Whose funeral is it anyway?

Charles Cowling

If you want to open a cattery in the UK you need a licence. Cat care is regulated. If you want to open a funeral home you need nothing of the sort, no exams, no professional qualifications, no previous experience—nothing. Anyone can do it, scoundrels, incompetents, sex-workers, school leavers, sociopaths, stand-up comics. The care of the dead is anybody’s business.


Shocking, isn’t it? Scandalous? Something must be done?


No. Definitely not.


Why not?


Two reasons.


First, an undertaker doesn’t do anything that you couldn’t, in a way that a plumber, say, almost certainly can. The dead are wholly safe in the hands of amateurs so long as they (the amateurs) are up for it, for there’s nothing you can do to a dead body in a well intentioned way which that dead body will actually mind. Looking after our dead is not the exclusive preserve of a secular priesthood possessed of arcane knowledge. No, you could produce a training manual in three sentences: Keep cool. Wash it. Pop it in a box. (The bit about keeping cool is deliberately ambiguous.) For DIY embalmers, on the other hand, one sentence will suffice: Don’t. (It could so easily all go wrong and you’ll have to redecorate.)


Many undertakers would have us suppose that they are professional people. Some shore up this aspiration by accruing professional qualifications. They diligently study for exams and are duly garlanded with the Diploma in Funeral Directing (Dip FD). They want to inspire our confidence in them, and good for them.


For a professional qualification to be of any use it must assign value to that which is objectively measurable. The hallmark of a good plumber is technical expertise, and boy do we want a measurement of that.


But the hallmark of a good funeral director (virtually his or her exclusive attribute) is emotional intelligence. There are no criteria for the objective measurement of that, neither can there be a requisite intellect-size. The Dip FD is an indicator of earnest good intent, but it cannot and does not separate sheep from goats. The right undertaker for you is not necessarily the right undertaker for everybody.


And so it comes to pass that many of the UK’s best undertakers are untrained and don’t give a fig for professional qualifications. Some of the best of the best are self-taught. Undertakers, you see, get better, first, by doing and being, and only then by book-learning. The question of whether or not undertaking is a profession or a trade is a parlour game for job snobs.


The second reason for resisting the professionalisation and regulation of undertakers is this. When someone dies it is the next of kin who is responsible for disposing of the body. If that’s you, then you’re in charge and every buck stops with you. You are, actually, the funeral director. You have to register the death. You have to apply for burial or cremation. You have to see it through. You have to demonstrate that you did. Only you can do those things, and you don’t have to pass any exams first.


The role of the undertaker, if you use one, is secondary, subordinate and collaborative. It is to do those things (and only those things) that you are allowed to delegate and which you don’t want to do yourself. If you don’t need a qualification, why on earth would he or she?


This is why a funeral parlour is not like, say, a restaurant. A meal out is not a participative event; the chef and staff are not your collaborators. You put yourself entirely, trustingly, into their hands and take what you’re given. If that’s toxic food and awful service, that’s their fault and your bad luck.


But an undertaker is your partner, your deputy. The right one for you is the one who listens, understands you, sees where you’re coming from and can interpret your needs and wishes. An undertaker is potentially a person of immense importance to you because he or she can guide you through unfamiliar territory and work with you to create a send-off for your dead person which will be, both, worthy of that dead person and, also, of immeasurable emotional value to you.


If you choose a lousy funeral director then, sorry, that’s your bad luck and it is also your fault, because you failed to conduct the job interview properly. Yes, you have recourse to consumer protection laws, but redress after an event like a funeral is always going to fall well short.


That’s a tough judgement to make on people who stumble on the wrong undertaker, their judgement clouded by strong emotion. A funeral is often described as a distress purchase, but it doesn’t have to be and really it shouldn’t be, any more than a new car is a distress purchase because your old one fell to bits.


Lousy undertakers will stay lousy for as long as they can enjoy, in a predatory way, clients whose emotional confusion and lack of consumer research cause them passively to outsource all decision-making to someone who stands to make money out of them.


Lousy undertakers can never be improved by training courses and goverment regulation.


The only people who can turn around or exterminate lousy undertakers are clients who exert informed expectations. These clients are, of course, the ones the best undertakers enjoy working with most. These are the clients who bring out the best in them.


Once upon a time communities looked after their dead. Many Muslims and Jews still do. Yet, wistfully as we may gaze upon that golden age, let’s recognise that there is no general inclination to return to it. So: undertakers are here to stay.


That being so, it is important to define their status. If we look on the dark side we can say that they have worked at it; they have worked hard to become indispensable. They have vacuumed up the roles of laying-out woman, carpenter and carrier. To these they have added the role of collector of fees for burial grounds, crematoriums and celebrants. They hold all service providers in dependency. They have assigned to themselves certain concocted, half-baked traditions in order to create an illusion of the timelessness of their calling, in honour of which they ponce about in cod-Victorian attire. They have assumed primacy. Many of them have bolstered that with self-importance. Gauleiters, some of them.


The result? Most people believe that they are required by law offer up their dead to an undertaker.


Professionalising and regulating undertakers can only reinforce the perception that they are the default disposers of the dead and, worse, move them a step closer to being the only people licensed to do so.


You are the default disposer of your dead. The undertaker, if you choose to engage one, is your agent. That is your ancient right, and that right defines your responsibility both to yourself and to your dead. Let us honour all those superb undertakers out there who embrace that.


Our dead belong to us. Let us not give them up.

One thought on “Whose funeral is it anyway?

  1. All Around the World News

    The Good Funeral Guide ? Whose funeral is it anyway?…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…


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