Blog Archives: April 2013

Today is launch day for the GFG bereavement volunteers scheme

Monday, 29 April 2013



Here at the GFG we’ve been banging on about our community volunteering scheme for some time — here and here for starters. 

The scheme is designed to address short- and medium-term practical problems facing bereaved people in the aftermath of a death. It promotes community engagement and a neighbourly duty of care. It revives, in a 21st century way, the traditions of former times when communities came together to help their bereaved members. It is arguable, now that families tend to be scattered, that the need for community engagement with bereavement is greater than it ever has been.

Community volunteering joins up the specialist care of the bereaved offered by a funeral home to the non-specialist care of the bereaved offered by volunteers. 

The attraction to community members was demonstrated on The Fixer by that nice man who said that, when he died, he hoped there would be people willing to give his wife a hand getting adjusted. He signed up. What goes around, comes around.

The attraction of the scheme to a funeral home is immense. Whilst all funeral homes pride themselves on their community engagement, in reality this presently comes down mostly to three sorts of activity: 1) ingratiation (schmoozing care homes), 2) networking (join all the clubs, sit on committees) and 3) charitable works (writing cheques, jumping out of aeroplanes for Macmillan, ). There is reputational value in all this activity, for sure, but it tends to be disparate and unfocused. It is difficult to discern a link between the service of the bereaved and a sponsored roundabout. It is hard not to feel uneasy about a sponsored bowls tournament when the competitors are so close to needing an undertaker. Some funeral directors also sponsor 4) a bereavement group – an excellent initiative. A downside is that, over time, it can morph into a social club. 

A community volunteering scheme will never foster dependency. The purpose is to enable bereaved people to live independently as soon as possible. In the event of failing to enable a bereaved person to achieve independence, volunteers will step back and refer the bereaved person to specialist agencies – eg social services or, in the case of complicated grief, appropriate specialist counselling. 

A volunteering scheme is perfectly focussed on adding value to the services offered by a funeral director. The volunteers form a human and caring interface between the funeral home and the community, bringing bereavement and funeral professionals into the social mainstream, and reinforcing the naturalness and normality of death. There is immense marketing and news value to be derived from administering a volunteering scheme, whose members will act as a funeral home’s ambassadors.

The scheme is also capable of being adopted by a local funeral consumers’ advocacy group, perhaps in partnership with a simple-funerals business targeting the no-fuss and funeral-poverty markets. It is often said that communities have disintegrated beyond repair, but it is notable that they regroup around enterprises which can make a real contribution to wellbeing and serve self-interest.

Whether sponsored by a funeral director or an autonomous co-operative of local people, volunteers will actively promote, through lectures, debates and other events, healthier, better informed attitudes to, and positive engagement with, death, dying and bereavement, seeking to establish end-of-life issues and awareness of mortality as normal ingredients of everyday discourse.

We are aware of funeral directors who have been attracted to the scheme, but have then been deterred by the risks involved. Sure, if a volunteer makes off with an elderly widow’s jewellery the potential for reputational damage is immense. 

Risk cannot be eliminated but it can be managed. In order to do that you have to build safeguards into your policies and procedures.  A volunteering enterprise needs a well-designed structure and comprehensive systems of working. This is not something you can do from a few doodles on the back of an envelope while watching Corrie. It is a seriously meaty and specialised task best undertaken by an expert. It costs money. 

Well, we’ve done it. We have put together a suite of 18 essential policy and information documents which a funeral director can use as a blueprint for their own volunteering enterprise. They have been double-checked and edited by a human resources consultant. They meet all current legislative requirements. 

The scheme is presently being piloted by a funeral director. This will enable us to iron out some bugs. It is not a one-size-fits-all scheme. It is adaptable to local circumstances and the vision of the funeral director or consumer advocacy group running it.

We shall shortly be making it available for anyone who wants it. We’ll throw in consultancy and support, and we’ve established a networking facility for sharing best practice. 

If you’re interested, drop us an email: 

We need no more out of town death malls

Friday, 26 April 2013


Imam Ahmed Megharbi and Rev Isaac Poobalan in St John’s Episcopal Church, Aberdeen


Q: What’s Big Money to do? The industry big beasts, Dignity and Co-op, can’t make scale pay except by hiking prices (this may be incompetence). And funeral plans are beginning to look… well, decidedly subprime. 

A: Burn, baby, burn!

Yes, buying and building crematoria is the Next Big Thing in Funeralworld. Already we’re in the midst of our first nasty public spat. Mercia Crematorium Developments is in a ruckus over plans to build a crematorium at Hackington, Kent. Nearby Barham crematorium, owned by Westerleigh, is allegedly priming protestors, including  five undertakers and the Dean of Reculver, to abort the development. You can read about it here. There’s going to be more of this sort of thing according to senior analysts here at the GFG, just you watch. 

Memo to Big Money: Building crematoria is next best thing to feeding money into a blast furnace. Why? Because the way we do things now is bonkers, and when something’s bonkers someone’s bound to notice eventually, and when they do notice your bottom will fall out and we’ll all look back on the way we did things as the Age of Stupid

A funeral venue with an incinerator attached is nuts. More of the same won’t help us out of our present problem, which is: 

We’ve got too many incinerators and not enough venues

Our incinerators don’t work hard enough because they only function for an average of 6 or so hours a day, 250 days out of 365. The way to fix this is to house incinerators in nice wee buildings in around an acre or so of nicely landscaped grounds serving a number of funeral venues and operating round the clock all the days of the week. This would bring down the cost of cremation hugely. Add staffing costs to the raw cost of cremating someone — presently less than twenty quid for gas, leccy and reagent — plus the capital cost of the equipment, and you’re probably looking at something under £100. 

Okay, but what about the venue shortage, you cry. 

We’ve got more of them than we think. All manner of public and private spaces in the hearts of our commmunities are under-occupied from village halls and cricket pavilions to churches.

Yes, churches. Lovely things. We’ve got thousands of them, all echoingly underoccupied. Except that:

In Aberdeen, every Friday, Imam Ahmed Megharbi leads Muslim worshippers in their lunchtime prayers inside St John’s Episcopal Church in the city centre. His mosque had become too small for all his worshippers, so the incumbent, the Rev Isaac Poobalan, invited them in. Imam Megharbi and his flock seem wholly at ease with the Christian inconography all round them. You can read the full story here(£)

Let’s applaud the C of E for its ecumenical spirit and, at the same time, let us recall the words of CS Lewis: “A church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members.”

So it is that, down in Slough, an interesting thing has happened to the local C of E school. 75 per cent of its pupils are now Muslim, so it is conducting its assemblies without Christian hymns and has allocated separate prayer rooms to boys and girls. The headteacher, Paul McAteer,  says: “The Church of England describes itself as a faith for all faiths … Our assemblies consider humanitarian and spiritual issues that concern everyone. We don’t have it as part of our philosophy to do assemblies based on the Bible.”

Might our churches therefore be prepared to extend a welcome to all those who presently huddle outside the crem waiting for their 20 mins-worth?

Well, pretty much every funeral in Britain considers ‘humanitarian and spiritual issues’. Pretty much every funeral expresses spirituality of some kind. An awful lot have a Lord’s Prayer and The Lord’s My Shepherd. If the elastic of the C of E stretches to embrace worshippers of another creed, it seems already to have stretched quite far enough to embrace the troubled Vale and his ilk. Might it be agreeable to inviting them all to come on in and take all the time they like — and, if you want, the vicar can pop in at the end and dispense some juju?

I think it’s time we asked them. 


Driven to distraction?

Wednesday, 24 April 2013



Posted by Vale

I am a celebrant of the tribe of IOCF (lapsed). We have a short creed that describes a Civil Funeral, it goes:

A Civil Funeral is driven by the wishes, beliefs and values of the deceased and their family, not by the beliefs or ideology of the person conducting the funeral. It sits between a religious service and a humanist funeral.

We swing both ways, you might say. The question is, how far should we swing?

I have been asked to lead services recently that are effectively religious services: two hymns, the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer (suitably non-denominational and non-specific ) at committal too.

The rationale for the family seems to be that they have no living connection with a church, but they want the trappings and reassurance of something very traditional. They also, I think, want to feel in control of the process. I am a reassuring presence, because they are commissioning me.

The services themselves are lovely – warm and full of comfort…but something niggles at me. When does responding to a family’s wishes become a masquerade? When should you call for the priest?

‘Eager yet kindly’ flames

Tuesday, 23 April 2013



Posted by Richard Rawlinson

After her funeral service at St Paul’s Cathedral last week, Margaret Thatcher was driven to Mortlake Crematorium in west London before the committal of her ashes alongside her beloved Denis at the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

Mortlake is a pleasant 1930s building surrounded by peaceful, landscaped gardens. HG Wells, who cremated his wife here, wrote this of its ‘rear of house’ facilities:

I should have made no attempt to follow the coffin had not Bernard Shaw, who was standing next to me, said: ‘Take the boys and go behind. It’s beautiful’. When I seemed to hesitate he whispered: ‘I saw my mother burnt there. You’ll be glad if you go’. That was wise counsel and I am very grateful for it. I beckoned to my two sons and we went together to the furnace room. The little coffin lay on a carriage outside the furnace doors. These opened. Inside one saw an oblong chamber whose fire-brick walls glowed with a dull red heat. The coffin was pushed slowly into the chamber and then in a moment or so a fringe of tongues of flame began to dance along its further edges and spread very rapidly. Then in another second the whole coffin was pouring out white fire. The doors of the furnace closed slowly upon that incandescence. It was indeed very beautiful. I wished she could have known of those quivering bright first flames, so clear they were and so like eager yet kindly living things.

For a virtual tour, click here

Introducing Hearse+ for bereaved people who like to drive themselves

Monday, 22 April 2013

Panther Black Ford Galaxy FSJ Release


James Hardcastle of The Carriagemaster has enjoyed ‘strong successes’ with his self-drive hearse, a venture to which the teeming team here at the GFG-Batesvile Shard has given its unanimous and enthusiastic backing. No one ever went wrong, we like to say (over and over, the record shows), who sought to find ways to empower the bereaved. What’s more, we’ve met James and we think he is not just a good egg but an unimpeachable egg and a very astute businessperson. 

James has now launched what he calls Hearse+

It’s a Ford Galaxy private ambulance/removal vehicle (pictured above) in which 4 family members can drive their person who’s died on their last journey on Earth. They can spend as long as they want and take any route they want so long as they get to the ceremony venue on time. 

One of James’s people will drive the hearse to the family, give them a short course in driving it, and lob them the keys. 

Fuller detail here: Hearse+ Features and Benefits. The cost is around half that of a conventional hearse driven by someone else. 

If you’ve any questions for James, contact him or, if you would like him to respond publicly, leave a comment below. 

It goes without saying that the GFG has no commercial relationship with The Carriagemaster. 


How do you define ‘dying’?

Monday, 22 April 2013


Where you die when you go to Dignitas


Sarah Wootton, chief exec of Dignity in Dying, wrote in Friday’s Times about the case of Paul Lamb, who wants to be allowed to die:  

Dignity in Dying is not fighting for an unfettered right to die, but for the right of dying people to die well. We believe that right must be based on two core criteria: terminal illness and mental competence. Mr Lamb is mentally competent, but not terminally ill. Our proposed law would not help him. 

Any law must balance the rights of the individual against the needs of society. A small but significant minority of dying Britons are suffering unbearably, against their wishes, at the end of life. I am certain that we can implement a law that would give them the freedom to reduce their suffering without compromising the safety of potentially vulnerable people. 

Restricting the law to those with a terminal illness would protect those who have recently become disabled and have yet to come to terms with their situation, or those facing new and difficult, but ultimately controllable, symptoms of a chronic condition. It is also important that patients take the final action themselves. This ensures that they are in complete control of the decision about how and when they die. 

“I am not without a heart,” Wootton says, “but still I cannot fully support [Lamb’s] case.” 

Wootton is taking into consideration here the acceptability of right-to-die legislation to the public. What she wants, 80 per cent of the population wants. Extend the right to people who are simply fed up with living and acceptability plunges to just 40 per cent. 

She may also have been thinking about Belgium, where euthanasia has increased by 4,620 per cent in just ten years. 

In Belgium, there lived two identical twins, Marc and Eddy Verbessem. Both were born deaf. They never married, but lived together and worked as cobblers.

When they were 45 they were diagnosed with a form of glaucoma which meant that they would shortly go blind. When they learned this they were very sad and felt they had nothing to live for any more. They went to their local hospital and asked for euthanasia. The hospital said no.

So they went to another hospital. The doctors listened to their story kindly and empathically. They agreed with Marc and Eddy that their outlook was very bleak indeed and, yes, their lives had lost all value.  So they killed them with a lethal injection.

This happened a fortnight before last Christmas, 2012. It was entirely legal. 

Responses to Wootton’s article are interesting.

Simon Roue says: “Having the debate about whether people have the right to take their own life seems hopelessly outmoded in a society that de-criminalised suicide in the 1960s.” 

Robin Thomas says: “Sarah Wootton is right to draw our attention to the distinction between her campaign (for the ‘dying’) and Mr Lamb’s (for those living in hell). But ultimately I wonder if this is a distinction without difference? Are we not all dying, just some faster than others?” 

Mike Gratton says: “Frankly madam I could not care less whether or not you are with or without a heart. I have a terminal illness and my life is my concern . Keep your “conscience” to yourself. We sufferers feel the pain, not your conscience.”


Born on a barge and borne to his final resting place on a barge

Sunday, 21 April 2013



Walter Harrison was born on the coal barge Baron in July 1921. He lived on the canal for 30 years and worked on the waterways for much of his life.

Family and friends of the pensioner, known as Wally, followed the coffin along the towpath.

Full story here

The opposite of death isn’t life; the opposite of death is birth

Sunday, 21 April 2013



We’ve written about Chuck Lakin here before. He’s a retired librarian and active woodworker with a line in plain pine coffins. Above all, he’s a lovely guy. 

He recently held a make-your-own-coffin workshop in his home town of Waterville, Maine. 

No one came. 

Lakin, 67, said he had planned to walk people through the process of building a coffin Saturday morning. He was going to hold the workshop with fellow natural-burial enthusiast Cam Weaver, of Mount Vernon.

Lakin said Barrels owner David Gulak told him there had been a lot of interest in the workshop. A lot of people had mentioned it over the past week or so.

Nobody signed up, however, and the event was canceled.

“They’re afraid of it. People will laugh about it nervously, but the people weren’t willing to recognize that it’s going to happen and say this is a natural part of life,” he said. “I see this all the time.”

More here

Suit ya?

Friday, 19 April 2013


There are six Rosedale funeral homes. Headquartered in Diss, they straddle the Norfolk-Suffolk border. This is a gentle, conservative part of the world. If you’ve not been for thirty years or so, you’ll find it exactly as it was.

Rosedale is headed up by Anne-Beckett-Allen. She was brought up in the business and spent some years working for a group. Her husband, Simon, is a funeral outsider with a genius for creating beautiful spaces. He has converted and furnished all the funeral homes in a style you might term contemporary antique. They exude understated class.

We were delighted to be invited to accredit the funeral homes, and spent two very enjoyable days doing so. They all pass with flying colours; we recommend them without reservation. If John Lewis did funerals, they’d probably do them like this. You get the same level of service from incredibly nice, natural, bright people who love what they do. There’s none of the heavy-handed customer-service role-play you get in so many other British businesses.

So, all in all, a class act all round. Brilliant. We like and admire them hugely.

What do they do that’s different? That’s a question that misses the point. The way to phrase it is: What do they do particularly well?

One thing they do particularly well is look after people who have died with great care and tenderness. And this has led them to doing away with the mouth suture. Instead, they support the jaw in a gentler way using the device above and left. Clients are entirely happy about it and, as you can see in the photo below, when it’s time to fit mine it’ll hardly show at all.


Rosedale’s staff say it achieves a very natural expression. That’s got to be a good thing, because the suture is difficult to get right, often producing a parrot mouth (you should have seen my Mum).

The dead don’t mind the suture, of course. But, as Tom Lynch says, the dead do matter — and so do their families. It is difficult to defend any mortuary practice which might appal the living. The mouth suture takes some explaining and, as a funeral outsider myself, I still find it shocking.  

If you don’t know what the mouth suture involves, but would like to find out, think twice if you are squeamish. There’s a verbal description here and a series of videos here.






That bloody box

Wednesday, 17 April 2013



“This was a funeral that celebrated unity. Like all other funerals. That bloody box: the awful finality: the dreadful unduckable certainty that life has to come to an end.

So of course it was the same today. We knew she was dead, and all of us, no matter how little interest we take in politics, have been talking about her life — and how some people thought she was great and some people thought she wasn’t and how some people thought a state funeral was great and how others thought it brought back the divisions of the 1980s. 

But in the end it was the usual infinitely solemn, infinitely banal parading of a box with the usual unspeakable contents. The flag and gun-carriage and the marching bands and the statuesque airmen with reversed arms outside the church of St Clement Danes in the Strand didn’t try to conceal the fact it contained death. 

Miners and policemen, tycoons and street-sleepers, liberals and authoritarians, winners and losers, wets and drys, warmongers and pacifists, the cruel and the compassionate, the bullies and the gentle: every funeral you ever go to reminds you that in the end there are no divisions between us. Death is the ultimate unity. 

Why should the funeral of Baroness Thatcher be any different?”

Simon Barnes in The Times

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