Blog Archives: August 2013

Funeral snaps

Saturday, 31 August 2013


Some good ordinary funeral photos from the Guardian’s This Is Your Photo project. Find the rest here

What price peace of mind?

Saturday, 31 August 2013


It’s been another very bad day at the office for the financial product known as the funeral plan, demonstrating its attractiveness to cheats and scammers. Sooner or later some devious little twerp is going to do a runner with a shedful. Some reckon they know who that twerp is. 

Yorkshire Asset Protection, a financial services firm offering ‘specialist advice’ and ‘bespoke solutions’ for people’s estate planning needs, has folded, leaving widow Lynda Madden £6,500 out of pocket. What she and her husband were told were Golden Charter funeral plans turned out to be nothing of the sort. 

Read the whole sad story here

Meanwhile, allegations concerning the growing power of Golden Charter (the real Golden Charter) as funerals’ broker is something we’re increasingly aware of here at the GFG. Funeral directors write in to sound off. A typical account arrived a couple of days ago.  A funeral director who is not signed up exclusively to Golden Charter tells us he was offered £1958 to arrange a funeral which, had he been exclusively signed up, would have yielded him £2686. He says the family had paid over £3000 for the plan, which included provision for a willow coffin. 

Why shouldn’t a £3K plan buy you a £3K funeral? I put this case to Golden Charter and was told that the company rewards those who support it and help it grow the business — why should FDs who don’t commit to it benefit from the hard work and commitment of others? 

I also took the opportunity to ask Golden Charter about its telesales operation in the light of  reported case where a vulnerable old person was distressed by what she felt were pressure sales tactics. I was told that any report of anything other than ethical conduct by a telesales operative would be dealt with swiftly and surgically. 

Golden Charter has invited me, in a spirit of openness, to go and see them at their HQ in Glasgow to lay before them all the concerns that consumers might have about its funeral plans, and I am minded to accept the invitation. If there’s anything you would like me to ask them, please let me know. Drop me an email or leave a comment. 



Reaching the Fathers

Friday, 30 August 2013

Egyptian Funeral


The second in a series of guest posts which consider the question, ‘What is the purpose of a funeral?’ by Jenny Uzzell

The first ‘purpose’ of funerals that I am going to consider is the one that, arguably, has the least relevance to most people in the modern western world. For most of human history there has been a tacit assumption that funerary rites are an efficient cause of change of some sort on a spiritual level. In other words they ‘do something’ in the supernatural world. Either they ensure the safety, survival or wellbeing of the person who has died in the afterlife or they protect those who are still living from an otherworldly threat. 

While there is some evidence (albeit hotly debated) for funerary ritual even before the emergence of Homo Sapiens, we cannot make more than an educated guess about the meanings of rituals and the beliefs associated with them until we are into the historical period and can read about what our ancestors thought they were doing. Even then it is no easy matter to be sure about what the funeral was expected to achieve. 

The ancient funerals with which we are most familiar are, perhaps, those of Egypt. In the Old Kingdom it is not clear what afterlife expectations, if any, were held by the majority of the population. Only the Pharaoh, already partially divine even before his death, was assured of an eternal life as an aspect of the sun god Re. The soul or ba of the king made a perilous voyage to the Duat or underworld where it joined Re and so helped to preserve the future security of the kingdom. This apotheosis was a dangerous and complicated affair and could only occur if the funeral rituals were carried out with precision. The pyramid itself (sometimes referred to as the king’s ba or as his ‘horizon’) may have been a complicated piece of supernatural machinery designed to facilitate the Pharaohs transformation into a god. 

By the Middle Kingdom the afterlife had become far more democratised and everyone expected to access the Duat after death. Literature of the period uses euphemisms for death that tell us much about Egyptian attitudes. Egyptians often refer to finding a ‘safe harbour’ or to reaching their father safely. This life was seen largely as a preparation for the next, and so to invest a large proportion of one’s wealth in securing a good afterlife seemed quite rational; after all, the next life will last much longer than this one. 

Egyptian belief of this period was very complex. The human in the otherworld was comprised of the ba (similar to our idea of ‘soul’ this was, essentially the personality) the ka (life essence or vitality) and ankh (intellect). The ka needed to be sustained with food and drink offerings and needed a place to live. This was the mummy, which had to be recognisable so that the ka could find it easily. Many tombs have a false ‘ka door’ through which the spirit could come and go. Only if all three of these elements elements were successfully reunited by the funeral rites could the person live again. It was therefore imperative that the rituals were carried out with absolute precision; the right words, pronounced correctly at the right time and accompanied by the right action. This could only be performed by highly trained priests who held an honoured position in Egyptian society since it was only through their skills and knowledge that one could hope to live again after death. The purpose of the funeral was to ensure the continued life and well-being of the person who had died. This in turn served the living who could expect their sons to do the same for them and ensured that the ancestors, well fed and cared for, would look out for them in this world. 

All of this seems a far cry from the modern world, and many would argue that most funerals today do not aim to bring about a real change to the person who has died or to those they leave behind, but many modern traditions actually grew from such beliefs and there are those for whom this is still the most important aspect of a funeral. 

Another ancient culture for which the funeral was crucial for the well being of the whole of society was Vedic India and it is to this that we will turn next.


Come on down to Bournemouth!

Tuesday, 27 August 2013



It’s still not too late to book for the Good Funeral Awards weekend in Bournemouth from 6-8 September. There’s already a great crowd coming — more than ever before. 

Our host will be Pat Butcher – the actress Pam St Clement – who will be handing out the awards and taking questions about her deathbed performance in EastEnders. 


The Good Funeral Awards weekend attracts the liveliest minds in the funeral industry. 

It is welcomingly inclusive — it reflects and respects all schools of thought from the trad to the progressive. 

It is a great opportunity to connect, exchange views and share experiences. 


Costs have been kept as low as humanly possible. Commercial sponsorship has helped. Those who have come together to help make the event happen have given their time for free. We hope that Brian Jenner, the event organiser, will be able to recoup his outlay, made at personal risk, and even be able to pay himself a very modest fee this year. 

This event really is a labour of love and it is made by people like you.

Find out everything you need to know here.

A eulogy sandwich is not enough to nourish grief

Monday, 26 August 2013

As Jenny Uzell embarks on a series of posts which will consider the knotty question, What Is A Funeral For? it’s worth reflecting on what has been a game of two halves, funeralwise, in the last fortnight. Two people have expressed contrasting approaches to a funeral.

First, there was Dave Smith, who arranged the funeral of his daughter, Hannah, the 14-year-old who committed suicide after being bullied online. Desperately sad though this was, Dave wanted the funeral to celebrate Hannah’s life, and he asked mourners and relatives to wear colourful clothes, onesies, her favourite garment, in particular,  to reflect Hannah’s joie de vivre.

The church was decorated with purple and white balloons, photographs of Hannah, and a poster that read “Be Happy for Hannah”. Purple was Hannah’s favourite colour. Her coffin was purple. Her father did not want her to travel in a hearse, so he brought her himself in a blue Audi 4×4. The coffin was carried into church to In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins. The service was conducted by the Church of England vicar, the Rev Charlie Styles, who described the proceedings as informal and relaxed. Four hundred people came.

Hannah’s was a very zeitgeisty funeral, highly personal, focussed on positives. There were tears, yes, and there was also laughter.

At the other end of the scale, over in Ireland, the bishop of Meath, Dr Michael Smith, courted howling and outrage when he restated the Catholic church’s doctrinal ban on the personalisation of funerals. He outlawed eulogies. This embargo seems to be restated in a newsworthy way in a more or less five-yearly cycle. Since compromise is impossible, it is one that looks set to keep on coming round.

The good bishop’s rationale for resisting what he calls the dumbing down of funerals accords with Catholic dogma. In his words:

“The context of the funeral Mass in the church should be focused entirely on the celebration of the Eucharist. What we’re trying to do is focus on the essence of the Christian funeral rite. The essence is, of course, two things. One is to support the family, through prayer and the community, but also the other function of it is that we support the person on their journey to salvation. What we are trying to do then is maintain the integrity of the Eucharist.”

Can’t argue with that, can you? If you want to belong to the club, them’s the rules.

Both Dave Smith and the Bishop of Meath have very clear ideas about what they think a funeral should aim to accomplish, and how it should achieve it.

But the good bishop has other things to say about funerals that may be relevant to all of us. He says:

“I suppose that people’s understanding when they hear about a funeral is that they focus entirely on the funeral Mass but the rites of Christian funerals begin long before that. You have the vigil for the deceased, the wake house and the removal and, of course, the prayers of commendation at the graveside. So we’re saying look, there are opportunities for family members who want to pay a personal tribute to the deceased.”

He’s got a point, hasn’t he? Why do we feel that farewelling and remembrancing have to be packed into brief, bulging crem slot, leaving so much to be said in short order that, in order to get the biography recited and the grandchildren named, a celebrant must, with one eye fixed on the clock,  zoom through a script at 360 words per minute, ruthlessly fading the music for prayer and/or reflection on the way?

Why do we place so much of a burden on the single event of the funeral ceremony? After all, there’s the time before it, as the bishop says. And there’s time afterwards — oh god, all that time afterwards.

That’s the time we need to focus on.

Secularists are neglecting to develop a case for the introduction of practices and rituals either side of the ceremony which might promote both good remembrancing and, also, the emotional health of bereaved people. This is probably why no celebrant association has made a public statement in support of the e-petition calling for statutory bereavement leave. That they haven’t is nothing short of astounding.

The Jewish practice of sitting shiva is a brilliant example of the sort of practice I’m talking about. For seven days following the funeral, the close family take a complete time out — stop the world, I want to get off: “The mourners experience a week of intense grief, and the community is there to love and comfort and provide for their needs.” Find more here.

Jews mourn in a structured way for a year. Shiva is followed by three weeks of schloshim, a less intense mourning period, followed by further regulated re-entry into the world. 

Like all rituals rooted in belief systems that have developed over hundreds of years, Jewish mourning is characterised by a thicket of impedimental ordinances, many of which strike outsiders as completely bonkers or, where gender equality is concerned, utterly unacceptable. For all that, the degree of difficulty they present is at the heart of the solace they offer. My friend Graham is presently saying the mourning kaddish daily for his father. It’s a short enough prayer. Translated, it reads:

Magnified and sanctified be God’s great name in the world which He created according to His will. May he establish His kingdom during our lifetime and during the lifetime of Israel. Let us say, Amen.

May God’s great name be blessed forever and ever.

Blessed, glorified, honored and extolled, adored and acclaimed be the name of the Holy One, though God is beyond all praises and songs of adoration which can be uttered. Let us say, Amen.

May there be peace and life for all of us and for all Israel. Let us say, Amen.

Let He who makes peace in the heavens, grant peace to all of us and to all Israel. Let us say, Amen.

Graham could mutter this while he waits for his kettle to boil or just think it as he brushes his teeth. But he’s not allowed to do that. No, he’s got to leg it down to the synagogue and recite it every day without fail at teatime in the presence of a minyan, a quorum of ten adult males. As a result, it rules his day. Everything is built around it. If he’s away on business he has to contact a synagogue before he’s even booked his flight in order to assure himself that there’ll be a minyan ready and waiting for him. Graham’s a man who has not been as observant as he might have been, in the past, but he’s doing his bit for his Dad, whom he loved. It’s hard work, he says, and it’s doing him a surprising amount of good.

Unglamorous work, isn’t it? Saying kaddish doesn’t fit with all those culturally untranslatable fun customs Brits get so bedazzled by, like the Dia de los Muertos (nobbut a lot of facepainting and larking about over here). Kaddish reminds us that mourning is a matter of hard yards.

The eulogy sandwich served up by celebrants is all very well in its way, but it’s not enough to nourish grief.


POSTSCRIPT: Jews are pro-eulogy. Here’s the halakhic ordinance:
Delivering a proper eulogy (hesped) is a major mitzvah. The mitzvah is to raise one’s voice and to speak heartrending words about the deceased in order to arouse the weeping of the audience, and to mention his praises … If one is negligent about the eulogy of an upright Jew one does not live long and is worthy of being buried alive.

It is forbidden to exaggerate excessively in praising the deceased. However, one is permitted to exaggerate slightly, as long as one does not go too far. If the deceased had no good qualities, one should not mention his character … If one attributes good qualities to someone who did not possess them at all, or excessively exaggerates the good qualities he had, this causes evil to the speaker and to the deceased.

A wee whiff of Auld Reekie

Friday, 23 August 2013



The stopping train takes more or less forever to get to Edinburgh through the fertile fracking fields of the desolate north-east. I’d been invited to look round  Scotmid Co-operative Funeral Directors. Scotmid is a small, independent members’ co-operative dating back to 1859. It owns 10 funeral homes. Like all co-operatives, it both co-operates and competes with other co-operatives. Co-operative Funeralcare has a big presence up here, especially in Glasgow.

The premier funeral director in Edinburgh is William Purves, admiringly spoken of by all and acknowledged to be superb. It is a firm governed by Christian values — all key staff are practising Christians – and it is characterised by a gender balance which you can muse on here.

I was interested to see how Scotmid upholds soft co-operative values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others in what is a very competitive field.

Scotmid has come a long way in the five years since it appointed Englishman James Blackburn as its Head of Funerals. Back then it was known as Grotmid. James has upped its standards, revamped its funeral homes, replaced ageing vehicles, instituted training programmes and CPD. Hats off to James’s firm but unobtrusive management style. He’s loving his job and he’s clearly something of an alchemist. The business is thriving. Last year the funerals arm accounted for just 1 per cent of Scotmid’s turnover but 13 per cent of its profit.

I quickly established from my brilliant driver, Paul, that funeral traditions in this part of Scotland remain notably black and traditional. I debated with him whether he supposed a strong sense of nationalism to be a contributory factor. In England, after all, where loyalty to national customs is not strong, there is wide diversity of funeral styles — more people do their own thing. I remarked on the abundance of Saltires fluttering from buildings and told Paul that, in England, a St George’s flag tends to be viewed with wariness. He was surprised.

CordThings have moved on. Funerals in Scotland are no longer events from which women are excluded. Even the custom of assigning burial cords to pallbearers is now shared between the sexes. Each pallbearer receives a position card detailing which cord to take. 


Church ministers don’t charge for conducting funerals in Scotland. As they say, it’s part of their job. Bereaved people may make a donation in lieu. The rate for secular celebrants is, therefore, by English standards, depressed – around £150. Even retired ministers only ask for £80-100. The interface between death and commerce was ever uneasy.

Scotmid has a big ‘hub’ mortuary at its premises in Forrester Park Drive. Obviously, we paid particular attention to it. We gave it full marks. The garage is here, too. There isn’t room to house all the vehicles under one roof, so some stay out all night in full view – in one of Edinburgh’s less salubrious areas. Does no one ever lob a drunken, Friday night brick at them? Never. The staff have ‘an understanding’ with the locals. We were pleased to spend some time with Scotmid’s embalmer. Embalming is a Cinderella service if ever there was one. You get to spend all day in a windowless room, and it’s the arranger who receives all the praise and gratitude from visiting families. So: here’s to you, Pete.

Every country presents a language barrier to visitors, and Scotland is no different. The words may be English but the accent is something else. I wasn’t able to tune my ear by interacting with the hotel staff because they were all Eastern Europeans. So there were, I’m ashamed to say, episodes of incomprehension followed by my embarrassed requests to repeat, slowly. Vocabulary sometimes differs. In Scotland, they prefer ‘parlour’ to ‘funeral home’, and I was delighted to hear someone refer to a ‘funeral undertaker’. I was especially interested to hear Jacqueline Spiers, a procurator fiscal depute (coroner in England and Wales) from Glasgow, refer to ‘the corpse’. How refreshing to hear someone use such a euphemism-free term, I reflected… until I realised that Jacquie was, actually, referring to ‘the cops’.

Jacquie was speaking at a conference for everyone at Scotmid funerals. It was the first time they’d done it – and on a Saturday, too. The lure of bacon sandwiches on arrival was enough to bring everyone together to hear a range of luminaries including Dr Brian Parsons and the Rev Paul Sinclair. Scotmid’s chief exec, John Brodie, remarked that at the same sort of event for other branches of Scotmid he’d expect a fair number of shuffling latecomers. The funeral people were there, every last one of them, on the dot. Of course.

It’s never entirely easy being an English person in a Celtic country – you never know what historic wickedness you’re going to have to apologise for. Jacquie Spiers, marvellously feisty in all things, raged against the denial of responsibility to procurators fiscal of powers of enquiry into any Scot who dies abroad. ‘Our dead belong to us.’ She was at her most thrilling when describing her mission to hunt down those who kill unlawfully, including those who mistreat the elderly. She appealed to all present to bring to her attention any dead person who showed signs of neglect or ill-treatment in a care home. Would that there were more of this everywhere. Would that there were more like Jacquie. Amazing woman.

A funeral home/parlour is only as good as the people who work in it. Scotmid’s people really are outstandingly nice, full of warmth and character, and I hope I managed to convey that to them credibly. I was sad to say goodbye to them. I’ve written a review here.


A take on the afterlife

Thursday, 22 August 2013



Posted by Richard Rawlinson, our religious correspondent

Heaven, Hell and Purgatory are states of a human soul, not places as often represented in human language. In Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas, writes: ‘Incorporeal things are not in place after a manner known to us, in which way we say that bodies are in place; but they are in place after a manner befitting spiritual substances, a manner that cannot be fully manifest to us.’

Pope John Paul II said heaven ‘is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. It is our meeting with the Father which takes place in the risen Christ through the communion of the Holy Spirit.’

He’s saying today we may describe heaven as the state of happiness and peace we will enjoy in our definitive communion with God.

In biblical metaphor, heaven indicates part of the universe, the dwelling-place of God, who sees all on earth from the heights of heaven, and comes down when he is called upon. The Apostle Paul tells us ‘God, who is rich in mercy, out of great love for us even when we trespass, made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up with him’.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up the Church’s teaching: ‘By his death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ has opened heaven to us’. This, of course refers to the sacramental life, whose centre is the Eucharist, but also the gift of self through fraternal charity in anticipation of heaven. We know that on earth everything is subject to limits, but the thought of the ultimate reality helps us to live better the ‘penultimate’ realities on earth.

Some have a problem reconciling the infinitely good and merciful God with eternal damnation, exclusion from God’s love in heaven. Another way of looking at it is that hell is not a punishment imposed externally by God but it’s determined by people in life.

Hell is not God’s initiative because he can only desire the salvation of his creation. In a theological sense, hell is the ultimate consequence of sin itself, which turns against the person who committed it. It is the state of those who definitively reject God’s love.

The biblical metaphor of hell as a place illustrates the total misery and emptiness of life without God. But rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.

The New Testament sheds light on the condition of the dead, proclaiming Christ by his Resurrection conquered death for all. Salvation is up to people to accept freely.

Without purgatory in the mix of heaven and hell, Christian denominations go in two distinct ways: fundamentalists say you have but one chance, Life, to avoid eternal damnation; liberals dispense with hell altogether because being without love forever is too painful to think about.

Purgatory offers hope of heaven even after dying with unreptented stains of sin. It’s not a place but a condition of existence where Christ removes the remnants of imperfection as, before we enter into full communion with God, every imperfection must be corrected. This is why Catholics pray for the souls of the dead, and ask for the intercession of Christ, Mary and the saints.

Non-Catholic Christians say there’s no evidence of purgatory in sacred scripture. There are several references to the belief that we cannot approach God without undergoing some kind of purification. The Apostle Paul says: ‘If the work which any man has built on Christ’s foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire’.

The Old Testament’s Psalm 51 reveals the process of reintegration:  the sinner confesses and recognises his guilt (v. 3), asking insistently to be cleansed (vv. 2, 9, 10, 17) so as to proclaim the divine praise (v. 15).

Just as in earthly life believers are united in the one Mystical Body, so after death those who live in a state of purification experience the same ecclesial solidarity which works through prayer. Purification is lived in the essential bond created between those who live in this world and those in heaven.   

The Purpose of Funerals: Overview

Tuesday, 20 August 2013



Aristotle (r)


The first in a major series of posts by guest blogger Jenny Uzell, scholar and undertaker

One of the highlights of the National Funeral Exhibition for me earlier this year (other than the chance to contemplate, yet again, the many ways in which my life has taken an unexpected turn for the bizarre) was hearing Charles speak about modern funerals. This was a memorable event, not least because of the determination required both to listen and, I imagine, speak, over the ambient noise of several hundred people on the other side of the frankly rather flimsy ‘walls’ doing whatever it was they were doing. It was, as you might expect, an erudite and thought provoking talk that led me to the sort of semi-professional navel gazing I have become used to after speaking to anyone involved in the GFG. 

One of the things he said particularly held my attention. He said that unless there is a clear affiliation to a particular faith, modern funerals have no clear purpose. That worried me a lot, because if funerals have no purpose, what on earth are we all doing wasting time, effort, money and a not inconsiderable amount of emotion on them! That’s not what he meant, of course. I know this because I asked him later. What he meant was that we often do not really know what the purpose of a funeral is. 

That is worrying as well. Over the years I have been a teacher, a teacher trainer and a senior examiner as well as, to my lasting surprise, an undertaker and the one thing that all of those roles have in common is that you cannot design something (a lesson; a training document; an exam paper) unless you are very clear indeed about what exactly it is that you are trying to achieve. Otherwise, how do you know if you did it well or not? We talk a great deal on this blog about ‘good’ funerals (odd that, on the Good Funeral Guide!) but what exactly is a ‘good funeral’? Aristotle had an interesting definition of ‘goodness’. He said that something is ‘good or fails to be ‘good’ to the extent to which it does or does not fulfil its final cause (loosely, ‘purpose’). So a ‘good’ knife is one that cuts well; a ‘good’ chair is one that is comfortable to sit in and does not deposit you unceremoniously on the floor; and a ‘good’ person (in case you were wondering) is one who lives up to his or her own innate potential; who is, to be all fluffy for a moment, ‘all that they can be’. By this measure a ‘good’ funeral is one that fulfils its purpose well. Annoyingly, this means that everyone involved in designing the funeral needs to have a common understanding of what that purpose is. 

Its one of those questions that we think we know the answer to. Its obvious what a funeral is for…until we really start to think about it at which point it becomes clear that there really isn’t an easy answer. There are many different purposes that a funeral can serve and just as every funeral will be different, so it will serve a different set of purposes. Unfortunately, the family of the person who has died (or the people responsible for organising the funeral) often are not clear in their own minds about what they want the funeral to achieve. It is therefore an important part of the role of any good funeral director and/or celebrant to be able, through talking to a family, to help them to understand what this particular funeral will be for. Of course each individual funeral will have more than a single purpose, and the different people responsible for it may have different purposes in mind. Understanding this can sometimes help to make the way forward clearer and to shed light on disagreements which may seem trivial but which are actually based on different assumptions about what the funeral is intended to do. 

So what is a funeral for? I think there are quite a number of different answers to this question and over the next few weeks, with Charles’ continued indulgence, I would like to explore each in turn in an attempt to see how well modern funerals do, might or even should fulfil them. Some are far more common than others and some are almost consigned to history: almost, but not quite. It goes without saying that ‘my’ list is by no means definitive and I am aware that others have written on this subject far more eloquently than I could hope to. Still I hope that my musings might be of interest to some and at least form a starting point for some interesting discussions.


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