The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Let’s make the case for funerals

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Pic from The Green Funeral Co website

 

Guest post by Rupert Callender, owner of The Green Funeral Company

 

Often this blog can trot nicely along with the usual suspects commenting dryly from the sidelines, a good natured conversation amongst friends. It’s easy to forget it has a wide, international readership, easy that is, until a seemingly innocuous post unleashes a Bay of Pigs crisis, as it was with the recent posting about a rise in Church fees. Suddenly, we were neck deep in a debate about the merits of secular celebrants, and the rise of budget ‘disposals’. 

Unlike Charles, I didn’t think that the to and fro was particularly unpleasant, but it certainly was enlightening. There is still a large cultural chasm between most funeral directors and the people who increasingly take the ceremonies, and the way down is littered with jagged outcrops of things like class and money and religion. 

 We, and by that I mean all of us who make our livings from what happens next when someone dies, live in interesting times, as the Chinese and Scots curse has it. Our industry is in the tightening grip of big business, our economy is in meltdown, and most unpredictable of all, an unexpected blip in the death rate has meant that funerals are scarce. People will go to the wall, and often not those that Darwin would hope would. 

The debate about budget funerals has been the most interesting. Anyone who offers a funeral service will have been asked to quote for one. The generous transparency of people like Nick Gandon has explained to me exactly how they can offer such an astonishingly cheap funeral. The combination of mortuary facilities in the crematorium, and a flexible realistic approach from those who run them mean that Mr Gandon can offer people a seriously cheap, no service body disposal. More power to him for being able to react to the market. 

We can’t, even though our overheads are much cheaper than most. We are really not a product driven company. We don’t have a hearse as standard, or a vast range of coffins. The product you get is my wife and I.  Our professional fee is honest and clear and rarely varies, and never more than a couple of hundred pounds either way, though I would hasten to add we are still considerably cheaper than most of our competitors for all of our funerals. But our market share is small, so when someone comes and asks for a no service funeral we quote as best we can, but it rarely can compete with the budget service. 

And this is what the customer wants, isn’t it? Times are hard and the days of religious certainty are long gone. If people want things to be taken care of quickly and efficiently without their presence then they have that right, don’t they? 

When we have helped people to have this kind of non funeral, there have often been rumblings in the wider family and community. The impulse to mark and record this event cannot be fully sublimated by economic concerns. We have experienced what we can only describe as “pop up” funerals, taking place alongside the simple practicalities, friends and family gathering in our premises for what seems like a chance to see the person and say goodbye unmistakably crystalising into a spontaneous ceremony. Unless the person who has died was particularly disliked, people want to gather with their body one last time. A ceremony without the presence of the body is a vastly different beast from one with, and to throw away this chance for a few hundred quid seems to me the opposite of a bargain. 

I don’t blame funeral directors for trying to accommodate these wishes. Despite the deeply entrenched hostility towards funeral directors that surfaces even on the pages of this enlightened blog, it is a bloody difficult world in which to make a living, and whatever they need to do to carry on is understandable, and don’t they say that the customer is always right?  We live in fear of being seen as exploitative and paternalistic, a stereotype which unfairly haunts us in this age of unscrupulous life insurance companies, bonused bankers and intrusive government, it is hardly surprising that some funeral directors are betting that the next big thing will be no thing, literally nothing, and have decided to make a virtue of necessity, and become, in essence low key removal men. 

But in my heart of hearts, I know this is wrong, that we are colluding with a public who, in the face of  spiritual uncertainty and the opportunity to avoid something so painful are choosing the easiest option, and that in doing so we are doing them and us a huge disfavour. 

I became an undertaker and a celebrant because the grief I had avoided turned toxic. The funerals I didn’t go to had much more power over me than the funerals I did and had influenced my life in ways it took years to fully understand. I honestly believe, and I am sure most funeral directors agree with me, that there is no way around grief. It can be displaced for years, decades even, but sooner or later, and of course it is usually sooner another significant death in your life forces you to go back to the beginning and face your original wound.  So what happens to these people we are excusing from the difficult task of saying goodbye to those they love? I believe that more often than not, they will come to regret their brisk efficiency, or worse, never realise the impact and influence it has had on their grief. 

We are into an area that most funeral directors will think this isn’t their territory. Words like ritual and ceremony make them uncomfortable, and traditionally have been the preserve of the priest but the truth is that the pulpit has been empty for a while now, and secular celebrants, good or bad have moved in to occupy it. The withdrawing of conventional religion does not mean that ritual becomes less important, quite the opposite, and funeral directors, marked and lined by our awareness of mourning and bereavement are exactly the people to be helping to create something new. 

Perhaps another strand of what is happening is people’s increasing dislike of crematoriums, and avoiding them and the funeral is a two bird one stone offer that is just too tempting. 

We did a funeral last week in the function room of a bustling drinker’s pub in Plymouth, much to the relief of the deceased’s family, who wanted to honour his wishes to be cremated, but were dreading visiting the place. The actual cremation happened the next morning. The funeral wasn’t expensive, but it was deeply satisfying for all who attended, filled with spontaneous gestures like everybody forming two columns in the narrow downstairs room to pass the coffin along between them. This meant more to everyone there than a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Working out that this was a good thing to do wasn’t difficult, but neatly highlights the benefits of being both undertaker and celebrant. 

Perhaps this is why we embrace the idea of natural cremation or funeral pyres with such enthusiasm. Here is a chance to strip things back, both in terms of technology and ritual. When faced with something so profoundly simple and elemental as a huge fire in a field, then the lines that seperate celebrant and undertaker, mourner and professional may well blur, and we may find that the doing has become the meaning. Won’t cost much either. 

So I urge you undertakers to stand up and enter the debate, to argue your merits and put your case forward. If you believe that you make a difference to the bewilderment of a family, if you have ever made a suggestion which has transformed a funeral and helped people move successfully beyond this most traumatic of human events then now is the time to speak, before we find ourselves in a place devoid of meaning and participation, squeezed between the pre-paid homogenised ‘personalised’ funeral of the big boys and the budget operators, where the only measure of a funeral is how little it cost. That would be a tragedy.

10 comments on “Let’s make the case for funerals

  1. Thursday 16th February 2012 at 7:25 am

    Thank you Jenny. You’re clearly no slouch yourself!

  2. Wednesday 15th February 2012 at 5:58 pm

    Rupert, thank you for this post. I showed it to Keith yesterday and we are both fairly blown away with the eloquence and the passion. I think we are truly lucky to have people like yourself and your wife in this country constantly challenging us to raise our game and challenge our assumptions. Even if we continue the way we were, once we have genuinely thought something through it is no longer an assumption.

    As I believe I have said before, I am very new to the funeral world. I sometimes think that I am lucky in this respect in that I have very few ‘pre-learned’ assumptions. All I really have to go on is how I would like to be treated. I took a long time to think about how to respond to this one.

    I agree, it would be tragic if the small, independent, free thinking companies got caught between the big corporations and the budget alternatives like direct cremation. I think, on balance, though that the bigger threat is from the former.

    I have seen several posts here suggesting that direct cremation is the way of the future. It may well be, but I have to say we have seen very little evidence of it up here, despite being in a not especially well to do part of the country. Certainly we have never been approached about it here. In his previous job, in 13 years Keith was asked about it twice, both times on purely financial grounds and both times, having discussed it with him at more length, they changed their minds. I think it does need to be there as an option, and where a family choose to hold a service after the cremation, perhaps with the cremated remains present, that makes perfect sense. They have a far wider choice of venues and could no doubt save a lot of money and end up with something far more meaningful and personal. However, this is still very much a minority option and I have to say that personally, I think the presence of the body at a funeral is important for a variety of reasons and completely regardless of the religion (or lack of it) of the family. I know that Charles has said that for atheists/materialists and true dualists there is no logical need for the body to be present. This is true, but as we know, neither funerals nor ritual have much to do with logic!

    I think the answer to both ‘threats’ is the same. To do what we do well, sensitively and ecconomically. There will be some who prefer direct cremation regardless of price and of course they have that right. However, if they choose to hold a ceremony afterwards then the funeral business should surely be ready to help with that. I know that Rupert and his wife act as both FD and celebrant. We don’t at the moment, but we work very closely with a celebrant and see this as an integral part of our business, and, as has been mentioned elsewhere, far more important than cars and coffins! Also, we offer a simple service for significantly less than most companies around here would charge for direct cremation. So by offering a well priced and good service very often the ‘need’ for direct cremation is avoided.

    The bigger threat is the big companies and the obvious answer is that the FDs represented here, as well as many others, do a far better job far cheaper. Simple market forces….if….if people knew. And there is the single biggest issue. Raising awareness. Its not an easy subject to get ‘out there’ and while things are improving, they are doing so very slowly. We are fairly sure that we are being actively blocked by the local newspaper. What do you do?

    SO, to survive in this market…Provide an excellent, personal, genuinely caring service that suits the clients needs, not what the profession sees as its ‘role’. Get involved in the ceremony. Be fairly, transparently and reasonably priced, and then make sure everyone knows.

    Simples!…if only.

    Sorry if this has been a bit rambling!

  3. Wednesday 15th February 2012 at 10:04 am

    Our local early morning rate, only available on 2 of the 6 crems we use is 30 pounds cheaper. An early morning cremation actually takes longer and uses more fuel, the cremator has not warmed yet. Busy crems are happy to fire it up earlier, slower ones less so. I love the idea that you only have to ask them and they will lower the price.

    Also, in all of the 6 crems, the only way for the coffin to enter the building is through the front door and onto the catafalque. As I understand that is a health and safety issue, not one of dignity, a much misappropriated word these days. I’m not meaning you Nick, but I’m sure you know who!

    Rosie, no-one is arguing that when the family is abroad, or there is no family there still should be a funeral, though I balk at the idea that just because the deceased has stipulated no funeral that should be what happens. As you know, a funeral is about the dead, but for the living. No-one should force their family to not mark their death through some stupid ‘chuck me on the compost’ bravado.
    In 12 years, the only 2 bad debts we have had have been these type of funerals. Go figure.
    My main point is that small creative, risk taking funeral directors, of which I count us, are in danger of being squeezed out by these two types of business, budget and big, and that this type of arrangement is the least important in the rapidly changing world of funerals, and serves the people on one level only, that of consumer.
    When Tesco get involved, as I’m sure they plan to, already offering funeral plans with their clubcard, then perhaps they will be able to undercut even Nick Gandon.

  4. Wednesday 15th February 2012 at 8:09 am

    Happy to clarify, Rosie.

    The early morning rates that we utilize are available to any funeral director or applicant.

    The crematorium is an exceptionally friendly, professional and well-run site. They have already complied with all the latest abatement regulations.

    Their charges are realistic, certainly when compared with other similar facilities, however they stipulate that all coffins received at the crematorium must enter through the chapel and progress via the catafalque. I have absolutely no argument with that dignified requirement.

    Hope that helps…

  5. Wednesday 15th February 2012 at 1:08 am

    Can you clarify please Nick as your comment about the crem fees can be taken a couple of ways. Are you saying that you do NOT have access to a cheaper rate or that you do and it is available to all FDs if they ask?

    Why should a person responsible for arranging the required dispose of a body, when there may be no family or friends to attend a ceremony or where the deceased has instructed that there should be no viewing, ritual or ceremony have to pay twice what they need to? Isn’t it great to know that there are FDs out there who will offer this basic function.

    Generally the calls I get about this service are not from families, if they are I always run the idea of the possible needs of the living past enquirers. They are more likely the last of the line, executors, or pennyless foreign work associates trying to arrange for a disposal and ashes shipment to family in a country where even our average, simple funeral costs are way out of reach. They don’t need or want a funeral.

    I hope to hear from more of you who have managed to negotiate an ‘8am’ rate. From a geographical and green perspective It would be nice to keep things relatively local, after all that nation-wide collection is going to cut deeper into the £400 – £500 margin.

    My No at the NDC is 01962 712690 on holiday so don’t ring this week.

  6. Tuesday 14th February 2012 at 10:16 pm

    Yes indeed – a very brave and valuable issue to tackle. I felt deeply aligned with most everything you said, Ru.
    Great comments too.

    I will always put forward the possibility that the no-funeral funeral could be tailored so that it avoids the horrors some folks have of ….. well, you name it: dragging crem curtains, sad-faced funeral pro’s bigging up their workaday role, hectoring minister, slack celebrant etc etc.
    Some families simply do not know they can have a funeral all their own way.
    Others know for certain that they do not want to even see the coffin. So that’s how it goes.
    I somehow equate this issue with the ongoing argument re assisted suicide: if wonderful tender care for the terminally ill were available and affordable, would that change many people’s choice of assisted suicide?
    Horses for courses.
    I’m for the choice.

  7. Tuesday 14th February 2012 at 6:23 pm

    Thank you Susan, nice to know that you are wrestling with it too in the US. Sounds like you have a handle on it, certainly a good awareness. And Nick, I thought it sounded a bit too generous of a crematorium.

  8. Tuesday 14th February 2012 at 5:45 pm

    This post articulates a dichotomy that I wrestle with as a funeral professional. The measures that must be taken in order to keep a business afloat in an economic cesspool seem to threaten our ability to satisfy the most basic human needs that exist when a life ends – needs that the modern consumer quite often does not anticipate or acknowledge. Reconciling the two seems almost an impossibility and, at times, forces us to sever our professional obligation to offer services that accommodate the desires of an increasingly mobile and price-conscious consumer with our personal obligation to give them something deeper and more meaningful, outside the confines of the “non-funeral” as you put it, as we know well enough the implications of unresolved grief.
    Our business here in the US is currently attempting to satisfy both. We run a full-service mortuary which specializes in innovative and uniquely personalized ceremonies that rely heavily on the talent and attention of our celebrants. Additionally, we offer a new online service (www.simplecremationnj.com) which caters to a different consumer – a consumer that either cannot or will not conduct arrangements in person and either cannot or will not spend $5,000 on the disposition of a body. The service in itself is innovative, but the sticking point is in the fact that it completes the task of disposition and nothing more. I feel it is our duty to provide families with this option. Rather than imposing on families what we as grief professionals believe is the “right way” to say good bye to a loved one, our funeral directors make concerted effort to encourage every Simple Cremation of NJ family to take advantage of our full-service mortuary for any memorial services or tributes they’d like to hold after the cremation. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. We have found that some families choose Simple Cremation of NJ services because they find it more worthwhile to spend the bulk of their available funds on the memorial services that follow – and that is best-case scenario for all of us. Other families choose this service purely as a result of financial constraints, and that’s okay too–but it makes me bristle to work with a family that denies itself the opportunity to address emotional and psychological needs that are quite transparently there.
    Kudos on putting this issue out in the open. I feel a weight lifted off of me after having been able to just share my thoughts on it.

  9. Tuesday 14th February 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Hello Rupert, and thanks for the mention. I’d never thought of myself as “generously transparent” before…. I really must do something about that!

    It’s a funny thing, but I’ve never considered my offerings to be aimed as a ‘budget’ funeral, which I suppose it is. I certainly don’t intend to ‘undercut’ other undertakers.

    What I offer and provide is a different service – one that caters for people that have perhaps never wanted all the regular ‘trappings’ of a traditional funeral. I try to honestly price the service according to the facilities provided and the costs involved.

    Because of these simple facts, it just happens to be less expensive than most.

    Just to make clear one point regarding the cremation facilities we use – we have no special deal with the crematorium authority. The price we pay them is available to any applicant.

    Nick

  10. Tuesday 14th February 2012 at 2:04 pm

    it’s so easy to make a difference – as a celebrant I was once sitting with a family, mostly woman and they started to talk about who could carry the coffin and they all automatically put forward names of brothers, uncles, sons etc – I asked if any of the women would like to carry? Can we do that, they asked!

    It was lovely to see on the day of the funeral, 2 sons and 2 daughters carrying the coffin and to know that something so simple really made a difference to that family.

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