Blog Archives: December 2009

Season’s greetings

Thursday, 24 December 2009

As the health of the old year fails and expiration beckons, the Good Funeral Guide is going to put its feet up for a few days and, with the assistance of good food and good whisky (Glendronach for choice), join the living in celebrating the solsticial festivities. Thank you, loyal and occasionally infuriated reader, for coming here. I am grateful to you, I really am.

If you should find yourself at a loose end in the next week or so, here’s a way of whiling away the time. If you enjoy online gaming and would like to discover, in a virtual sort of way, what it feels like to be a funeral director, albeit a US funeral director, you may like Funeral Quest from Robinson Technologies – The blurb promises: Funeral Quest is a web-based multiplayer game that simulates the world’s second oldest profession – the Undertaker. You will face some mighty stiff competition however, because your adversaries will be some very alive human beings in this cutthroat game of capitalism.”

Not so far from reality, by the look of it.

Happy Christmas! Happy Samhain! Happy Winterfest! Yes, and a happy Christmas to you, too, Reaper G, you old bastard.


Wednesday, 23 December 2009

I’m indebted to Quigley’s Cabinet for this. It’s by Sam Jinks, who currently lives and works in Melbourne where he spends his time creating hyper-realistic sculptures out of silicon. Read more here.

Click on the pic to bring it up to full size.

Christmas quiz

Monday, 21 December 2009

Do you work at a crematorium or a cemetery? Are you a priest or a secular celebrant or a funeral director who leads or collaborates in the creation of funeral ceremonies? If you are one of the above, you may like to lend your brain to science for as long as it takes to fill out a short questionnaire (don’t worry, you get it back at the end [your brain, that is]).

My good chum Angie McLachlan is a marvellously skilful embalmer who has also been a funeral director. Now she is an academic, among many various other things; she is doing an MA in the Rhetoric and Rituals of Death at the University of Winchester. Her project is entitled Digging Deep: discovering coping strategies for people working in crematoria and allied cemeteries. I don’t need to expand on that, I think. She wants to know how people who deal with grief-stricken people all day, every day, cope. Her questionnaire (mostly multi-choice) asks you how you cope.

Of course, the more people who fill out her questionnaire, the better Angie will be able to write something rich and useful. I am greatly looking forward to reading all about it.

So: you’ll be doing her a favour, and she’s worth it in her own right, let me tell you. You will also be helping to make the world a wiser and more learned place. How often do you get a chance to do that?

The questionnaire takes around 10-15 mins. If you feel inclined to give it a go, you must proceed as follows:
  1. Read this document telling you all about it and establishing Angie’s bona fides: E%20Participant%20Information%20form.pdf
  2. Read this document, which tells you about consent issues and how what you say will be used: PDF-E%20Participant%20Consent%20form.pdf
  3. Then click this link and do the questionnaire online:
If you fancy it, thank you very much — and thank you on behalf of Angie, too.

Dying to live workshop

Monday, 21 December 2009

This, above, from Archa Robinson, whose website you can see here. Click on the pic to bring it up to full size.

What needs to be done

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Here’s a guest post by Jonathan Taylor. He’s posted before, here and here. He’s a loyal and regular commenter and contributor to debate. Indeed, he puts the fizz into much that we discuss.

In his post; Doing what needs to be done, saying what needs to be said Charles raises the point that the recently bereaved aren’t given the opportunity to grieve practically and effectively through active funeral ritual and rite during liminal mourning, and celebrants need to encourage them into more hands-on involvement. Of course this means, among other things, gently opening up the idea of a useful, rather than a merely dutiful, funeral, which may be a foreign concept to many. It all takes time. And, as X-Piry rightly points out in her comment, time is the one thing we’re mostly short of. But why?

Let’s not demonize the poor funeral director. He’s only doing his job (with a handful of notable exceptions, they know who they are). But that’s just the trouble, isn’t it? What, or rather who, is the common denominator in all such unnecessarily hurried funerals?

Remember my post about my son’s girlfriend’s sister who was killed by a bus? We had her funeral on Tuesday, over three weeks after she died. To cut a long story short it worked perfectly, for all the literally hundreds of people there, including me, and total strangers hugged me afterwards in floods of tears to tell me so. One comment summed up them all: “It hurt like hell, but it did my heart good.”

All I did was arrange as well as conduct it – I acted as funeral director as well as celebrant – according to the family’s evolving needs over the weeks. It was a long, painful journey for us all but every step, every twist and turn, was essential. It was as if the funeral went on for the whole three weeks, communicated partly through Facebook between her hundreds of young friends, with everyone actively involved and connected from the start right through to the end of the ceremony and beyond. It has changed my own concept of the funeral out of all recognition, and mostly thanks to the young ones because they were so open.

What I did was something any celebrant could do. The only thing you need a funeral director for is a fridge big enough for a body (and even then, only when you can’t keep it in a hospital mortuary), and probably to sell you a coffin. It’s possible to find an obliging one if you explain yourself nicely – you don’t even have to be one of the family.

Just maybe, then, the answer is that the celebrants’ movement has to promote itself not to funeral directors but to the public, and to provide the full service ourselves? I trained in funeral advice and arranging with Green Fuse (one of the bracketed F.Ds above, see their website), and that’s how I managed it – it’s easier than you’d think. So how about it, fellow celebrants?

It may alienate some funeral directors, but they’re not the boss. The purpose of the likes of Charles’s blog, as I see it, is to help us enlighten and empower the grieving public, at or long before the funeral. Celebrants are so much better at ceremony than most funeral directors, and it doesn’t make sense to hand the vital function of making the arrangements to someone who doesn’t truly understand the chaotic evolution of grieving in the early days, and isn’t committed to putting a family’s changing needs before his own. Funeral directors could do it, obviously, but do they? Mostly not. And we can’t wait for them. This is one area where time really is short.

We are in the early days of a funerary revolution, begun perhaps by the Natural Death Centre, the Humanists and others, and now largely in the hands of liberal independents (us). There’s no-one in charge except ourselves and the families we work for. It’s only our own habit that limits us to others’ habits, and we can envisage and accomplish anything we want, however apparently outlandish or arduous, with enough imagination and commitment. There are plenty of us if we want to begin it. This is more than just a job to most of us.

Wouldn’t you throw yourself down in the path of Destiny to pave the way for Death? Of course you would. We can come together and promote the reality of the Celebrant/Funeral Director. I’ve started already, with the help, support and training of Green Fuse, and it’s so, so much more rewarding than the ‘damage limitation’ job I see myself doing over and over again, trying to make the ceremony good enough to compensate for the (poor family’s lack of involvement in the) same old superficial ritual. I’m up for it if you are.

Jonathan Taylor

Human rites

Friday, 18 December 2009

They call it a rite of passage, a funeral, but I’m not so sure that that’s the right term for it. Is a funeral directly comparable with other rites of passage? We mark coming of age and matrimony with rituals which speak of transition—what scholastic folk call liminality. But, though we can push a young person across the threshold into adulthood, we cannot stop that young person from making a bolt for it and scampering back. And though we shower a connubial couple with hope as they vow to become one flesh, we know perfectly well that the rite is far from irreversible.

Unlike a funeral. What is missing from a funeral, for most people, is any sense of expectancy—of wonderful possibilities. All other rites register growth and progression. Not a funeral, not for most people. No life, no future. Dead. End.

You can look at it another way. All the other rites are social events which recognise a person’s social dynamic—an augmentation of their social role. But, interestingly, possibly regrettably, we have no rites of passage which recognise a person’s loss of social dynamic and tapering social role. The menopause, for example. Or the economic menopause, when a person retires. Or that day of dismay when a person becomes at best a tangential member of society by going to live in a carehome warehouse. If we are to set aside the Christmas spirit for a moment, we can perhaps acknowledge the bleak truth that, for most of us, social death precedes physical death, often by many years.

That there should be all sorts of confusion about exactly what sort of ceremony a funeral is, is not surprising in an age where most people disregard the ancient verities of faith and come to it more or less hope-less. So, what do we do? We dress it up somewhat like a rite of passage, a social event, and using that template we import some of the ingredients, even balloons.

But it’s an existential event, too, with much of the aspect of a black hole. Which is why we don’t take photographs of it. I don’t suppose many people think about that for a moment, don’t need to. You wouldn’t take your camera to a funeral, it would never occur to you to do that, it’s simply not done, perish the thought. At any other rite of passage the cameras and the phones blink away like crazy. Never at a funeral.

Yes, a funeral is different. All other rites of passage are reckoned memorable, deserving of documentation and preservation for future delectation. Photos make memories manifest. How we love to pore over the snaps. Ooh, look at her there!! Aaaaaah!!!

But a funeral is, for most people, a forgettable event. Ask them. They say their memory is a blur. This is not only because they were dazed at the time by grief, it is also because they have subsequently done what they can to consign it to oblivion, to wipe it. In family histories, death is either omitted or passed over quickly, extrinsic, dis-integrated. And that may well not be a good thing.

Real funerals are for emotional grown-ups. Not all are photogenic: the raw, the angry, the guilty, the messy, the tragic.

But some are. Here’s one, and a very sad one, too. It’s a burial at sea. Lots of cameras. See it here.

Vast cars

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

What is this thing with undertakers and their hearses and limousines? Are we talking customer focus here, or idolatry? I really don’t know the answer—I mean that.

As the UN climate talks in Copenhagen reach their climax, and at a time when people are finding it more and more difficult to stump up the cost of a funeral, the People’s Undertaker in Coventry has just taken delivery of two Jaguar hearses and a limousine at around £90,000 each. What’s the depreciation on one of those? Ten grand a year?

I’m not sure that Darryl Smith, general manager of funerals at the Heart of England Co-op, knows what they are all about, either. But here’s his rationale: “This substantial level of investment clearly demonstrates the Society’s philosophy of being at the heart of the community as well our ongoing commitment to providing a first class service to our clients and offering them the ultimate in style and comfort.”

How bonkers is that? Or not bonkers, as the case may be? I am conflicted. Let’s try it for size. I go out and buy an inordinately expensive, fuel-hungry motorcar which will stretch the family budget no end and bugger up the climate bigtime, which is why everyone else is buying smaller, fuel-efficient cars. I drive home and issue this statement from, I don’t know, my doorstep, perhaps: “This substantial level of investment clearly demonstrates my philosophy of being at the heart of the community as well my ongoing commitment to providing a first class service to my good lady wife and her beautiful children, offering them the ultimate in style and comfort.”

You be the judge. My mind is entirely open. Does a nice motorcar a good funeral make? Two schools of thought, perhaps.

The photo at the top is of the headstone of a murdered member of the Lithuanian mafia, not a funeral director. Or is it the other way around? Sorry, I’ve lost the caption.

Do, please, take issue with me. At this very dull time of the year an honest blogger must lob a few extra chillis into the mix.

Doing what needs to be done, saying what needs to be said

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

In his excellent book Accompany Them With Singing (read it before you die or I’ll kill you), Thomas G Long says this:

“When someone dies, Christians, like all other humans, look around at the immediate environment and ask: What do we have to do? What seems fitting to do? What do we believe we are summoned to do? In other words, Christian funeral practices emerge at the intersection of necessity, custom and conviction.”

What’s good for Christians is good for everyone, note. But I think I’d be inclined to reduce Long’s three to two: to just necessity and duty. What do we need to do? Get rid of this body, it’s going off. In the manner of doing it, what do we owe this person who has died? How should the funeral ceremony be, and what part ought we to play in it?

Engaging with necessity has to do with caring for the body, then disposing of it. Evaluating duty is much harder. If doing your duty is defined as doing what needs to be done and saying what needs to be said, what might you permit yourself to outsource to others and what ought you to definitely do yourself, however reluctantly, both in caring for your dead person and in farewelling them? And the reason why this question is important is because if, as a bereaved person, you are going to get anything meaningful and therapeutic out of the experience, you need to put something in, the more the better.

This is a matter I have explored, as a secular celebrant, with many families, and I’m not sure it has ever gone down well. By the time I get to them, of course, they’ve seen the funeral director, and the full-outsourcing option has embedded itself and, as a result, the point of the funeral has largely been lost. To have lots of people do everything for you because you can’t be expected to do any of it yourself is perilously attractive. Duty is consequently subsumed in self-absorption. “Would you,” I ask, “like to say a few words about Dad?” “Oh, don’t you do that?” they reply. “Who would Dad prefer?”

Instead of seeking comfort through cosseting, bereaved people need to put themselves out and earn their comfort. Never in the history of funerals have participants been so utterly passive as those at most of today’s vastly improved secular ceremonies. Even unbelievers at a religious ceremony have a more interactive time of it.

Is this how the bereaved see it? Not most of them. They have low or no expectations of a funeral. It’s an event not to be engaged with but endured. And so it is that the opportunity to grieve best at the best time for grieving is lost.

For a celebrant, the creation of a funeral ceremony ought to be an organic process, the product of several meetings. If all goes well, the outcome will be far more participation by the mourners than they ever expected: a good funeral. Do celebrants customarily brief funeral directors about the emotional state and evolving needs of their clients during this process? No. Do funeral directors customarily monitor their clients with a view to providing a better experience for them? No. So far as funeral directors are concerned, everything is set in stone at the arrangement meeting – when their clients are in the first shock of grief. They are not interested in evolving needs. Too much hassle.

This business of doing everything for the bereaved seems like kindness but isn’t. I’d like to see more funeral directors and more celebrants exploring with their clients and with each other not what they can do for their clients but what their clients can and ought to do for themselves.

Period piece

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Jessica Mitford

Back in 1995 the funeral industry had been in a state of low level excitement and terror for some fifteen years. Conglomerates were stalking the land, seeking whom they might devour. Their talk of economies of scale made perfectly good sense. The little old family firms looked a bit like polar bears today.

One of the leading figures in the early days of the buying spree was the flash, narcissistic Howard Hodgson. In those get-filthy-rich-quick, Thatcherite days, he got filthy rich quick, sold out, picked up £7m and ever after enjoyed a life of relative unsuccess, poor man (I’m being careful here in case his lawyer’s reading).

The conglomerates are still with us, of course. Dignity. Funeralcare. Laurel. Others. And they’re still at it, borrowing lots of money, buying out whoever they can. But they aren’t the future. For all the efficiencies they can bring they’ve got loans to service. They’ve never managed to sell a cheaper funeral. Far from it, they’re normally more expensive. And they’re not very good at it, either.

The conglomerate which spread most terror was the US group Service Corporation International, an enterprise with global ambitions whose levels of competence continue to dump it in scandal. SCI was compelled to retreat from the UK. Its operation was bought out by Dignity.

With its departure receded fears of the Americanisation of UK funerals. But when the fear was at its height Channel 4 ran a documentary, Over My Dead Body, which, though only fifteen years old, now looks startlingly dated. Of historical interest are appearances by the twerp Hodgson and also Jessica Mitford. She it was who, in her American Way of Death, trashed the US funeral business with a combination of mischievous mockery and British values. For all the good she may have done, it is Ms Mitford whom we must hold to blame for mistaking price for value and perpetrating the notion that, in the matter of funerals, the only good un’s a cheap un.

Want to see the documentary? It’s great, let me tell you. You’ll have to give it some time to download, so find something else to do while it does. Go for it. Click here.

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