A custom more honoured in the breach

Charles Cowling

There are those who make a distinction between traditional and alternative funerals and suppose alternative funeral directors to be, like their clients, boho, treehugger, oddball shroomers who live in La-La Land towns like Totnes or Stroud “where they’re all like that”.

The label doesn’t fit. It’s not one they use. Theirs is not an exclusive way of working. Their client base is not what you think it is. Here’s some text from the website of the ‘alternative’ Green Funeral Company in, you guessed it, Totnes:

That is not to say we are unable to produce a traditional funeral spectacular; we have buried Generals and Lords, but we approach each funeral as unique. What is at the core of our work is honesty, acceptance, and participation, even if that is just helping us to carry the coffin. In doing so, all of us become less of an audience and more of a congregation.

I’ve just received an unsolicited and very beautiful account of a recent funeral. It begins: My 93 year old mother whom we sheltered was a devout Catholic and died peacefully at home of old age. A obvious, classic candidate for a traditional funeral. The works. Maybe a horsedrawn hearse. At least one limousine, maybe three. Four grim-visaged bearers. You’d put your house on it, wouldn’t you?

The account goes on:

Having never thought of the details of her funeral I suddenly realised that I had a profound distaste for the whole strange Victorian hangover of the ‘traditional’ funeral with the big polished coffin and the ‘professional’ mourners. Rupert and Claire helped me give my mother the funeral that felt right for our family, combining a full Catholic Requiem mass with the kind of intimacy and lack of ‘show’ that reflected my mother’s personality. They collected her body from our house treating her with extraordinary respect, and took her to their beautiful premises on the Dartington estate which we visited a few days later. We chose a woven bamboo coffin and just a single beautiful spray of spring flowers from a florist Rupert recommended. On the day of the funeral they drove back to our house in Cornwall in a black Volvo Estate rather than a hearse and we and all the others followed through the countryside to the church. My husband and children and I carried the coffin in. This was at the suggestion of Claire and I hadn’t realised how utterly right it is that one should do this. The last practical assistance that one can give a parent is to carry them into church for their farewell service as they would have carried you in for your welcoming baptism. The whole congregation seemed to feel this was something deeply right and very moving – and quite revolutionary. When I look back on the day now, a month later, I do so with a feeling of deep satisfaction. She had, as they say, a good send-off – and it was one that we will remember as expressive of who we are and of who she was. Rupert and Claire are leading the new way in dealing with death and I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Rupert and Claire are the Green Funeral Company.

There’s a very important lesson here, I believe, for all funeral directors. Especially the one about ‘professional mourners’, which is how the writer feels about bearers. What may be the emotional impact of the appearance of four utter strangers on the day of the funeral in such intimate contact with the person who has died? Are they really always necessary? Why are they never introduced?

Think on, chaps. And ponder the brilliant text on the Green Funeral Company website.

One thought on “A custom more honoured in the breach

  1. Charles Cowling
    simply pine

    As a hospital social worker I find that the family needs to be given permission to "think outside of the box" and instead of guiding them through options start from the beginning.


    Charles Cowling

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