Blog Archives: March 2009

From rags to riches

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Whether or not funerals are too expensive depends on how much money you’ve got and how you like to spend it. Some like to say it with a Batesville casket, mountains of flowers, a fleet of vintage Bentleys, prancing horses, a military band, the Red Arrows—the sky’s the limit. If you’ve got lots of dough to blow and, therewith, administer a little fiscal stimulus to some local service providers, that would seem to be wholly unobjectionable.

Others prefer something simpler. Of those, a significant proportion urgently need something simpler. If you are jobless and skint, no disgrace in times like these, the Social Fund will pay up to £700 towards the cost of a funeral. But you can’t get a mainstream funeral at anything like that price. The average cost of a simple funeral is £1050 and that doesn’t include disbursements, which will eat up £500+. You’ll be paying off the balance for what will feel like eternity. The Social Fund will only cough up after the funeral. No wonder so many undertakers are refusing to take on clients who need to apply to it. They think they may never get paid.

What advice for such as you?

First, understand that you can accomplish the really important purposes of a funeral for very little. The most important part of the process, the farewell ceremony, needn’t cost you a penny. Do it yourself.

Second, get rid of the trappings: the hearse, the cars, the banks of flowers. Does this mean doing away with dignity? Of course not. Dignity is how you behave, not stuff you rent.

What’s going to cost? The burial or cremation will cost a few bob. Cremation is a lot cheaper. For that, you’ll have to stump up roughly £350-450 to the crematorium plus £147 for two doctors to pronounce your dead person dead. You’ll probably want to buy a coffin, though you could just wrap your dead person in a shroud of some sort. A coffin on ebay will set you back just £115 + £20 delivery. You’ll need a suitable vehicle to take your dead person to the place of disposal. Say goodbye to £700. Show a finger to the Social Fund.

There’s paperwork to do. No problem there. And there’s the small problem of what to do with the body while you wait for the funeral.

Most hospitals will keep a body in their mortuary for nothing if a person dies in the hospital. Some will even do the same for someone who has died at home. The alternative is to bring the body home, but the problem here is keeping it cool enough to delay decomposition. You can do your best, and screw the coffin lid down so as to keep any bad smells inside. But you may think it safer, if the hospital will not cooperate, to ask a funeral director to do all this. You will almost certainly find an independent funeral director to let you use their fridge (the bigger firms just aren’t geared to it). This may cost you up to £25 a day.

On the day of the funeral, drive down to the hospital or the funeral director with your ebay coffin, pop your dead person inside, and off you go.

It’s an unconventional way of proceeding, for sure. Will your crematorium, hospital or, if you use one, funeral director treat you as if you were a bungling amateur and a bloody nuisance? Absolutely not. It’s a heartwarming fact, the sort of discovery that restores your faith in human nature, that most crematoriums can’t do enough for you. The same goes for hospital mortuaries where a small (customary) consideration, £10-20, will earn you yet more goodwill. Even funeral directors (the smaller the better) will put themselves out for you. You really will be supported every inch of the way.

Not spending more than you have is vital. If you are brave and hardworking you can save £1,000 you never had and create a really meaningful, memorable funeral. When it’s all over you may, because you courageously rolled your sleeves up, experience a species of satisfaction that the Red Arrows could never have given you. The same goes if you could have afforded it, but preferred to engage rather than outsource.

Short change

Friday, 27 March 2009

A series of shorts, today. Each is probably worth a post in its own right, but if I don’t get them off my chest now tomorrow will come and they will lie unremembered.

First, an interesting editorial in this month’s Funeral Service Journal, the UK’s Dismal Trade mag. It observes that “the spirit of entrepreneurship in funeral service is far from being dead,” and notes a marked proliferation of new businesses, both start-ups and new branches of established businesses. It acknowledges that “others—and particularly those of the new breed of funeral consultants or advisors—are likely to have occurred but escaped attention in this and similar periodicals.”

What’s going on here? This is what’s going on. Upstarts think they can do it better than the barnacled big boys, the ones who won’t move with the times and offer their clients the personal service they want. The big boys are trying to counter this by raising their profile. We live in interesting funerary times. There are too many undertakers out there. Probably 98% of the population live closer to an undertaker than they do to a police station. Something’s got to give. Darwin! thou shouldst be living at this hour.

Second, over in Jamaica, the Daily Gleaner notes an even more marked increase in the number of undertakers. Is this the shape of things to come here in the UK? “On almost every corner, there is a final-care facility, with as many as four funeral homes operating on at least one street.” Sonia Lewis of the Lewis Funeral home says “it can be a rat race out there to acquire the dead, between the established homes, the fledgling ones, and individuals who don’t even have a morgue to start with. The grounds of the Kingston Public Hospital are a major battlefield as the homes haggle with the families and relatives of the deceased. That’s where the agents come in. Daily, they vie with the established undertakers. I go to the hospital … It is sometimes frustrating because other persons (agents) might come in and say some derogatory things towards your funeral home.” The Gleaner goes on: “It can be a hostile environment with competitors engaging in heated verbal confrontations. Under-cutting is a major tactic, with costs being dropped at times to ridiculous lows.”

Thank goodness all we presently have to endure over here is Funeralcare’s telly ads.

Read the entire Gleaner piece here.

Third, there is an interesting blog by the priest of St Mary’s, Willesden, in which he reports that people are “by-passing Funeral Directors and Clergy and taking their relatives directly to the crematorium to keep costs down. I find that deeply disturbing.

Whilst I am aware that some people are cutting back by cutting out the celebrant, has anyone out there heard of anyone actually cutting out the undertaker?

Fourth, and still on the subject of cutting out the undertaker, but for reasons other than penury, you will enjoy this article about a home funeral from the Smithsonian Magazine.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Thursday, 26 March 2009

I was pretty rude last week about AB Walker and Son. Having been so, I fired off an email to Julian Walker offering a platform for a riposte.

Within a few days I had a reply. It was a cheery reply, a generous reply: the reply of a man who is confident but not at all arrogant, not a bit of it. “Congratulations,” he said, “on your move to push for more debate, openness, variety and choice of funeral options.” It’s what he wants for his clients, too. He is going to make some changes to his company’s website. He invited me to come and see for myself how his business does things and make a properly informed appraisal. I had already rather supposed that AB Walker and Son is a very good business, and several people have written to tell me that that is exactly what it is. But I shall certainly pay a visit. It is always good to spend time with people to whom funerals really matter.

How very different from the home life of our own, dear Co-operative Funeralcare. Judging by their reluctance to respond to stinging criticism and regular exposure of their worst inadequacies, they seem to regard themselves as immune from consumer examination, a juggernaut armour-plated by the bullshit they pay PR and advertising people to plaster them with. It’s unaccountable. I think they’re too smart to be rated stupid. If they had a really good story to tell about themselves they would fall over themselves to tell it. But they don’t. It’s money that does their talking. Funeralcare is expanding so fast it must reckon itself unstoppable. It’s a bit like the tanks rumbling into Tiananmen Square.

Do big chains of funeral directors provide the service and value you can get from a really good independent? Mostly, no. Why not? Too big = impersonal. Too greedy. There’re quite a lot of predating venture capitalists out there, you know, gorging on death. For them, funerals are a fast-track to mountains of moolah and they’re devouring independents as fast as they can. What’s a funeral director’s ideal size? Well, there’s no such thing as too small. What’s too big? There’s a topic for another day. Are there some truly awful tiny independents out there? Yes, there truly are. You can’t be too careful.

The sheer nastiness and cruelty of some of the big chains was brought home to me by the experience of a young man whom I shall not name, but whose story I have verified. When the funeral director for whom he worked was bought out,

“the whole company ethos changed, and I found that it was really at odds with my way of caring for and helping the clients. Something had to give. Having obstructed and objected to almost all of the new ways of working, I decided I could no longer continue, and began to look for another post with an independent firm. No such post being available in the area, and with my parents’ support, I began to look for premises in which I could open my own funeral home offering the standard of care and service I felt should always be given.”

It wasn’t straightforward. He had signed a non-compete clause with the big chain and undertaken not to open a rival business within 5 miles. He found premises more than five miles away – but more than five miles by road, not as the crow flies. For an undeviating crow the journey was a smidgen under.

“They made my life very difficult and did all in their power to prevent me from opening. I was threatened with high court action, I was followed by their staff, I was photographed going about my business and generally harassed as much as was practical. However, by this stage my mind was made up. After several threats of high court action and the like I felt I had no other negotiating power left so contacted our local newspaper, a reporter was sent to interview me, photographs were taken and a scathing article was written about them. The result – no further communications! Much relieved I began trading. On 1st April I will begin my fifth year’s trading. During the first four years I have been well supported by local families and to date the number of funerals has increased year on year.”

Why the mafia tactics? Inferiority complex, for sure. If you can’t join them, beat them. Up. The guilty company in the case above was the Fairways Partnership, ceo David Hendry. Fairways was bought up in 2006 by Funeralcare, present ceo none other than, you guessed it, the very selfsame David Hendry.

The funeral industry has been subjected to far too little piercing and informed consumer scrutiny. Together, we must change that.

Letters pray

Monday, 23 March 2009

I enjoyed a long chat with Ieuan Rees this morning about a logo I want him to design for me. He’s a lettercutter, a calligrapher and a sculptor. In case you’ve never heard of him, he is a major celeb in his field. I have long admired him and I am not ashamed to admit that, in the early part of our conversation, my tongue was frequently tied by hero-worship.

I have always revered lettercutters and calligraphers, not only because I haven’t the aptitude to be one myself, but also because it’s one of those crafts you cannot master unless your heart and your head are in the right place. The making of beautiful letters is a spiritual exercise requiring discipline and stillness, craft and virtue, and a long, long apprenticeship. Here is Ieuan at work:

Ieuan told me something which heartened me. He’s getting more commissions than ever for headstones. People are fed up with the fare offered by so-called monumental masons, who sound as if they are craftspeople but they’re not; they’re completely mechanised. People are fed up with the lack of personal service and the sterile options the monumental masons present them with. They want something unique and beautiful. They want to work with a craftsperson who listens to them. They want to drop in from time to time and see the work being done (by a human with a chisel, not by a sandblasting machine).

A few days ago I had an email from Frances Hook at Memorials by Artists. Here is an organisation which can put you in touch with an artist who will create your headstone or memorial. It also publishes two useful books, a guide to commissioning a memorial and a guide to choosing a memorial for a young person (under 30). It has a sister charity, The Memorial Arts Charity, which nurtures “Britain’s long tradition of fine lettering and memorial art”. From 3 April until 1 November this year it is holding an exhibition entitled Art and Memory in the gardens of West Dean, near Chichester. It’s a must-see.

The wonderful brush lettering at the top of this post is by Tom Kemp, a genius. Read what he says about his craft on his website.

In her email to me, Frances attached this photo:

Pomp your funeral

Monday, 16 March 2009

There’s nothing like a good funeral procession, a walking funeral procession. It’s a much underestimated component of a good funeral. Regrettably, most people do not bother to have one at all, these days. Only the famous and those who stand for something get proper cortege. And Romanies, of course; they still know how to do a proper funeral.

Poor PC Carroll probably wouldn’t have earned a cortege in his own right, but the circumstances of his death, and its context, accorded him one. It gave an opportunity for the community visibly to close its ranks and, by honouring him, to assert its values. His funeral was about him and about much more besides, and this is something any cortege will register. A funeral is about a dead person, yes. It is also about bonds of family, ties of friendship, the strength of professional relationships and an enduring sense of community. A funeral asserts that these are interdependent and they matter. The verticality of the mourners, in contrast with the dead person’s horizontality, demonstrates that the living go defiantly on. Death has no dominion.

A day-to-day funeral procession in the UK normally features an undertaker walking in front of a hearse followed by one or more limousines filled with those closest to the dead person. Everybody else, whether family, friends or community, precedes the procession and waits outside the crematorium or inside the church. Why don’t they walk either in front of or behind the hearse? Today’s impatiently parping traffic only makes that impossible up to a point. It would be good to see mourners at least gather at the gates of the crematorium and follow the hearse on foot.

Who should walk in front of the hearse? You will have your own ideas about that. How did it come about that undertakers walk in front? Haven’t a clue. Don’t know why that should be. And given how badly it is often done, I’m surprised it hasn’t been done away with.

Some funeral directors unquestionably put on a magnificent show and create a particular sense of occasion. They bear themselves well, wear their fancy dress with elan and create a spectacle. I can see why that would appeal. Female undertakers can put on as good a show as the men. They can look marvellous, dead sexy, in full fig, and don’t they know it. There’s a dominatrix aspect to female funeral directors which they are decidedly not unaware of.

But far too many an undertaker cuts a dowdy sight, hair bad, shoulders wrong, feet flat, face arranged in an unconvincing rictus. Their fancy dress is costume hire quality and their footwear is nowhere near parade ground standard.

The undertaker at PC Carroll’s funeral was a pretty good example. Displaced from the front of the cortege, he walked, asymmetrically, alongside his vehicle. He carried, of all things, an umbrella. Why? Maybe it’s a local custom. It doesn’t work. You can’t walk that slowly and swing a brolly. What should he have done with it instead? Answers on a postcard,please. Look at the clip and you will see that his face displays no sense of what he’s doing there. What use is he? I don’t think he knows.

What is a funeral director’s role at a funeral? Apart from noting that the presence of any stranger is anomalous, I shrink from prescription. Each to their own, that’s what I think.

But it’s something, I hope, that every funeral director negotiates with each family in the light of all the possible options.

This next clip, of Michael Collins’s funeral, bears little relevance to the foregoing. My excuse is that it shows a funeral procession; my reason is that I always enjoy the dog in it.

Co-operative Funeralcare and the GMB: a response

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Here is a response from Phil Edwards, Head of Public Relations at The Co-operative, to the stance which The Good Funeral Guide has taken on Co-operative Funeralcare’s derecognition of the GMB union, which I reproduce unmediated. You should read it together with the statement by the GMB.

Dear Mr Cowling,

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to comments made by yourself and Phil Davies from the GMB union in The Good Funeral Guide.

It is now two years since we took the decision to derecognise the GMB. The decision was taken because we need to work with unions which operate across the Group’s range of businesses and have an in-depth understanding of the overall commercial backdrop against which it operates. The GMB had the smallest membership of Funeralcare’s three main non-specialist unions and unlike both Unite and USDAW, had no significant representation in other Co-operative Group businesses. Whilst it is the case that UCATT has fewer members in Funeralcare and does not have members elsewhere in the Group, a sizeable proportion of its membership is made up of stonemasons who are not represented by any other union.

Whilst some 150 funeral workers in Co-operative Funeralcare are in membership of the GMB, more than seven times that number are members of Usdaw within Funeralcare. Usdaw has around 20,000 members across the Co-operative Group.

We fully respect the rights of all of employees to belong to any trade union of their choosing and continue to provide ‘check-off’ facilities in respect of union subscriptions for GMB members. Mr Davies’ claims regarding victimisation of staff are entirely without foundation

The decision was taken with the full backing of the Group’s board and remains final. It is also worth noting that the engagement score of The Co-operative Funeralcare’s staff – a key measure of their commitment to the business – has steadily increased over the last four years and now matches the high level set in other trading sectors of The Co-operative Group. Union membership within Funeralcare is also at an all time high.

Yours sincerely

Phil Edwards

Death is on everyone’s lips

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

There’s an interesting piece in Monday’s Guardian by Madeliene Bunting examining the current popular appetite for death, and its focus on, inter alia, Jade Goody, Ivan Cameron, Wendy Richard, and Peter and Penny Duff, who killed themselves in Switzerland.

For a full fortnight, it seems, every frontpage story in the Sun was about death. Ms Bunting observes: “The British economy is in free fall, but for a good section of the population, the subject about which they most want to read, watch or surf is death … at a time when millions fear losing their job, when the future looks unremittingly gloomy, one might imagine people would want cheering up rather than … more misery.

Good point. Why so? Ms Bunting goes on to observe: “The most striking thing about the coverage is how celebratory it is. All the characters concerned are “brave” and “strong” … It was as if we were being given permission to feel good about human nature.”

She concludes: “From being baffled, I have come round to thinking that this preoccupation with death has an extraordinarily positive dimension. It is part of a grasping for something of real and lasting value. It is a reaction against an incomprehensible world where trillions of pounds are bouncing around balance sheets without meaning. It’s a drilling down to the irreducible basics of human life: love and death.

Read the whole piece here.

Free radicals

Monday, 9 March 2009

A waft of spring gets the blood coursing, makes your toes wiggle. It’s time to peep out of the burrow and see what’s up.

I’ll tell you what’s up. Transitus is having a get together at Bowden House just outside Totnes. It’ll take a full three hours to get there, but it’s M5 almost all the way. For us benighted Midlanders the M5 is our holiday motorway, our yellow brick road. I’m going to throw the dogs in the car and vroom happily down. There’ll definitely be a wizard or two at journey’s end.

There’s been an abatement of activity among funeral radicals since the Natural Death Centre abated. Transitus is the only group I know which brings together vanguard thinkers and practitioners. Its membership is a mosaic. Some I know, others I have yet to meet. I can’t wait.

Here’s how they describe themselves:

The Network comprises a growing group of people working in a way that honours all aspects
of life – mind, body, spirit and emotions – that are involved with the sacred process of dying.
Our aims are: to release fears and taboos; support those dying and bereaved; raise awareness of ‘green’ and family based approaches to death; and to encourage the acceptance of the concept of continuity of consciousness. The Network also supports its members so that none of us feels alone. Members include those working with: palliative care nursing, midwifing the soul; music thanatology; alternative funerals and celebrations; natural burials; grief counselling; life after death; related workshops; and more.

They don’t have website yet, but you can learn more and make contact through the Martinsey Trust. If you think they’re for you, join.

See you there!

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