A Happy New Year to the FSJ

Charles Cowling

It’s a busy business, an undertaker’s, at this time of the year. Jan and Feb are the popular months to die, and why wouldn’t they be? Nature imparts no vitality. The spirit ebbs with the seeping daylight.

In between the bagged bodies coming in and the boxed bodies going out there are families to see, funerals to coordinate (a flurry of phone calls), doctors dropping in to certify lifelessness and visitors in the chapel of rest contemplating it.

If that schedule leaves scraps of time for undertakers to sip a cup of coffee and dunk a grateful Rich Tea, it also gives them time to savour their latest FSJ — their Funeral Service Journal.

It can’t be easy, writing for undertakers, because there’s never much news to tell them. The FSJ’s editor, Brian Parsons, does a valiant job and tries to get his readers thinking and talking. In December’s edition he presents us with some mildly contentious issues and delights us all with a new sans serif typeface.

He shows us, as ever, photos of undertakers opening new or refurbished funeral homes, undertakers standing beside new hearses, undertakers winning training awards. A director of a coffin manufacturer celebrates 40 years’ service with a new numberplate for his car: COF 1N. A man in Australia has invented an embalming machine powered by compressed air. There are ads for coffins, cremfilm, mortuary cabinets, remembrance items and frockcoats, single and double breasted. There’s a scholarly article about biers and another describing the work of Dr W Edwards Deming, “credited with one of the most significant paradigm shirts in history.” Ah, the FSJ wouldn’t be the FSJ without its typos.

There’s a good account of a meeting of Anglican clergy and undertakers guaranteed to make any insider smile. The clergy are cross. They object to undertakers trespassing on the liturgy by passing on requests for secular readings. They object to undertakers asking families what hymns they want to sing. They object to undertakers booking a slot at the crem without consulting them, planning the printed order of service and using retired clergy in favour of the incumbent.

Of course, the clergy are quite right. The funeral itself is none of a funeral director’s business. They are also quite wrong because a funeral can only happen if hearse, crematorium, organist, service sheets and officiant synchronise. Even the dead must meet deadlines. The person responsible for achieving that complex coincidence is the funeral director. If the officiant isn’t answering his or her phone, a funeral director is quite rightly (and urgently) going to find someone who will. Where requested hymns and readings are concerned, the funeral director is only acting as the agent of the family.

As a celebrant, I am always pleased to know what a family wants. It’s good to know that they have started thinking about the funeral, because time is short. If they subsequently change their mind, that’s not a problem. Funeral directors are always open to the charge of being control freaks, but almost always in a good cause. Compared with what I do, I’d describe much of their work as drudgery and I am extremely grateful to them for doing it. Only once has a funeral director tried to influence one of my ceremonies, and even then only for good, if misguided, motives.

The editor of the FSJ invites his readers to write in and say if there ought to be a code of practice between clergy and funeral directors. I’d like to think he includes secular celebrants, too. My suspicion is that not many will, but I hope I shall be proved wrong.

We all have to be ready to jump when the funeral director rings; it’s the nature of the business. The clergy will not reclaim funerals with displays of pettish self importance.

I am looking forward to another year of FSJs. I wish Brian Parsons and his journal the compliments of the season — and all readers of this blog, too.

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