Bring on the empty hearses

Charles Cowling

 

What effect does the sight of a hearse have on you? Does it make your spirit soar? Does it put a spring in your step and a song on your lips?

 

Or does it throw a Hammer Horror chill around your heart?

 

What would be the effect on you of the spectacle of a procession of 100 hearses? Would you think that the Black Death had broken out?

 

The British Institute of Funeral Directors (BIFD), at its annual conference, is hoping to break the world record for the number of hearses in a parade by doing just that: sending 100 of them through the streets of Croydon. Is there, you splutter, a world record for this sort of thing? Yes, there is a world record for everything – and that includes, of course, anything.

 

But there is more to this enterprise than boldly going and conquering pastures new on virgin summits. The BIFD’s president, Adrian Pink, says: “The BIFD wants to open up the profession and its suppliers to their market, to make the whole process less intimidating.”

 

Less intimidating?

 

He goes on to say, “My motto is MAD – make a difference – and I’m sure with this record attempt we will be able to do so.”

 

No, Adrian, mad means mad.

 

All this puts me in mind of my friend Geoff.

 

“I’m seventy-five,” he said to me a while ago. “It’s time I made arrangements. I’m looking for a good undertaker in my local area.”

 

Geoff knew as little as most people about how funerals work and, when he tried to find a simpatico undertaker by scanning the display ads in his local paper, he found himself no nearer his goal.

 

“Why on earth do they advertise,” he exclaimed testily, “if they’re all going to say nothing about themselves?”

 

Geoff made a good point here. Conventionally, businesses spend good money on marketing in order to differentiate themselves from their competitors and declare a USP. The new breed of green and alternative funeral directors does this. But most of the trad majority stand in line and share the same descriptive vocabulary. They offer a service which is ‘personal’, ‘professional’, ‘caring’, ‘respectful’. Excellent. Just what we all want. But then they throw in ‘dignity’, and that’s where Geoff and many like him take a step back. What is this dignity? It sounds formal and distant. Pompous. It sets up a barrier.

 

Geoff is an adept silver surfer and he persisted in his researches, this time on the internet. What did he reckon? “They can’t use the English language!” he expostulated. “Full of grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, misplaced apostrophes.”

 

He’s right. There’s a lot of semi-literate text up there and it disparages the professional competence of those it represents. Geoff might have added that the design of many funeral directors’ websites is crude, cluttered and clunky. Horrible.

 

Geoff’s researches eventually dumped him back on square one. Dismayed, he gave up. “I’ll ask around, see if anyone knows a good one.”

 

Adrian, here’s some helpful advice for you and your fellow funeral directors: the purpose of marketing is to offer a relationship of warmth and trust with potential clients – to draw them to you.

 

They don’t want spiky gothic typography in your ads. It is ecclesiastical and anachronistic. It carries associations of gloom, wretchedness and Dickensian melodrama. Your other favoured graphic design elements similarly mystify or repel – religious symbols, horsedrawn hearses, stained glass windows surrounded by clustering roses. Your trade association logos look impressive – but does anyone actually know what they mean?

 

Most people glance at your ads, shiver, and hope they’ll never have to go anywhere near you.

 

Adrian, they say that death is the last taboo. It’s not. People want information. They want to be able to drop into your funeral home informally and indulge their curiosity, chat, read and find out.

 

You talk about the public service element of your work. The quality of that service would be greatly enhanced were you to offer accessibility and empowerment, warmth and trust.

 

What has choking the streets of Croydon with hearses got to do with that?

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