Bargain!

How do they do it? I rang to find out. The helpful but clueless receptionist couldn’t tell me, so she put me through to the office. After a period of silence, the phone went dead.

If Sherlock Holmes were alive today he’d never get out of Google.

Go to Nominet. Type the domain name into WHOIS. Done.

Registrant: Richard Sage.

Pause for audible gasp.

Can this be the same Richard Sage who has been pursued for almost 15 years by BBC Radio 4’s John Waite for “ripping off staff, customers and National Health hospitals to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds”? The same Richard Sage who has been sentenced to a total 12 years in prison for fraud? The same Richard Sage of whom one of his previous employees said this: “It got to the point of going down to the crematorium or the local graveyard and collecting other people’s flowers – wreaths and bouquets – off another funeral, which wasn’t even to do with our company. Taking them back to the office, re-spraying them with water to make them look fresh. And placing them on the coffins – was our jobs”?

Even if this is a different Richard Sage, beware.

It’s a fact: margins in the funeral business are already very tight. Funerals are pretty good value. And, if money is tight, or you want a stripped down affair, almost every funeral director will offer you a basic funeral package as prescribed by the National Association of Funeral Directors, the price of which varies nationally.

You can negotiate a cheaper funeral than this by unpacking the package and buying fewer services. Do you, for example, need the funeral director’s staff to carry the coffin? Are you happy for the body to be left in the hospital mortuary until the day of the funeral and brought to the crematorium or cemetery in an estate car rather than a hearse? Many funeral directors will resist this sort of whittling; the best will happily collude.

There are very few crooks out there, but funeral directors are unregulated; there’s no way of keeping crooks out. So, if a funeral director is not a member of the NAFD or SAIF, tread carefully.


Monday, 18 August 2008

Ethical is the new virtuous. Saints don’t wear haloes any more, they wear little whirling propellers on their roofs to, I don’t know, charge their iPhones, is it?

Ethical living used to be about more than remembering to bring your bag for life to the supermarket or taking as much pride in your compost bin as your new 4×4. Ethical people were less self-righteous, more altruistic.

I’m a sucker for heritage ethics – ethics born of ragged-trousered courage and struggle. The Tolpuddle Martyrs. The Rochdale Pioneers. These are just some of the heroes who float my ethical boat. I suppose it’s this sort of ethical nostalgia which impelled me all those years ago to open an account with smile, the Co-operative Group’s online bank.

I talked last week to John Mallatrat. Do you know John? He and his wife, Mary, founded Peace Funerals in 1996. Mike Jarvis of the Natural Death Centre (sic transit…) once described them to me as latter-day saints, an epithet they would modestly but firmly rebuff. Others must be the judge. I reckon them and their team to possess irrefutable heritage ethical qualities. I first encountered John when I was arranging a funeral for the brother of a friend. He’d died in Hendon and there was very little money available. John, operating out of Sheffield, was able not only to do the funeral for considerably less than the Co-op just outside the gates of the crematorium, he also brought an empathic, personal touch, which established exactly the right tone. It was a wonderful funeral.

Reason for my call: I’d been researching these pay-now-die-later funeral plans which all funeral directors are presently obsessing about as if their future depends on it – which, truth to tell, it urgently does. It seemed to me that there are three significant players: the conglomerates (Dignity and the Co-op); the independents under the banner of Golden Charter; and, way out in left field, Peace, whose Funeral Plans Online are marketed as ethical. What, I wanted to know from John, does he mean by ethical?

It’s not as if anyone supposes that the Co-op’s plan funds porn, nor that the Dignity plan arms the Janjaweed in Darfur. But it’s true to say that they don’t say precisely how they grow their clients’ money that fast, either, and Peace, it turns out, are the only funeral planners who categorically assure their clients that their money will not be invested in armaments, tobacco, alcohol, gambling, human rights abuses or pornography. For people to whom this matters, it’s important to know.

I fell to brooding about ethics in the funeral industry, and what may be seen as a grave betrayal of its founding principles by the Co-operative Group.

This year, at the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival – a gathering of all that’s best about Heritage Labour – the Co-op, direct heirs of the Rochdale Pioneers, were thrown out. Why? Because of the de-recognition by Funeralcare of the GMB union and its alleged victimisation and harassment of its shop stewards.

The Co-op de-recognising a trade union? It’s a bit like discovering that the Church of England has airbrushed the teachings of Jesus from its theology. To carry on trading under the banner of Co-operative looks like, doesn’t it, a species of deception?

It is well known in the funeral industry that the Co-op has bequeathed to this country some of its finest funeral directors. They are those plucky independents who began their careers in the Co-op, where their values and principles were forged in their deep antipathy to the way the Co-op does things. Their zeal is the fruit of their indignation.

It is also well known that there are, within the Co-op, some outstanding and very caring, if grievously underpaid, funeral directors.

You wonder if an organisation so ethically incoherent, which treats its employees so badly, can possibly be an effective force. It would be good to hear a defence.

In the meantime, can anyone out there tell me where I can find an ethical bank?

Being there

Monday, 11 August 2008

Life teems with ticklish antitheses. In the midst of life we are in death: in the midst of death we are in life.

It’s a summer’s day which feels like late November. Rain is spitting; the leaves on the chestnut trees are browning. The funeral is over (I was the celebrant) and I pause to survey the scene before driving away – the huge, shagged-out cemetery, the sparse, tussocky vegetation, the numberless never-visited graves, the rows of mute headstones tied to stakes by the topple-testers, secured with bright yellow strapping. A mature burial ground like this makes visible the slow-mo obliteration of the unforgettable. Memory succumbs to amnesia.

In its forlorn heart, at the crematorium, the cherishing and commemoration of the dead goes on in the customary series of corteges and dispersals, the glossy black limousines, the laid out, cellophaned flowers, the little knots of mourners straggling back to their cars. There’s a certain sad majesty in this, a certain brave beauty. It’s a matter of taste.

The crematorium manager touches my elbow. “Your CD, mate.” It’s the CD of music we played at the funeral, which I had forgotten to pick up on my way out.

I put it on the passenger seat where it jostles another, the object of my next destination, another place suffering from municipal world-weariness, the register office, for I am to be married tomorrow. This other CD contains our wedding music. Important not to confuse them. As a springboard to connubial bliss, Michael Buble’s Lost arguably lacks upthrust.

Pop goes the corn. We’ve chosen Elgar’s Salut d’Amour. He’s a local boy, Elgar, a Wolves fan, and we like his little tune unapologetically. Oh, yes, of course, the registrar’s heard it before. We’ve chosen readings. I announce to the registrar: “This one’s an Apache blessing,” and she says “Oh yes Apache blessing” in a voice which disconcertingly reveals that we have selected the Henry Scott Holland of wedding readings.

On the day of days, James (a funeral director, as it happens, and a most remarkable one) reads the Apache blessing in his warm, shamanic voice. But, here’s the thing, unknown to us he has rehearsed everyone there in the last line and, when he reaches it, they all break into And may your days be good and long upon the earth. It’s a magical, wonderful moment. It breaks the mould of the one-size-fits-all ceremony and reclaims it for us – for everyone there.

We didn’t do the Rolls Royce and the fancy dress and the country house. We didn’t release doves or balloons or fireworks. We might have, but we didn’t. This was a simple wedding, a basic wedding, not an arm and a leg wedding.

But the ceremony had, we think, looking back, the two essential ingredients which doves and balloons fireworks and a country house and an Abba tribute band might have complemented and even vastly enhanced, but could never have substituted.

First, thanks to James’s masterstroke, it was shared. It belonged to us. All of us.

Second, just this: people came. They came from miles and miles away, some of them. They gave up their time, their Saturday, for us. None came without considerable inconvenience to themselves. Their showing up, their being there for us, their physical presence – that meant more to us than anything. It always will.

Never again will I not quite be able to make it to anybody’s funeral.