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Sorry, it’s a long quote, but it almost amounts to a valuable if, at this remove, slightly risible historical document.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!