Blog Archives: March 2013

Ask not what you can do for the bereaved; ask what the bereaved can do for themselves

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Straw bear

Britain’s most bonkers tradition? The Straw Bear Festival


SCENE – A village wedding. Church bells. Assorted villagers have assembled at the lych gate waiting for a glimpse of the bride. They are joined by a TOURIST who happily happens to speak perfect English.

VILLAGER: There she is! Just coming round the corner now.  Ooh, it’s a Rolls!

TOURIST: Who’s that walking in front of it? That person in the Tudor costume and the three-cornered hat and, what’s that, a mace?

VILLAGER: That’s the wedding organiser.

TOURIST: Why is she walking in front of the car?

VILLAGER: It’s the way it’s done in this country. The wedding organiser walks in front of the car.  

TOURIST: But why?

VILLAGER: Oh, ah… tradition. Yes, it’s always been done that way. It’s the way we do it.

TOURIST: But a wedding is not about the wedding organiser –

VILLAGER: Oh, look at that dress! Doesn’t she look lovely! And look, there’s the bride!




The Great British Tradition whereby a funeral director walks in front of, or ‘pages’, a hearse is a well-loved custom stretching back to the heraldic funeral processions of the middle ages. Well, not really. Actually, they didn’t have funeral directors then, it was the Head of the College of Arms who would walk in front of the cortege. No, ah, paging is a lot more recent. There are several schools of thought about where it originated… and little chance of a consensus. Nowadays, it’s a ‘mark of respect’, that’s what it is. Will that do?

It is undeniably a good look.

Yes it is, and I think it is capable of adaptation. If funeral directors were to suggest to families that one or more of them might like to undertake this role instead, I wonder what the uptake would be.

What would be the point?

In a word, empowerment.

Why is it important to empower bereaved people at a funeral?

So that they can go home feeling proud of themselves. If a funeral is to be a valuable event, they need to feel proud they did their bit.

Would this not take away from the status of the funeral director?

Wrong question. Would it add value to the funeral? Yes, I think so. No one ever went wrong who sought to empower the bereaved. The trick is to find them things to do that they’re comfortable with.

But the job of a funeral director is to take all possible burdens from their families.

I respectfully disagree. The job of a funeral director is to organise an event where bereaved people can do good grief work. They can’t do that if they’re spectators. I repeat: they need to go home feeling they played their part in giving the person who died a good send-off. So, I say: ask not what you can do for the bereaved; ask what the bereaved can do for themselves.

Well, I don’t know that I’d want to be a funeral director if you took paging away from me.

Look, I may be wrong, I acknowledge that. But right now I do absolutely believe that you guys have got to stop obsessing about the price of funerals and start looking for ways to add value to them. You can do that in ways that cost nothing. This may be one. 

People’s undertaker doing fine

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Nail coffin

Wholly non-relevant photo


The Co-operative Group reports that, for the 53 weeks ended 5 January 2013, funerals revenue was up 6.4% to £348m, with operating profit up to £60m from £55m. 


Is competition among celebrants killing off the fittest?

Monday, 25 March 2013



The funeral was in full swing and the celebrant was midway through that thing about life being a river that gets wider and wider when his phone went off in his trousers pocket. He furtively squeezed it into silence as he stumbled on. It may have been something by Kahlil Gibran. The phone shrilled out once more. Again, he stilled it. When it went off for the third time he pulled it from his pocket and addressed the caller. “I can’t speak to you now, I’m in a funeral.”

Reader, it really happened.

Yes, there’s a full spectrum of secular celebrants out there. Some are  the best it gets, some are sub-prime — and an awful lot are blameless. 

What’s more, there’s a heck of a lot of them.  They’re all competing for work and it’s getting a bit beastly what with all the wheedling and undercutting and general unseemly jostling. 

There used to be just four tribes of celebrants, the Humanists, the Civils, the green fusers and the Association of Independent Celebrants. Now there’s also the Fellowship of Independent Celebrants, the County Celebrants Network, the Scottish Independent Celebrant Association and the Fellowship of Professional Celebrants. I’ve probably missed one. They’re all training new recruits of whom, in this bad economy, there is no shortage. 

There’s market saturation in some areas. 

Does it matter? I used to think that Darwinian forces would kill off the less good while the excellent would drive up demand for secular funerals by the example of their work. There are still a lot more religious funerals than the churchgoing figures would seem to explain, so there is theoretically a rich seam to be worked. 

It doesn’t necessarily seem to be happening, the Darwinian thing. There may well be people who have been so underwhelmed by indifferent secular funerals they’ve been to that they’re turning back to the Church as the lesser of two evils. And let’s not be disparaging about ministers. There may be some below par ones out there, but there are also masses of excellent ones. 

Some funeral directors will only let the very best celebrants anywhere near their families. Others will take the first one who’s free on Thursday at 2.30. 

Perhaps the message to the very best is that you don’t need to be that good, spend all that time, invest all that emotional energy. Perhaps there is very little perceived difference between good enough and good as it gets. We note that no funeral director yet has sought to take the very best celebrant in his/her area out of the market by offering them a salary based on, say, three funerals a week. Perhaps a really good celebrant doesn’t make them look that good. 

No one wants to feel like a scavenger fighting for scraps. So the very best celebrants, they’re just going to walk away, aren’t they? And that’s either a shame — or it doesn’t really matter all that much. 

Do tell me I’m wrong. 


Sacred geometry

Sunday, 24 March 2013



In an as-told-to piece in today’s Sunday Times, extreme expeditioner Ed Stafford describes the hardships he underwent when he was dumped naked on a desert island. He found the loneliness and isolation especially difficult to bear. 

“My best technique for staying sane was something the Australian Aborigines taught me. I built a stone circle and whenever the panic or anxiety got too much I would go and sit in it and feel safe and happy again. It’s a simple technique, but it worked. I think I’d have spin out otherwise.”

A nice thing to have in a natural burial ground, perhaps? 

All that we miss

Saturday, 23 March 2013



In his new book, Levels of Life, Julian Barnes writes of the grief he felt, and still feels, following the death of his wife, Pat Kavanagh. It centres on:

“the loss of shared vocabulary, of tropes, teases, short cuts, in-jokes, sillinesses, faux rebukes, amatory footnotes — all those obscure references rich in memory but valueless if explained to an outsider.”

It takes a great writer to articulate it so well. 

Barnes also describes the moment when it became “less likely” that he would kill himself because he realised that she was still alive in his memory. “I was her principal rememberer … I could not kill myself because then I would also be killing her. She would die a second time.”


Inheritance tax? LOL!

Friday, 22 March 2013

Old lady


Richard Rawlinson casts a jaded, end-of-life eye over this week’s Budget.

Boy George Osborne’s Budget did nothing to address the 40% IHT that clobbers so many after a death in the family.

There’s nowt to be done about the ridiculous significance of seven years but here are seven tips to avoid IHT:

1 Make your will sooner rather than later as there are exemptions available if they’re set in motion seven years before death. If you die intestate, you have no control over how your assets are distributed.

2 Gifts made seven years before death are free of IHT. However, if you reserve any benefit from a gift – such as continuing to live in a house you have given away – then HMRC may apply ‘gift with reservation’ rules to impose tax as if the transfer had never happened.

3 If you cannot afford to give large lump sums away, it makes sense to use smaller opportunities on a regular basis – such as the £3,000 per person annual allowance for gifts. There is also an allowance for each parent to give each child up to £5,000 to when they marry.

4 Family trusts can be set up to enable assets up to the IHT threshold to be sheltered from tax, so long as the donor survives seven years. Unlike outright gifts, these trusts let donors retain control of the assets, just in case your beneficiary has a penchant for fast cars, fast women and cocaine. 

5 On a sober note, where injuries suffered during military service are a contributory factor in anybody’s death, then that person’s estate may become entirely IHT-free. 

6 Some tax shelters cease to be effective after death. ISAs are popular ways of avoiding tax on income but they confer no protection against IHT. 

7 If retired overseas, one definition of domicile is the country in which you intend to be buried. If you are domiciled overseas, then only assets based in Britain will be subject to IHT, whereas IHT would cover your worldwide assets if you remained domiciled in Britain.

More than meets the eye

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Ronnie biggs


Yesterday’s Mail, among others, carried the pic, above, of Ronnie Biggs greeting the press at the funeral of fellow train robber Bruce Reynolds attended by the great and good of the criminal underworld. Check out the scene here

Bruce Reynolds’ son Nick, pictured below at the funeral, is a member of the Alabama Three whose song Woke Up This Morning is the title music to the Sopranos. There’s a neat symmetry there, perhaps.




You may recall that Nick is also a sculptor and specialist in death masks. We last brought you to his attention back in 2010 in this post, which describes the cast he took of a freshly executed prisoner in the US. Don’t just glide over that link and pass on. Check it out. It’s an extraordinary story. Here it is again

Nick is one of the essayists in the latest Natural Death Handbook and a friend of its compiler, Rupert Callender, whom Nick has appointed official undertaker to the ‘Bamas. 

Now check out that Nick story.



 Ronnie in happier times

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