Blog Archives: September 2009

Two Feet in the Grave

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Eagerly awaited by many in the death industry and its attendant commentators—the croaking classes?—was Richard Wilson’s Two Feet in the Grave on BBC last night.

It marks an encouraging evolution in the media’s handling of death and dying away from fixations with wackiness—way out coffins, seriously outrageous funeral songs—to a considered survey of the development, in an increasingly secular and individualistic society, of new death rituals.

There are strengths—sequences behind the scenes at the crem and the hospital mortuary. There are weaknesses. We visit Jane Austen’s cottage where people are dumping ashes furtively on flowerbeds, but this is not placed in the broader context of ashes scattering. We spend ages at Sheila Dicks’ embalming school without learning just how invasive embalming is, and we spend another age with Glennys Howarth looking at post mortem photos from long ago. This is a custom still awaiting revival (I’m all for it).

But we spend only fleeting moments in a natural burial ground with Ken West. Natural burial is of far greater interest to people than post mortem photography. Environmental arguments against cremation are urgent. This was a serious imbalance.

For all that, it was good to see some of the great and the good. Carl Marlow had his say, and the blessed Paul Sinclair. And there’s no arguing with the programme’s conclusion: talking about death takes away its sting and enhances a love of life.

Yes, it’s worth an hour of your time. Natural burialists will have their hour another day.

Find it here.


Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Here’s the latest in online memorialisation. Intriguing. I don’t know that I’ve entirely got my head around it, but that’s my age (Dr Alzheimer is the wolf at my door).

This is how it works:
MemorialTags was created by David, a retired soldier and family man, and someone with a keen interest in mobile technology and writing.

It was whilst writing his latest novel that David decided he wanted to integrate technology with books. And he achieved this by using two dimensional bar codes that can be scanned with any mobile phone. This meant that while reading a book, a reader can get closer to the action by scanning a ‘tag’ and seeing images, characters, video, music, scene of crimes etc. displayed on their mobile phone.

When writing, David would often go to the small cemetery in his village to tend the grave of his baby son Matthew, who passed away in 2003. It was one of these days that changed his life completely. Whilst sitting quietly looking across the cemetery at all the different gravestones, David wondered who all the people might have been. Did they have families? What kind of jobs did they do? What kind of life did they have? All these questions and many more can never be answered by a single piece of carved stone. Instead, all we can do is try and remember the people we have loved and lost until our memory fails. And, sadly, when that happens, the link to the next generation is lost, as stories about certain characters in families are forgotten.

It was at this point that David decided to utilise his knowledge and technical ability to change this, and create a system that would allow anyone to preserve memories of family, partners, friends.

Research and Development followed with intense testing of materials and technology platforms. And MemorialTags came on the market in 2009.

Find out more at the rather good website here.

Local hero

Monday, 28 September 2009

In the matter of household shopping we look back nostalgically to the high street of yesteryear. Ah, those were the days. The butcher, the baker, the grocer. Ooh, hello, Postman Pat! In every shop a cheery greeting. And great personal service.

Gone. For ever. Whatever happened to them?

You bankrupted them. Yes, you.

You trooped off to the unloveable supermarket, didn’t you, where the food is fresher, the choice greater, the prices lower? Sure, the experience is impersonal, but does that bother you? No. You can look after yourself, thank you very much.

Small may be beautiful but bigger is better. Beastly it may be, but biggest is best.

Affordability is the critical factor here. Yes, a handbuilt car is the one you’d like. In your dreams. Back here on earth, c’mon let’s get grounded, the mass produced car is the one you can afford.

Funerals are no exception. You don’t want a production line funeral. You don’t want to be borne to your final resting place by Tesco. You don’t want to deal with a faceless organisation. You’d rather interact with humans who seem to care about you, have time for you, people who answer to you, not their line manager.

You want a bespoke, handbuilt, boutique funeral. Because small is beautiful.

And here we come to one of the great paradoxes of the funeral industry:

You can have one!

Any business which can reduce its unit price can make itself more affordable. Any undertaking enterprise that can open a few branches, share a car pool, operate a central mortuary, drive deals with coffin makers and other suppliers and work its employees to death, can, according to the immutable laws of business, do it cheaper. Obviously.

But they don’t.

In fact, a handbuilt funeral, a boutique undertaker, is likely to cost you considerably less than one of the big chains.

Whaa?! Why do they charge more?

Because they can. Because they’re greedy.

If you’re not going to compete on price, what’s left? Service, of course. But service, as we know, consumes time. It is the first victim of economies of scale. That doesn’t matter a bit if you’re buying your groceries. But when you buy a funeral, it’s service that matters most.

And it’s because the big chains of funeral directors, most of them, can’t offer what most people want most—service—that they’ve got nothing to boast about. So, when they buy up a small, independent undertaker, they don’t put a huge poster in the window proclaiming UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT! Oh no. They go on sort of pretending to be the little guy they bought out. Are they ashamed to confess who they are? You answer that. Is this practice a bit shady? The judgement is entirely yours.

Can’t be too careful in my business. I used to hold the romantic notion that the law was all about justice until a property developer, enraged by my naïveté, told me it was all about intimidation. “You hire the most expensive barrister you can afford and you bloody well terrify the living s**t out of them!” he yelled patiently. He did it a lot. The yelling, too. He drove a handbuilt car.

Down in Sandhurst, Berkshire, Holmes and Sons, Funeral Directors, are keen to point out to their customers the difference between themselves and their competitors. This is the point of marketing: to define your USP and set yourself apart. Would that other funeral directors understood this First Law. On their unusually well written website David Holmes says this:

Locally it can be hard to know who is who in the funeral business. Some companies trade with names that can easily confuse. Camberley & District funeral directors are in fact the Co-op, as are George Parker in Yateley. In Fleet the Co-op name appears above the door. In some parts of Surrey & Hampshire, the Office of Fair Trading has forced the Co-op to sell some funeral businesses. They had become too dominant, there was a lack of real competition said the OFT. The Co-op´s legal people insist we tell you that being big doesn´t of course mean being bad.

In Fleet, Farnborough and Frimley the Goddards & Ford–Mears firms are in fact owned by a major independent UK car dealer. Mr Goddard sold out many years ago; we suspect local families would have no idea who actually owns the businesses nowadays, they just remember the name. In Aldershot ´Finches´ are now part of Dignity Plc, a major national chain trading with hundreds of names.

We believe bereaved families benefit from dealing with owners rather than managers answering to distant directors. With David Holmes & Sons YOU are the priority, not Head Office rules and figures. Our service is second to none – our charges are reasonable. We´re not under pressure to sell you anything. For your protection, we are members of both respected trade associations.

The gist of what Mr Holmes has to say here is easily grasped: he is beset by Co-ops and by branches belonging to other funeral chains, and they are not, he reckons, trading transparently. Many of these branches are owned by Southern Co-operatives, an independent Co-op society which, nonetheless, is about to re-brand its funeral operation under Funeralcare, yet retain its independence. Confused? I am. Why the heck would they want to do that?

The OFT did, indeed, compel The Co-operative Group Limited (CWG), the mother of Funeralcare, to sell off some of its branches following its purchase of the Fairways Group in 2006. The OFT’s grounds were that this acquisition could result in substantial lessening of competition in specified areas. When CWG proposed to sell some of its branches to Southern Co-ops it was told that it must not on the grounds that Southern was not “independent of and unconnected to CGL”.

All this information is in the public domain. Mr Holmes’s facts are easily checked and verified.

But his is a new business in the area. He is an independent, and proud of it. What, therefore, is the response of the Co-op? Raise its game? Trade transparently? Meet Mr Holmes on his own ground?

None of the above. They want to meet him in the High Court. Yes, can you believe it, they’re threatening legal action against Mr Holmes unless he removes the reference to the Office of Fair Trading. Is this Southern Co-ops or Funeralcare doing the suing? Sue King, press officer at Southern Co-ops, has promised to tell me.

Nice one, Co-op. If you can’t beat em, trash em.

In your dreams.

Natural burial – it’s against nature!

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Natural burial ticks alot of eco-boxes—but how many emo-boxes? They’re good for butterflies and vetches and voles and honeysuckle—but are they any good for living people? They may satisfy the head, but can they ever satisfy the heart?

Over in the US, Thomas Friese is developing his website, Perpetua’s Garden, as a place where people can debate human and environmental needs in the matter of memorialising their dead and, he hopes, discover solutions which will enable cemeteries of the future to fulfil a satisfactory dual function. I am indebted to Mr Friese for enriching my own thinking about the matter, and for the link to the following story.

Here in the UK, there’s trouble up at t’natural burial ground in Bridport, Dorset. Angry grievers have, according to the local paper, branded it an “overgrown disgrace”. Most of the graves are now covered by a sea of grass and weeds just as nature intended. Mrs Jill Tuck can no longer see her brother’s grave. When she complained to the council (the owner), she was told she was not supposed to be able to see it. Mrs Tuck is having none of that. She and her husband are going to strim the burial ground. In what we may take to be injured tones, the council protests that they’re not supposed to do that, nor should they plant trees “willy-nilly”.

The council has a point, of course. Mrs Tuck seems completely to have missed the point of natural burial. And it’s not as if the council did not spell out what she was signing up for:

The woodland burial area offers a natural form of burial in an area of wood and grassland and is situated at the far eastern end of the Cemetery. The site contributes towards the creation of a sanctuary for wild plants, birds, butterflies and other small wildlife.

Trees, shrubs and hedges have been planted and pathways cut in the field where wild flowers grow. The burial area is managed to create a peaceful area in natural surroundings. Accordingly, a natural environment is being created and developed that is comforting to visitors and future generations.

But was this enough information to enable Mrs Tuck to make a radical decision at a time of great grief? Was she very carefully talked through her decision? Was she brought to an understanding that natural burial means making what is emotionally a very tough choice because it means, literally, losing the plot?

The two hardest things about natural burial: it gives you nowhere to go (no demarcated grave to stand beside) and nothing to do. Sure, yes, it’s not the grave that commemorates the life, it’s the entire site. But here’s the point: is this site a memorial landscape or is it just any old landscape? What makes it a memorial landscape? And can a landscape like this meet the emotional needs of any but a very few?

Mrs Tuck is not alone. Mrs Henley-Coulson buried her husband in the natural burial ground at Bridport. After two years the grave was so overgrown she lost her way—and started tending someone else’s grave by mistake. Did anyone carefully explain to Mrs Henley-Coulson before she committed herself that you don’t tend graves in a natural burial ground; that it’s not the the grave that commemorates the life, it’s…

Mrs Henley-Coulson has planted bluebells, primroses and cowslips. On the wrong grave. As she rightly says, “Someone is going to have a surprise in the spring.”

She goes on to make some good points. She says:

“Your head is all over the place when you lose someone … Ideally I would like a meeting with the council. I feel they should give leaflets stating what your rights are and what you can expect … I want to know what rules apply – are we allowed to cut the grass ourselves, are we allowed to plant bulbs? What type of trees will they plant themselves and will the grass disappear when they are established or will it resemble a wildflower meadow? All these things are important. We, and I mean everybody, have just suffered a bereavement and cannot always think logically. In my own case I had to make the decision and on reflection feel it may have been the wrong one.”

Stand at any natural burial ground and watch the visitors. Most have eyes for only one thing: the grave. Everything else is peripheral.

It’s only human nature.

Read the two stories in the Bridport News here and here.

Sky’s the limit?

Monday, 21 September 2009

Civilisation drives a wedge between us and nature. We prefer the artificial to the elemental, an iPhone to a sunset. When we hit a problem we look to technology to get us out of a hole. Cremation did that very well – till we discovered just what awfulness comes out of those chimneys. Now we look to research scientists and engineers and people who can do clever things with liquid nitrogen to take us forward once more.

When death happens, though, many of us default to the elemental. Some of us like natural burial. Some of us like funeral pyres. Others like the way the Vikings did it.

I’m not aware of much call for sky burial. But we have some very good uplands in the UK and many hungry raptors. I’d like to think that the Natural Death Centre is on to this, campaigning for it, and I shouldn’t be surprised to hear that they are. Hill farmers are finding things very tough at the moment. Here’s how they can diversify.

Don’t know what sky burial looks like? If you have a detached eye and an unqueasy disposition, make your own assessment. Have a look at a video here

You were the future, once…

Friday, 18 September 2009

Interesting piece in this month’s Funeral Service Journal (FSJ), the undertakers’ trade mag, by Howard Hogson.

Howard Hodgson? He was the young turk who bought his dad’s ailing funeral home in Birmingham for £14,00 in 1975 and embarked on an acquisition spree which had landed him 546 branches by 1991, at which time he pocketed the cash, some £7 million, and retired to dabble in other areas of enterprise, mostly with conspicuous unsuccess. Something of a futurologist, our Mr H. Or not, as we shall see.

In FSJ he bewails the passing of the old-school funeral director. Where is he now, he asks, the “well-respected local man who arrived at the deceased’s home and announced he’d be conducting the funeral? The man who established which were the family flowers to be placed on the coffin. The man who then noted down the names of the mourners for each limousine and proceeded, when all was ready, to nod from the front door so that the hearse could pull forward and the hearse driver return to open the limousine door as the first limousine pulled into place and the conductor returned inside to read out those first six names and repeat the exercise until all the limousines had been loaded outside the front door. The man who thanked the people in the street for having taken the trouble to pay their last respects before walking the cortege down the road, gliding on board without the hearse stopping, and setting the route and speed in order to arrive three minutes before the service time so that the opening sentences were said by the priest bang on time.”

Sorry, it’s a long quote, but it almost amounts to a valuable if, at this remove, slightly risible historical document. And I guess a lot of people who saw this piece chuckled ironically, for this historical figure from the Golden Age of funerals was also the person dumped on his arse by Mr Hodgson’s management methods.

“Old chaps,” he calls them, now. “A dying breed. The conductors of today would do well to learn from them before there are none left and their art is dead.”

Does Hodgson have a point of any potency? Yes, I think he does. If it’s a so-called traditional funeral you want, a funeral conductor occupies a ceremonial role. As such it’s not a role that can be discharged diffidently or scruffily. Everything must be just so. Uniform, bearing and performance must be impeccable. Sense of occasion is all. The conductor must set the tone by lending majesty to the obsequies.

And a great many conductors today are not smartly turned out. Zitty twerps, hulking yobs, cocky shortarses—we get all sorts, these days. It’s worse than just a letdown to see the hearse paged by some unimpressive physical specimen with bad hair, flat feet and an unconvincingly arranged facial rictus. Top hats and morning coats are often of little better than costume-hire quality. Shoes are awful. Scuffed, cheap, squashy, AWFUL!

To what does Mr Hodgson’s near-mythical conductor owe his ceremonial eminence? Why, tradition, of course. Today’s funeral procession is the descendant of the Victorian funeral procession, itself the descendant of the ancient heraldic funeral devised in the mists of the Middle Ages by the College of Arms. There’s a proud history here, a wealth of ‘eritage—and, of course, a lingering Victorian aesthetic.

At the same time, we must observe that Victorians would regard today’s funeral procession as a pale and diluted version of the sort of show they were accustomed to put on. Yes, the Victorian funeral procession has evolved, of course it has, thank god it has.

But, crucially, you’ve got to ask yourself whether that evolution has simply brought it to the verge of extinction.

A funeral procession, like any procession, is only any good if it can proceed at a walking pace and incorporate both vehicles and pedestrians. It is welcome only if the populace agrees to give it road room. And while the inhabitants of Wootton Bassett readily give over their high street to corteges bearing the bodies of dead service people, and while the inhabitants of countless towns and villages give over their roads to their festive carnivals, it is a sad fact of modern life that, for most of our citizens, a funeral is a private, not a universal, event. It does not arrest people as they go about their business. It is not accorded reverent attention. On the contrary, a funeral procession to most is a matter of indifference and, to most motorists, a lumbering nuisance to be parped at and cut in on. As a result, a hearse is customarily followed only by a small number of vehicles. The majority of mourners go straight to the venue, park and wait. Why are they not accorded an opportunity to gather at, say, the gates and follow the coffin on foot? Is a hundred metres or so too short a distance for a proper procession? No, it is not. But here another fact of modern life comes into play to harry and deplete a ceremonial procession: at crematoria, in particular, there simply isn’t time for all that.

Is it time to pronounce the funeral procession dead? I think not. Humankind has formed processions of all sorts since the dawn of time. It’s something we’re hardwired to do. The funeral procession will revive, no doubt about it. But will it revive in the Victorian tradition of Mr Hodgson’s “old chaps”? I think not.

Why so? Simply because, for the “old chaps”, every funeral conformed to the same look, the same style, the same level of formality. But we do not live in an age of conformity, Mr Hodgson, not any more, we live in an age of unique, personalised, participative funerals which owe nothing to Victorian values or a Victorian aesthetic and, increasingly, nothing to orthodox religious practice. At events like this the traditional funeral director and bearers look increasingly anachronistic and out of place, if not downright unpleasant.

The Victorian funeral was all about hush and awe. The modern funeral addresses itself to celebrating the life. It is in this context that the clobber favoured by so many funeral directors is not a delightful nod to the past (as are the uniforms of, say, Chelsea Pensioners), but an underworldly, Hammer Horror fancy dress which casts dread over the event.

The funeral of the past, every one the same, belonged to Hodgson’s “old chaps”. Not any more, they don’t. In the words of Thomas Lynch, “the dead belong to their people.” So do their funerals. And if those people want every one different, it is for funeral directors, in their role as event organisers, to cater for this.

That’s why, Mr Hodgson, you see “the smartly turned-out [conductors] of today … standing by as the eldest son of the deceased seems to be conducting proceedings.” Deplore it all you want, I’m afraid you’re going to see more of it: funeral directors doing what they are bloody well told, tables turned. It is time for your “dying breed”, undeniably wonderful in their day, to be DNR-ed. Let us hope they will not spin in their graves.

Meanwhile, up in Solihull, John Hall at Colour My Funeral has arranged insurance for any mourner over the age of 25 to drive his hearse. That’s a first, yes? Way to go, John! Love it!

Seriously funny

Thursday, 17 September 2009

“You shouldn’t have joined the Army if you can’t take a joke.” That’s what a soldier used to say to a friend writhing in agony with a bullet in his guts. Perhaps soldiers still do. Dark humour abounds on battlefields. It expresses courage and insouciance, admirable traits when ‘The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,/ And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.’

Private Kevin Elliott and his best friend Barry Delaney made a pact: whoever died first, the other would wear a dress to his funeral.

Kevin was killed in Helmand on 31 August. Barry was, as you can see in the photo, as good as his word.

Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

So, farewell, then, Keith Floyd. Others have celebrated your cooking and your maverick and disastrous lifestyle. It is the custom of dull people to envy tortured souls who hit the heights and plumb the depths. In truth, it was only sometimes fun being you. You taught us much, though, about what a marvellous thing the human spirit can be when unhitched from judiciousness.

While others celebrate the life, it behoves the Good Funeral Guide to celebrate the death, for here, too, Keith Floyd has much to teach us. He made it look easy. Enviable. We’d all like to go like that, with a bellyful of oysters and partridge washed down with a selection of fine wines. In the words of Rabbie Burns, “If there’s another world he lives in bliss; / If there is not, he made the best of this.”

He was only 65, his life shortened, perhaps, by reckless boozing and far too many fags. We can hear the lifestyle police, the virtue-riddled rectitudinous pleasure-poopers, tsk-tsk-ing as they do when almost anyone dies these days, as if death were a self-inflicted alternative to immortality, despite the fact that even the virtuous, some of them, die young for no good reason, as if death ever did reason.

We’ve never lived longer and we’re supposed to feel very pleased about this. The government takes great, self-congratulatory pride in it. But at what cost? If we follow the puritanical precepts of the lifestyle police there’s now every chance that our virtuous, pulse-nourished bodies will outlive our blameless, dementia-raddled brains by years and years and years and years of incontinent bewilderment. Are we living longer or merely lingering longer?

There’s a lot of talk these days about the good death. Why? Because dying has become so protracted and horrible. Because it’s never before taken so long to succumb to the illness that’ll do us in. As a result there have probably never been so many alive who earnestly desire to depart in peace, or whose death is earnestly desired by those who love them. Never before has there been so much talk about assisted dying. Never before has death been so feared—and for good reason.

Yes, we understand all too bleakly that our end will likely be a difficult rearguard action protracted by the helpful, often urgent intervention of brilliant medics. If you have spent time by the bed of a dying person, you know that keenly.

Keith Floyd’s life teaches us that the more fully we live, the better we die; that rather than eke out our days on a diet of self-denial we should use them up with gusto, in a spirit of recklessness born of an understanding that Reaper G is as likely to cull the good as spare the wicked; that we know not the day nor the hour. It’s death, dammit, that makes life precious.

Keith Floyd was felled by a heart attack at the end of a bloody good day. Among his last words were: “I haven’t felt this well for ages.”

For all that, the paramedics still spent a fruitless and possibly brutal 45 minutes trying to revive him.

Fair trade, slave trade?

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Interesting piece in Sunday’s Observer.

The Co-op, which boasts about its ethical credentials, has been accused by farmers of making ‘unreasonable’ demands and flexing its market muscle in the wake of its £1.6bn takeover of Somerfield.

One large grower has sought advice from both the National Farmers Union and the Office of Fair Trading.

Terry Jones, the NFU’s head of government affairs, said: “We were surprised by the demands made by the Co-op, not least given their recent advertising campaign which played up their responsible approach to retailing.”

The Co-op’s food retailing sector has taken a hit in the wake of its takeover of Somerfield, and is currently posting losses.

Funeralcare, on the other hand, posted a profit in 2008 of £39.2 million, and announced in its annual review a megalomaniac ambition to become “the world’s leading funeral director.” Watch out, Poland!

Are profits from funerals being used to shore up a tottering retail sector? I wish I had the business brain to figure that one out.

Read the entire Observer story here.

Sage shall not weary them

Sunday, 13 September 2009

There are bad people who can be made better (the majority) and there are bad people who can’t.

It begins to look as if our good friend Richard Sage belongs to the latter category if fresh allegations are correct. He has resurfaced in Manchester disguised as the Edmund Funeral Home and, true to form, has already begun, allegedly (I’m not taking any risks with this man!), to rip people off with all the charm and plausibility for which he is famed. The ranks of his enemies, angry victims all, continue to grow.
Here’s the recent experience of Nigel Hill of NRH Executive Cars:
“He booked a chauffeur car for a priest to a service in June 2009, I was told the priest would pay cash on the day, the priest had no money for the journey so Richard told me to send an invoice that would be paid by return. Nearly 3 months later, 15 phone calls, 20 emails and countless promises to pay, and I still have no money from him. Stay well clear of this man .”
Stay well clear of Direct Funeral Services, too. This website is still listed as belonging to Mr Sage.
Time to bang him up and throw away the key? It begins to look like it.
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