The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Thinking the unsinkable

Monday, 3 June 2013



In October 2008, in a piece about direct cremation, I wrote this: In the UK we are culturally conditioned to believe that a funeral for a body is indispensable. Could that change? In July 2009 I wrote: I never thought [direct cremation] would jump the Atlantic, but it has. We now have our first direct cremation service over here and it’s busy. Simplicity Cremations*, it’s called.

I seem not to have been wholly persuaded, however, for in March 2010 I wrote: It seems unthinkable that the practice of direct cremation … could land on our shores. In May 2010, in response to a very valuable analysis by Nick Gandon, Jonathan, a sagacious and valued commenter on this blog, wrote: Funeral directors aren’t set up to cater for direct cremation because the demand is almost nil. 

Seems like ancient history now.

The growth of direct cremation marks a cultural shift that, so far as I know, has gone unremarked by the British media. So far as the media is concerned, direct cremation doesn’t mark a cultural shift at all, it’s simply a branch of the cheaper funerals market, and we all want cheaper funerals, don’t we? The Dismal Trade seems mostly to share this analysis. Direct cremation is for poor people who can’t afford a full fig funeral, for a few well-off middle class people who want a ‘fuss-free’ funeral, and for the I’m-not-worth-it brigade who don’t reckon they’re worth funeralling anyway. It’s a niche market. 

So far as we can tell from their responses, funeral directors experience the impact of direct cremation as a commercial, not a cultural phenomenon, and certainly not as an existential threat. Most people still want a trad funeral, but direct cremation has affected the trad funerals market by making stripped-down respectable.  It has empowered funeral shoppers to say no to stuff they don’t actually really want. The days of one limo or two have been succeeded by one limo or none — oh, and no flowers, either, thanks. We are witnessing a watering down of the Big Black Funeral. How much more dilution can it take? 

Culturally, until the last five years or so, we supposed there to be a crucial, indispensable emotional and spiritual value in holding a funeral in the presence of a dead body.  Now, we’re not so sure. A combination of all manner of factors may be responsible, longevity in particular — when death is merely the postscript to a long and beastly illness, there doesn’t seem to be much more grief work to do. On the other hand, the deaths of young people remain not just as momentous as ever, but more so. 

There is, arguably, a perfectly good rationale for direct cremation. Reducing a body to ‘ash’ and rendering it, thereby, portable, durable and divisible, is a very effective way of preparing it for a funeral. There is remarkably little understanding of this among funeral directors; most of them simply do not get it, probably because they scent no commercial opportunity. 

So here are the big questions:

Is it preferable, in the interest of emotional and spiritual health, to hold a funeral in the presence of a dead body? Or do ashes actually serve perfectly well?

Biggest question of all: 

  • Is it perilous to your emotional health not to hold a funeral at all? After all, we get to carry on without the benefit of a formal ceremony or other ritual observance after near-bereavement experiences like the breakdown of a relationship, or redundancy, or a child leaving home. We resolve those privately. 

It seems extraordinary that the funeral industry has mounted no concerted defence of the funeral. Nor, so far as I know, have any academics responded to what’s going on and debated the question: Is your funeral really necessary? 

Because if pragmatic Brits cotton on to the idea that a funeral serves no purpose, does them absolutely no good at at all, is all just a lot of hollow show and hot air, they’ll be only too pleased to say goodbye to a tradition they never had much time for anyway. 

And that’ll be curtains for an industry thought to be unsinkable. 

*Simplicity Cremations is now Simplicita Cremations. I’ll leave it to Nick to explain why.



21 comments on “Thinking the unsinkable

  1. Wednesday 5th June 2013 at 3:45 pm

    Poppy, lovely to hear your clarification. I don’t think your doing direct cremations either, just pomp free honest free form rituals.
    There wouldn’t be any need for such things as direct cremations if the larger chains didn’t charge such a lot for so little.

  2. Jed

    Wednesday 5th June 2013 at 1:26 am

    What’s a ritual? The church doesn’t have a monopoly on rituals. Can you have one on your own? Does it need to be ‘witnessed’ ‘performed’ or ‘led’? Seems to me that we need all sorts of new language to describe what we do/want/need at a funeral/farewell/disposal.

    It also occurred to me that I’ve seen many people fly across the globe to attend a funeral – with a coffin – with the actual body of an actual person in it…. I’m not so sure they would make the same effort for a box of ashes.
    I think it’s a bit Post Modern to have no funeral at all and possibly perilous as well. Even the ones who want no funeral still like to know that ‘something’ has happened… don’t they?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m very much in favour of no fuss no frills no crazy debt, when the fuss and frills belong to some ‘other’ force – be it church, FD or plain mad family members. I think people are simply realizing they don’t need to ‘buy’ the rituals they yearn for. There is a ‘Funeral Spring’ in the air… a fresh approach that I think Nick carved a way for and certainly Poppy and other forward thinking undertakers have caught hold of. People are discovering their inner capabilities to address the biggest issue of all – mortality. They don’t want to be ‘directed’ they want to find their own way through.
    Simples. Simplicita. Simplicity.

  3. Richard

    Tuesday 4th June 2013 at 10:00 pm

    Body or ashes at the funeral? And is it perilous to your emotional health not to hold a funeral at all?

    A case for the body is that the human body is so inextricably associated with the human person that it is hard to think of a human person apart from his or her body.

    As for the case for a funeral, the late atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens said: ‘I do think people need ritual, and probably particularly funerals. Because no one wants to be told, “Okay, you have a dead relative. Go bury him someplace.” They want to know that something will kick in now. It will be taken out of my hands, and everyone will know what to do… It was very clever of the churches to take control of moments of this kind’.

    If people increasingly choose secular funerals – with or without ritual, in crematoria or elsewhere – it will be because they feel that their ceremonies are fit for purpose; that they meet the deep need to have our emotions evoked and expressed; that they’re a serious and purposeful response to our own lives and to those of our friends.

    In the years ahead, it will be interesting to see if ritual comes to the fore, or if meaning is increasingly interpreted as something more personal.

  4. Tuesday 4th June 2013 at 1:51 pm

    I think that we are starting to develop ritual to deal with life events and I wouldn’t be surprised if that didn’t gain momentum in the future. As far as academic engagement with the usefulness (or otherwise) of funerary ritual is concerned…watch this space 🙂
    Nick, speaking as an FD in the North East (and Keith spent many years working for Dignity in the North East) neither of us have heard of ‘Simplicity’.
    Not that it make any difference to their legal position on this!
    What we are increasingly seeing is the opening up of options…different amounts and forms of ritual serve different people. Home funerals suit some, but not others, likewise direct cremation, likewise, to be fair, ‘traditional’ funerals. The point, surely, is that an FD should either specialise in one or two, or be prepared to offer whatever is required to each client? The issues are of openess, honesty and awareness of choice rather than of one type of funeral being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

    • Tuesday 4th June 2013 at 5:15 pm

      Jenny –
      Simplicity Funerals Unit 3, Churchwalk Shopping Centre, Walker, NE6 3DH

      regards, Nick

      • Jed

        Wednesday 5th June 2013 at 1:28 am

        there’s more but I can’t bring myself to type the addresses…

      • andrew plume

        Wednesday 5th June 2013 at 7:56 am


        it’s a Dignity low cost/cheapy option shop:

        just how cheap, I’m not sure

        it’s clearly a start up operation, this will be why Nick is aware of it



  5. Tuesday 4th June 2013 at 11:59 am

    I think it depends what you mean by ‘direct cremation’.

    There are some cremations where the family choose not to come – for many reasons – but what unifies them is a feeling that what is happening at the crematorium is not something they need to be part of. They want us to undertake this responsibility in a respectful, simple and (dare I see it) beautiful way.

    Then there are the people – a much much bigger group in my experience – who are trying to create something intimate and spontaneous. They want to be able to come to the crematorium for a private goodbye. And private might mean 1 person or it might mean 25 people. But it’s not a performance. This lack of performance has resulted in some really powerful informal gatherings and spontaneous rituals which have been incredible to be a part of. Stuff I really couldn’t have come up with if I’d planned it.

    I’ve never really felt we were doing ‘direct cremation’ to be honest.

    • Richard

      Tuesday 4th June 2013 at 7:38 pm

      Nice clarification, Poppy. Thanks.

  6. Monday 3rd June 2013 at 9:07 pm

    We have offered Direct Cremations since we opened in 2009. Many families have chosen this option.

    Would it be worth forming a Trade Association dedicated to Direct Cremation providers?

  7. Richard

    Monday 3rd June 2013 at 7:12 pm

    Thought-provoking post, Charles.

    But while I’m familiar with the poor and fuss-free middle classes opting for direct cremation, who are the ‘I’m-not-worth-it brigade’? I’m not familiar with this tribe and am intrigued.

    I agree with comments by Jonathan and Kathryn. Funerals are for the living and their diverse ritual remains valuable for closure, and that the presence of the body remains a valuable symbol at the time of the final farewell.

    This is not a criticism of direct cremation for those who want it, and those who offer it. It’s clearly meeting demand for any number of socio-economic reasons. But existential reasons?

    • Kathryn Edwards

      Monday 3rd June 2013 at 8:03 pm

      Richard, the trade come across people whose declared last wishes really are ‘just put me in a black bag’ and they mean it.

      Poppy Mardall — and, doubtless, others — could elaborate the ways in which direct cremation actually works. It need not be the brutalist thing that you may imagine. I think it may be a subtle approach to the problem of skipping a groove, funeralwise.

      While some purchasers of direct cremation are seeking to sidestep a funeral, others are choosing to engage with the disposal process but with a MINIMUM of ‘fuss’: meaning no hearse, no lims, no ritual-leader, no flowers, no fancy-dress, no officious/lugubrious/uninterested/gormenghasty/FD personnel, no ‘order of service’ . . . And the potential to have/perform a truly minimalist occasion in exactly the way they want. Including spontaneously.

      • Monday 3rd June 2013 at 8:10 pm

        Kathryn – “skipping a groove”. Priceless.

        – Nick

  8. Monday 3rd June 2013 at 5:15 pm

    I am with Kathryn on this question of ‘ritual’.
    I observe the great relief and shift in atmosphere that follows a funeral that has been both thorough and well crafted and even delivered by the family.
    I don’t believe it’s relief just ‘cos it’s over; it enables a step out into another domain, where wider questions can be faced.

    The question in a secular world is how on earth to make it meaningful. You dedicated celebrants dig deep to find this.

    Further abbreviation in funerals is important to be able to offer (Simplicita et al, including ourselves). But it’s no more a silver bullet than any other prescription.

    PS Legal or not, I find it utterly enraging to find our world stripped of words, genes, crops and culture by the clever corps.

  9. Mr XX

    Monday 3rd June 2013 at 2:23 pm

    Who wants to bet that Dignity never actually trades anywhere in the UK as Simplicity funerals? How could they, when this is not what they want. Their business model seems to demand the sale of full service, full price funerals.

    Be warned, Corporate’s can always afford lawyers, to write their letters, register trade names and enforce their rights.

    • Monday 3rd June 2013 at 4:02 pm

      Just for the record Mr XX, Dignity were on the right side of the rules with that one. They do have a business which operates as Simplicity Funerals up in the North East.

      – Nick

  10. Monday 3rd June 2013 at 2:08 pm

    Point very much taken, Kathryn. But hark at the way ‘advanced’ societies cut themselves free from fol-de-rol, and secularism does not devise substitutes for religious festivals/observances/passage-marking rituals. These seem to be regarded as the colourful, delightful, alien offspring of ‘developing’ societies.

    Can this be reversed?

    • Jonathan

      Monday 3rd June 2013 at 6:20 pm

      ‘Near bereavement experiences’ (are we to know these now as ‘NBEs’?) like the breakdown of a relationship, or a redundancy, or a child leaving home, lead into a developing saga without the finality that death likes to clobber us with; and so, while ritual may help us deal with them if we fancy it, we can find other ways just as effective if we don’t want that formality, or that much public attention in our private lives.

      Something about a body convincingly masquerading as a person for decades, though, and the person then magically disappearing in the blink of an eye while the body obstinately lingers among the rest of us, refusing to follow (and indeed trying and failing to take its own, different route out of the world, leaving us with not one conundrum but two), is rather more disconcerting to us mortals. It suggests a need for deeper reflection than losing a job or an aspect of a relationship.

      Reducing her body to ash before any ceremony, instead of afterwards, only makes it and her less recognizably connected when we need to separate them mentally and say goodbye to both, for some of us at least. It also renders the point of a subsequent funeral harder to grasp; the presence of an urn has less oomph than that of a coffin. I suspect that much of the ‘demand for direct cremation’ (did I really say that?) comes from a sea-change less in our attitudes to dead bodies at funerals as in our attitudes to the trashy charades we think funerals inevitably are. We hate them and we naively blame undertakers for our misconceptions, so rather than trying to take hold of funerals and do them well, we think to shun them altogether.

      More fool us, I say – we’re throwing the corpse out with the embalming fluid.

  11. Kathryn Edwards

    Monday 3rd June 2013 at 12:36 pm

    But back to the main theme . . .

    Your provocation is interesting, Charles, but from my ritualist perspective the question should be the other way up: how is it that we stumble through quasi-bereavement sorrows such as job-losses and relationship break-ups WITHOUT rituals that engage the support of our whole communities?

  12. Monday 3rd June 2013 at 9:54 am

    Thanks Charles, for giving me the opportunity to explain the reason for our re-branding…

    Late last year, Dignity Plc, quite properly, drew to our attention the fact that they had recently transferred to themselves, the intellectual rights to the word SIMPLICITY from a company associated with their SCI roots.

    In the UK, the word SIMPLICITY is a registered trade mark when used in respect of any services connected with funeral or cremation. SCI registered it as their trade mark back in 1990 – and for some unknown reason, it failed to show up when we searched the records in 2007.

    The upshot was that we had to change both our branding, and even our associated limited company name. (Those firms out there that offer a “Simplicity” option or have the word simplicity in their trading name are also in breach of Dignity’s trade mark, as, by Law, only Dignity can use the S word in connection with funerals or cremations).

    So, there you have it.

    We are now rebranded, as of last year, as SIMPLICITA Cremations – which is now – you guessed it – OUR registered trade mark.

    and…. to make life even more difficult, early this year, Orange telecom decided to withdraw their broadband 0845 telephone service – meaning that not only had we lost our trading name, but our advertised telephone number as well. It could not be retained or transferred for technical reasons. Thanks so very much Orange.

    On the bright side however, the rebranding has given us a somewhat more distinctive name, which no-one else can now legally use, and a sparkling new 0800 freefone number. 0800 689 0343 to be exact.

    Once again, thanks for the opportunity to explain….

    – Nick

    • Kathryn Edwards

      Monday 3rd June 2013 at 10:09 am

      Wishing you the best of luck, Nick! How troubling to live in this world in which we lie down and let the corporates ‘trademark’ the essence of things: language, seeds, genes . . .

Leave a Comment