The funeral industry commissions very few surveys. When it does, they are about what bereaved people are doing, not what bereaved people want. These surveys are almost always self-serving and, if spun well, appeal to lazy journalists. Result: free advertising. This is something the GFG has taken up with broadsheet journalists to no effect.
Why no surveys about what bereaved people want? Why so little market research? Is it because funeral directors aren’t interested in what people want?
Or because they think they know best?
I don’t think there are any easy answers here. Let me throw in just two more observations. First, a funeral director’s relationship with his/her clients is potentially corrupting of the funeral director. Very. Grief-stricken people are easily bossed about – many develop a version of Stockholm syndrome, a psychological condition where hostages develop gratitude towards, and admiration of, their captors. If a funeral director role-plays it right, their clients can easily mistake manipulation for kindness.
What’s more, the likelihood of any client asking to ‘look under the bonnet’ is negligible, and that’s potentially corrupting, too. Unexamined mortuary practice can lead to de-sensitisation and, from there, to very bad habits.
So we can see why funeral directors are prey to self-importance (the not very bright) or paternalism (the brighter ones). All intelligent, thinking funeral directors acknowledge this – as do the better celebrants, whose power relationship with their clients is similar.
Is there any other service industry in which it is reckoned okay not to tell people certain things? There is a high degree of consensus in the funeral industry that empowering clients to make informed choices has its appointed limits. You have to use your discretion. Did you ask that couple if they would like to come in and wash and dress their dead person? I thought about and decided not to. Aren’t they entitled to consider it? Look, it would only have upset them.
It’s a fair point.
Where does ‘we know best’ begin and end?
We’d know more if the industry conducted more surveys asking people what they want, what they need to know, and is it okay if…? Is it okay if we store your dad with his face uncovered on racking with loads of other dead people? No? Thanks, in that case we won’t. Anybody outside the industry, and a great many in it, wouldn’t need to ask such a dumbass question.
But what about the mouth suture? (If you don’t know what the mouth suture is, it is a way of closing the mouth of a dead person. A gaping jaw can look pretty horrifying.) The mouth suture is standard practice. The funeral directors who don’t do it can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And it’s not the sort of procedure you’d ever, ever want to ask a bereaved person to make an informed decision about in the first flush of grief. (If you need to read a description – be warned, it’s not for the fainthearted – you can one here.
If you were to conduct a survey of, say, a thousand ordinary people and asked them what they think about the mouth suture, the result would be, we can only say, interesting – because we don’t know. And of course it would depend on how you presented the information and asked the question.
But to do it as a matter of routine without permission? Is that really okay? To withhold information like that?
I know so many superb and humane funeral directors who earnestly believe that it’s just something you cannot do, ask permission about the mouth suture, that, frankly, I’m torn. It’s all too easy for a scribbler to adopt a holier-than-thou opinion about this and say If you can’t bear to ask, don’t do it. It’s different when you’re on the ground, doing things for the best.
But once you decide to withhold information, well, it’s potentially a slippery slope you’re on, isn’t it?
And in any case, isn’t there a principle here?
Ed’s note: It’s been a busy week for the blog, which has seen many new visitors and commenters. You are all welcome. If you have left a comment using a cybermoniker that’s fine, that’s the way of it, and you probably feel you want to keep your personal opinions separate from your professional practice. This blog has always been remarkably free of trolls and vandals and, even when passions were high, recent discourse has more or less respected common courtesy. It’s not often that anything happens in funeralworld, but that Dispatches programme really got bloodboiling.
Tomorrow is Friday and, as ever, the main event will be Lyra Mollington’s reflections of a funeralgoer. A feeling of business as normal will descend once more, and we hope to return to our ‘magazine’ format, a daily mix of news, opinion, curiosities, music and, if you’re really lucky (we’re not promising anything) something deliciously oblique from Vale.