Blog Archives: August 2010

A Guide to Natural Burial by Ken West

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

That the natural burial movement began in the UK may be a source of pride if patriotism is your thing. That there are now more than 200 natural burial grounds in the UK compared with, say, around 20 in the USA, may serve to augment that pride. But if you could see some of the burial grounds in the UK that badge themselves as natural and where, you might conclude, the dead look as if they have been fly-tipped, your pride might shrink sharply. It might desert you entirely if you discovered that this nascent movement has already spawned two villains who have had to flee the country. Having considered the range of natural burial grounds, their locations, their avowed environmental purpose and their actual practices, you might find it very difficult to answer the simple question, What is natural burial?

The answer to that and a thousand other questions is answered in a timely new book, A Guide to Natural Burial. Because it is written by Ken West, the man who started it all, the only person employed in Bereavement Services ever to be awarded an OBE, it will do more than merely command respect.

Ken is much more moderate than me in his choice of vocabulary (except perhaps where he mentions Margaret Thatcher). Wherever his own feelings and preferences may lie in such matters as memorialisation, he is keen that natural burial should accommodate as many different tastes as possible so long as they can be accommodated in an environmentally principled way: “I accept that natural burial can be developed under different guises.” Though he sometimes records cases of unprincipled or simply incoherent practice, he does not dwell on them nor does he grow polemical. He prefers instead to accentuate the positive, look ahead and give natural buriers the knowledge and tools to get it right in the future; to do it well and thrive.

This is an important book because no one else is as well qualified to have written it. Ken has been burying people since he was a lad just out of school in 1961. As a lifelong local authority employee he has close on fifty years’ hands-on experience to draw on. As a balancer of budgets, he has thought long and hard about financial sustainability. As an environmentalist, he has thought urgently about ecological sustainability. He is the pioneer, the man who, against the odds, made it happen. He has mud on his boots, knowledge in his head and passion in his heart. He has everything to teach us.

For those who own and run natural burial grounds, this book will be the bible for years to come. Writing it must have been a herculean task. It covers absolutely everything: understanding the market, habitat creation, mowing, infrastructure, memorialisation, management, financial issues, planning issues, gravedigging and marketing. Each topic is dealt with in minutest detail. Ken covers all the nitty-gritty practicalities. In the hands of a natural burial ground owner, this book will become as thumbed and dogeared as any cook’s favourite recipe book.

Although much of what Ken writes about may be reckoned dry, I found even the driest parts compellingly interesting. The section on mowing is strangely unputdownable and Ken has a way of livening things up with personal reflections: “The English striped lawn has become a modern day icon representing the sheer absurdity of our relationship with nature.” The how-to section on gravedigging is similarly enthralling. I was especially pleased to read his exhortation to potential natural burial ground operators to “select a site containing fertile soil and to inter as shallow as possible … work to 24” (61 cm) depth of soil over the coffin.” I was interested to learn that he assumes that re-use of graves will have been legalised within 75 years.

He concludes by revisiting a cause dear to his heart, what he calls an “integrated funeral service,” a version of a scheme he initiated at Carlisle whereby the local authority contracted with a local funeral director to provide a lowest-possible-cost funeral. It came apart when the contracted funeral director subverted the spirit of the arrangement by upselling coffins. In this evolved version, Ken suggests that natural burial grounds might act also as funeral directors: “With minimal staff, no need for a hearse … reduced road travel and dual use of site staff and their offices, overheads are kept to a minimum.” This would ensure that “the total funeral income is retained by the natural burial site, and not shared with a conventional funeral director.” This is unlikely to endear him to the Dismal Trade, but it shows you that he has written this book as much with his head as with his heart. Ken has a strong sense of social responsibility.

This is a dense work which I defy to you to devour in a single sitting. And it fulfils its purpose: to inform anyone wanting to understand the funeral market; anyone wanting to understand the commercial, environmental and social impact of funerals; and those wanting to take control of their own funeral arrangements.

At an economics-driven £39.50 it’s by no means a low-cost option. Except that it’s not an option. It’s the only one there is.


Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The personation and responsibilities of a funeral supervisor has evolved over the eld from someone who precooked the someone for interment to the bodoni funeral directors of today, who accomplish umpteen remaining duties to helpfulness the home finished their ambitious measure of expiration. Funeral and monument accommodation duties that were formerly handled by friends, bloodline or clergy quite often prettify the musician’’s area.

More of this delicious nonsense here.

And an alternative translation here:

The persona and responsibilities of a funeral musician has evolved over the age from someone who spread the human for inhumation to the moderne funeral directors of today, who action numerous different duties to ply the family through their baffling reading of red … A funeral director oversees every crew in the intellection and provision of a funeral … All the info are handled by this someone so the soul’’s association and friends can suffer funeral directors without having to accumulation with paperwork and another legalities.

There’s nowt so crap as a crem

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Over in Lufkin, Texas, a new funeral home has opened. What’s different about it? It offers one of those familiar back-to-the-past initiatives which mark progress in funeral service: it’s owner is making his clients aware that they can have the funeral at home – if they want.

“It used to be that before there were funeral homes, the funerals were held at home,” said Philip Snead, CEO and Funeral Director of Snead Linton Funeral Home. “We’re just going back to the way that people used to do business. We do in-home visitations too, and we’re always mindful of health issues.”

I like it. So much better to hold a funeral on familiar ground than up at t’crem. So much better to hold a funeral on your own terms, in your own way. Best of all, it gives families so much more to do (decorating the venue, bringing the food…), and makes it so much easier for them to  run the show, stand up and speak, do away with professional strangers. You don’t have to have the funeral at home, of course. There are community centres, hotels, cricket pavilions…

So forbidding is a crematorium, so alien, so marginalised, so exclusive of everything but death and deathmongers and the grieving bereaved, it is little wonder that people outsource the terrifying ordeal of running the show to someone they’ve briefed.

Says Mr Snead: “Since we’ve been offering the at-home services, people have responded favorably. The older generation grew up seeing their grandparents brought back to the home instead of being taken to a funeral home.”

How many UK funeral directors explore alternative venues with their clients, I wonder?

We will know, as a society, that we are getting funerals right when every crematorium ‘chapel’ in the country stands roofless, derelict and hooted at by owls. Of one thing we may be certain: there’s nowt so crap as a crem.


Tuesday, 24 August 2010

I’ve been messing up my hyperlinks for the last ten days or so. I’ve mended them, now, so if there’s anything you want to follow up, go back and have another go. If there’s anything I’ve left unmended, do let me know:

Apologies — and thank you!

Jimmy Reid’s memorial service in full

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

At an hour and forty minutes, this full version of Jimmy Reid’s memorial service held me spellbound. As befitted him, there was some splendid oratory. If you like a good funeral, you’ll thoroughly enjoy this.

I can’t embed it. Click the link here.

Making the best of old age

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

On a slow news day, I quite enjoyed this piece by Jane Miller in my favourite newspaper:

Many of us have been possessed at times by thoughts that the life we are living is not the real one, but some botched job we somehow fell into, provisionally as it were, fine for the time being, until we’ve decided what we really want to be or do.

Old age certainly sorts that out for us. Saying to yourself that this is it, all it was ever going to be, has its consolations, allowing us to shed the frustrations of a lifetime of try-outs.

In Coda, the book written by playwright-Simon Gray when he was dying of lung cancer, he ended one chapter with the words: ‘I wish there were a way of just dissolving in the sea, without having to go through the business of drowning first.’

I like that idea, but my absence from my own death and my own funeral robs both of a good deal of interest. My funeral is not, after all, a family occasion I shall be required to organise. And what will be the point of it, anyway, if I’m not at it and in a position to check who has made the effort to turn up and who has not?

Read it all here

Habeas corpus

Monday, 23 August 2010

I was emailed last night by someone who wants to visit their dead parent at the undertaker’s. The undertaker won’t make an appointment. The client thinks the undertaker is prevaricating. The undertaker tells the client that the customary time to visit a dead person is the day before the funeral. This is not soon enough for the client. The email concludes with the client asking me what their rights are.

Leaving aside the matter of rights (it’s quite clear what they are), anyone who knows how the funeral industry works will know what’s probably going on here. Let’s hazard a guess.

The undertaker is part of a chain operating out of a satellite branch. The dead parent is not, as the client may fondly suppose, at that branch. No, the parent is in a central mortuary some distance away with, perhaps, a hundred other bodies from other satellite branches. It’s difficult for the undertaker to arrange for the body to be brought to the satellite branch because businesses of this size operate on the fewest staff they can. At this busy time of the year it is impossible to find spare manpower to bring the parent out to the satellite.


The bigger the business, the more incapable it becomes of flexibility and, therefore, of personal service. There ought to be a trade-off here. The big businesses, with their car pools and central mortuaries and staffing rotas to keep everyone frantically busy, enjoy economies of scale which ought to enable them to undercut their competitors. But that’s not the way it works. Economies of scale are not passed on to the consumer. In the case of, say, Dignity that’s not surprising. They’re in it for the money. Their shareholders expect. In the case of Co-operative funeral homes, however, there’s a case to answer.

Let us not deplore this state of affairs too loudly. It is because the big beasts, the Dignitys and Co-ops, charge so much that the little independent businesses are able to thrive despite their higher overheads. Not only are they able to thrive, they are even able to undercut the big beasts. The law of the jungle is not working here. Long may it not.

I decided to find out how widespread is this practice of deterring people from visiting their dead. I made some phone calls and asked undertakers how much notice they required. Here are my results.

Co-op Funeralcare, Aylesbury: Later the same day.

Arnold Funeral Service, High Wycombe (independent): None. Walk in off the street. If the chapels of rest are full you may have to wait for up to an hour or so.

Midlands Co-op, Stirchley, Birmingham: None, but prefer families to visit three days before the funeral.

Henry Ison and Sons, Coventry (independent): None – unless busy.

R Morgan, Dudley (a satellite branch of Dignity): Will try to make an appointment for you to visit when you make your funeral arrangements. All bodies stored in a mortuary in Birmingham where they are embalmed (optional), washed, dressed and coffined. You can visit before the body goes to the mortuary: they will put a dead person on a trolley and make him or her as presentable as possible.

T Hadley, Halesowen (independent): None – unless busy.

T Broome and Sons, Baguley, Manchester (United Co-op): Prefer appointments but around an hour’s notice usually enough.

Haven Funeral Services, London (independent): None

Co-op, Hammersmith: None, but prefer you to make an appointment when you make arrangements and hope that’ll be the day before.

AW Lymn, Nottingham (many satellite branches): None. All bodies kept at city centre mortuary, or at Long Eaton. Either pop down there, or the body can be sent up to the satellite. They have a bed with quilt if you prefer that to visiting your dead person in a coffin. If they’re really busy and no one’s available to drive a body out to a satellite, “management will step in and do it.” Oh yeah? “YES!”

I stopped ringing. The picture is clear enough. Small, independent funeral homes are very responsive. Members of chains aren’t, with the exception of Lymn’s, quite so willing: they’d rather tie you down to an appointment made when you make funeral arrangements. That’s a heck of a lot of big decisions to make in a very short time!

My emailer’s undertaker would appear, thankfully, to be a rare exception.

While ringing round I made a discovery I ought to have made ages ago about transparency of ownership. This is a debate which rages and will go on raging. When a big beast buys out an independent it goes on trading under the old name in which all the good repute is tied up. There’s nothing unusual about this. No one demands that Harrods change its name to Al Fayeds. But in the case of a funeral home it can be misleading to those who are looking for an independent funeral director.

Here’s a scenario. Someone has died and I am looking for an independent, family undertaker close to me in Moseley. What do I do? I google funeral director birmingham moseley. What do I get? tell me about N Wheatley and Sons. Good-oh! So does And And And And And And And

That’s only for starters. There’s plenty of help on the internet. But what none of these sites tells me is that N Wheatley and Sons is, actually, in the ownership of the Midlands Co-operative Society.

I needed to know that.

My apologies for the sudden reappearance of this. I’ve been doing a spot of categorising, resulting in the usual inexplicable nonsense, of which this is but one example.

From rags to riches

Monday, 23 August 2010

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’d be paying off the balance for what would 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 even 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. 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.

My apologies for the sudden reappearance of this old post. I’ve been doing a spot of categorising, resulting in the usual inexplicable nonsense, of which this is but one example.

Teen Undertaker

Monday, 23 August 2010

The media loves death and funerals — wacky music, funky coffins, all that sort of stuff. Best of all, the media loves to find people working in the funeral industry who do not conform to the common conception of deathworker as  inhabitant of a dark and terrifying otherworld. Normal people; people like us. Better still, people who are young. Best of the best, beautiful young women.

If the effect is to educate the public about the reality of funeral service, all well and good. Last week’s Channel 4 programme, Teen Undertaker, served this purpose pretty well, I believe. It follows two teen undertakers, Laura and Paul. It panders, yes, but it also reveals responsibly.

There’s one bit that made my eyebrows rise. I wonder if yours will, too.

Catch it on 4 oD here.

Practicalities and suicide pacts

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Here’s a highly recommended post over at the Exit blog: Heartache of a death not shared — a helium suicide fails.

It discusses this story as reported by the Times:

Early one morning in September, William Stanton heard footsteps coming up the stairs of his cottage in Somerset. He knew who it was and panicked. “I shouted out: ‘Go away, Nigel, leave me to it, leave me to it!’”

Nigel, a neighbour and family friend, did not go away. He came into the bedroom and found Stanton in distress and his wife Angela lying dead with a plastic bag over her head.

The Stantons had made a pact to end their lives together and put it into effect just days after the director of public prosecutions revealed how he would apply the law prohibiting assisted suicide. It did not work out as they planned and stands as a terrible cautionary example for anybody thinking that self-inflicted death is easily arranged…

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