Charles Cowling

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?

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