Blog Archives: March 2014

What’s for love and what’s for money?

Monday, 31 March 2014



If there’s one thing that really vexes people in the funerals business it’s the question of who gets paid for what – and how much.

Take the business of conducting a funeral. In England, when C of E clergy moved their fee up to £160 + travel, lots of people howled. Everyone in England is entitled to a C of E funeral whether they attend church or not. The C of E is the state church. Vicars are paid wages to lead parish worship and attend to pastoral duties. How therefore can they define a funeral as an extra? Well, up in Scotland, where the Church of Scotland is the national church, not the state church, ministers make no charge for conducting a funeral. But the C of S is running out of money and looks like not being able to afford to do this for much longer. Conducting funerals for nothing is a luxury it cannot afford. Every altruistic enterprise needs revenue streams.

In the case of secular celebrants, the contract with clients is apparently clearer cut. They sell their skills for a price the market will stand. Theirs is unmistakably a commercial service. A good many celebrants are thereby able to generate a reasonable income by knocking out up to 10 or so funerals a week, working from a template with slot-in readings, etc  — a liturgy by any other name, nothing wrong with that — comprising also a treatment of the life of the person who’s died which probably goes little deeper than rapidly gathered facts + dates + a few notable attributes.

Alongside these fast-food merchants are the altruistic adherents of the Slow Funerals movement for whom the creation of a funeral is an evolving process requiring much talk, much listening, much thought and, as a consequence, a treatment of the life lived which calls for a great deal of ‘frightfully difficult literary labour’. The result is a funeral which goes deeper and is more personal. A better funeral, in other words. But to work in this way, and conduct a very few funerals a week, requires either acceptance of poverty or the existence of another form of income, whether in the shape of a pension, an inherited fortune or a supportive partner. In commercial terms, it is an uneconomic way of working.

So: how much of the time put in by these Slow Funerals people do we count as being given for nothing? What part of their work, in other words, counts as voluntary work?

This question doesn’t apply only to celebrants. There are undertakers, too, who believe in Slow Funerals, and who may also believe in doing their best for those who struggle to find the funds for a funeral. They generate a great deal of social capital but many of them don’t bank a lot of cash. It’s the same with every vocational occupation, of course, the difference being that most vocations we can think of pay at a level that makes going the extra mile an affordable luxury. Many of our most caring undertakers, by contrast, live close to the breadline. Many, but by no means all.

Funeral shoppers have always had a difficulty with acknowledging and accepting that a funeral is a consumer product just the same as any other. That’s changing. Two factors above all are responsible. First, it’s a product which 1 in 5 people struggle to afford. Second, it’s a product whose experiential value is being increasingly questioned.

Did I say two? Add a third. Until recent years, the state enabled everyone to buy a decent one-of-those, what-everyone-has, funeral. Any notion that the value of the Social Fund Funeral Payment will be restored in this, the era of the benefits cap, looks delusional. So something’s got to give, and that something’s almost certainly the way we do it now.

The time-consuming part of an undertaker’s and a celebrant’s work, which calls for high expertise and wisdom, is the emotional support of the bereaved, helping them come to terms with, and make some sense of, what has happened. The easy bit for an undertaker is the care of the person who’s died. Any good celebrant will tell you that only a small proportion of the value of their work can be judged by the script they read at the funeral.

You’ll not find the pastoral element of the work itemised and charged for at an hourly rate on any bill submitted by an undertaker or any celebrant. You can’t place a commercial value on that, you can’t charge people for kindness. If you’re an undertaker, it’s the care of the body that has to cover it. If you’re a celebrant, the rate for a template funeral. Reputation will help, too, of course. You can put your prices up a notch if everyone agrees you’re worth it — but you might not want to do that if it means making you unaffordable to people of slender means.

Whatever you think of all that, the fact remains that the what-everyone-has funeral, reckoned expensive by those who can afford one, is now out of reach to an increasingly large segment of the population. We need something more affordable.

conference held at the International Longevity Centre in February this year proposed a cheaper way forward that we’ve discussed on this blog: There is considerable potential to review the funeral service itself, separating the ritual from the committal. This could enable people to have more time to consider the ritual aspects and costs of the service, separate from the more functional aspect of managing the remains. When they say committal, they mean disposal, of course. Do read the report, it’s good.

Separate the disposal from the ritual. Take the corpse out of the funeral. Bring in cheaper cremation and the re-use of graves, and the costs begin to tumble. If, that is, the resulting ritual is reckoned timely and satisfying. Not everyone will be persuaded, of course. 

Kate Woodthorpe at the University of Bath takes it a step further and proposes that there may be roles for “public, private and third sectors in both preparing individuals and their families pre-death, and when bereaved.

That’s interesting. Third sector. Volunteers to share the work of listening and supporting bereaved people. That would redefine the roles of undertakers and ritualists. But is it really a viable alternative to the way we do things now?


Are secular rituals too churchy?

Friday, 28 March 2014

Sunday Assembly founders


Posted by Richard Rawlinson

‘Organising atheists is like herding cats’. Richard Dawkins

Every so often, civil celebrants here revive the debate about rituals in secular funerals. Some point out there’s plenty of spirituality already in a unique eulogy and individually-chosen readings and music, and enough symbolism with the procession of the coffin, the lighting of candles, and so forth.

Others say more set words, actions and visual aids could be established to enhance the ceremony—symbols that are appropriate for atheists and those people who are undecided on faith but are not members of any organised religion. The division seems to be between maximum individualism and those who think repeated ritual might help unify secular communities.

Just over a year ago, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones held the first meeting of the Sunday Assembly, a church for people who don’t believe in God. Meeting in various public venues, these gatherings offer the chance to meet like-minded people over a good sing-along, some stand-up comedy and more serious talks on subjects such as science. The stated aims include strengthening community bonds, inspiring a sense of wonder about life and promoting the loving values of humanism.

The Sunday Assembly, which a BBC reviewer described as ‘overwhelmingly young, white and middle class’, has divided people like Marmite, some attendees saying it fills a void in their life, others saying it all sounds a bit too happy-clappy.

In an interview with Reform magazine, co-founder Jones said: ‘A lot of atheists have given us abuse on Twitter, because apparently the way we don’t believe in God is not the right way to not believe in God’.

Evans added: ‘I suppose, because we’re not campaigning for atheism, it probably feels closer to church than to atheism as we know it. When we did the first Sunday service a couple of militant atheists came along who were angry that it wasn’t like a rally. We tried to explain that Sunday Assembly is about celebrating being alive’.

This is one example of the chasm between those non-believers who see the merits of church-style community—and perhaps the benefits of non-religious ritual—and those who want as little as possible to do with such ‘ecclesiastical baggage’.

In a recent interview with the Catholic Herald, the British Humanist Association’s chief executive Andrew Copson was asked why the BHA doesn’t focus it energies on establishing Humanist schools instead of campaigning against the admission policies of faith schools, and ‘let Catholic parents, who also pay their taxes, educate their children as they see fit’.

Copson answered: ‘We don’t work for the establishment of Humanist schools because we would be concerned that, just as with religious schools, such schools would further segregate society on the basis of belief, or otherwise limit horizons, and that would be a bad outcome for all of us.’

He continued: ‘Parents have the legal right to educate their children in line with their philosophical convictions, but the state is under no legal obligation to provide or fund any particular sort of school to provide what parents want – the legal obligation on the state is merely not to interfere.’

I’m personally for the limited interference of a smaller state. But I don’t see state provision for reasonable choice in pluralist society as interference. In fact, making homogenised secularism the sole option is arguably forcing one way on all.

I’d like to know where Copson stands on the Sunday Assembly church for non-believers. Like churches for believers, including the Catholic Church in Britain, it’s self-funding with no aid from the secular state’s tax revenue coffers. Would he discourage it, based on his argument against Humanist schools potentially segregating society?

Does this stance have any bearing on the development of secular rituals, and the divisions between Humanist celebrants and those civil celebrants searching for more spiritual symbolism, and accommodating of varying degrees of faith?

For full interviews:

Reform Magazine

Catholic Herald

Don’t expect Dignity to solve funeral poverty

Wednesday, 26 March 2014



Yesterday we let the interns loose on the blog and they impulsively passed on an appeal to readers to write to Mike McCollum of Dignity plc and ask him to do his bit in the fight against funeral poverty.

What they conspicuously failed to do was identify a single reason why Mr McCollum and Dignity should feel any moral obligation whatever to alleviate funeral poverty. Is anyone clamouring for Harrods to eliminate the need for food banks? Or for Waterstones to supply the children of needy families with Penguin Classics?

Sure, a great many people feel the big six energy companies should be doing more to alleviate fuel poverty, but this goes with a conviction that the energy companies overcharge because the energy market is not free, open and competitive. The funerals market, on the contrary, is free to the point of free-for-all. Dignity sells its funerals at a premium. Is a Dignity funeral the MacBook Air of funerals? Is it a high value product? Don’t answer, it’s irrelevant. People buy them, end of. They can buy cheaper if they shop around.

While Dignity ploughs its high-end furrow to the delight of its shareholders and the enrichment of Mr McCollum — that’s capitalism — there are hundreds of undertakers working with people who struggle to scrape together the price of a funeral. These undertakers are performing what is essentially a social service. They are decent folk who care, and they are beggaring themselves with tiny margins and bad debt. They’ve been bearing much of the brunt of the way things are since the shrinking of the Funeral Payment. By doing so, they’ve arguably been doing no more than postponing a crisis at their own expense, putting off the day when, as a country, we are compelled finally to sit down and sort this problem.

Because, we remind ourselves, the Funeral Payment was brought in (by a Tory government) to enable everyone to buy a decent funeral. We have such a long history in this country of state subsidy for funerals that it has become an automatic expectation — a right. If that has now changed, then the government has a duty to register the change and explain it. You can’t just pull away a prop and expect people with no money to carry on as if it were still there.

Nor can you expect undertakers to perform a commercial service at a price which prevents them from making a living commensurate with the value of that service. Good undertakers offer a high value service and deserve to make a decent living. It is folly and distraction to expect them to take one for the poor. If Dignity lowers its prices, does that make its funerals affordable? No. If it subsidises low-cost funerals at the expense of its wealthier customers, is that fair? Of course not. The cheapest undertaker in the country cannot provide an affordable funeral for someone who qualifies for a Funeral Payment. So while it may give passing pleasure to have a go at the fatcats, let’s not mistake righteous indignation for impotent fury.

And while we’re about it, let’s stop wilfully missing the point. Two factors which inflate the cost of funerals can easily be addressed. First, cremation can be carried out much more efficiently. Second, we can start re-using burial plots. To do so wouldn’t make funerals affordable for all, but it would make a decent-sized dent. Squeezing the undertakers, on the other hand, won’t make a blind bit of difference. There are enough already working for next to nothing.

The root cause of funeral poverty is political. The impact is social. The solution needs to be radical and will not be advanced by waving a bleeding stump at Mr McCollum.

It’s your line to Mike McCollum

Tuesday, 25 March 2014



Church Action on Poverty and Quaker Social Action are holding an event which will bring together charities, communities, policy-makers and the funeral industry to seek joint solutions to the growing problem of funeral poverty.

They say: “It’s really important that all sides are represented at the event and participate in finding solutions. Unfortunately, Dignity Funerals – the largest corporate owner of funeral directors in the UK – has declined every invitation sent to them.”

They’d like you to email Mike McCollum, the ceo of what is probably Britain’s most expensive undertaker, and tell him he really ought to get down there.

Come on, Mike, make an effort and try and look good. The GFG’ll be there. We can talk about what to do with your share options.

Please send Mike an automatic email and explain why it’s so important he attends this event and gets involved in finding solutions to funeral poverty. Click here.



NOTE to the uninitiated: a LTIP is a long-term incentive plan. The above is the third coponent of their total package and is not awarded automatically

He’s still at it!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014


Britain’s most infamous undertaker Richard Sage is awaiting trial at Blackfriars Crown Court on 28 April on a charge of fraud by false representation. He stands accused, among other things, of having posted a series of bogus adverts looking for young people to work with him. It is alleged the adverts asked for a £400 administration fee, but the promise of a job was a lie.

A little piece of Sage’s previous has been brought to our attention. This goes back to the days when Sage was operating a private ambulance service alongside his undertaking business. The story features Nigel Gardner, who runs a private ambulance service called Ambukare.

Whilst working as a driver for an undertaker’s, Sage decided to set up his own private ambulance firm. He did it convincingly too, embracing the much-revered work-sharing ethic. He would take jobs from hospitals, demand payment up front, and pass the jobs on to other companies. One of the companies was Ambukare. Gardner received a call from an unfamiliar company, Inter County, but obliged the request all the same. He then had a lengthy period of chasing payment.

The undertaker’s firm hadn’t seen Sage for some time. Nor had any of his clients. Eventually, Gardner decided to ring the police, who it turns out were looking for him too. He was wanted for various acts of fraud. Gardner’s account added another to the list.

The CID tracked him down in Spain.

“A lot of people were angry as Sage hadn’t paid a single client,” said Gardner. “I knew I wouldn’t get my money back. I was just waiting to see what the courts would do to him.”

The courts were firm, giving him several years, “which I suppose is only fair”, Gardner laughs, “as we soon found out he’d been ferrying people around in hearses!” (Source)

Incredible as it may seem, Sage is still trading as an undertaker from three branches in Essex while his business is being wound up by the Redfern Partnership in Stratford-upon-Avon.

While we hope that the judge at Blackfriars Crown Court will bring his activities to an end soon, we have to wonder if more couldn’t have been done to stop him.



Lighten our darkness

Monday, 24 March 2014


Last Friday I met the theatre lighting designer who’s interested in helping undertakers light their chapels of rest more effectively. I shall call him Wayne, for that is his name. 20 years in a senior position with the Royal Shakespeare Company and now freelancing in Europe and beyond. Our venue was the chapel of rest at Hemming and Peace, Alcester. Thank you, Nigel Peace, for your indulgence and hospitality.

Wayne had not visited a chapel of rest before and was expecting something much bigger — even though the chapel we saw is twice the size of most. He took everything in, photographed it and then we adjourned to a coffee shop to chat some more. We talked about how it is possible to use light positively rather than negatively — to create an experience based in light rather than gloom. We talked about mood and how lights can achieve that. Bread and butter for a theatre lighting expert, of course. I asked Wayne what mood he thought would be appropriate in most cases and he said spiritual. We talked about personalising the experience according to the variable expectations of bereaved people and the age of the person who’s died. Some families are likely to prefer a simple scheme, others something more elaborate and, if you like, Disneyfied, with images projected onto the wall (a symbol, a photo of the person who’s died) and a more florid use of colour.

It’s all perfectly doable and, once the lights are in place, not at all difficult for an undertaker to create an appropriate lighting design. The opportunities are extremely exciting. Wayne knows that most undertakers don’t have a lot of money to spare and he’s gone away to price up equipment. If he can come up with something affordable, our next stop will be the chapel of a leading undertaker who has expressed a strong interest.

We’ll keep you posted.


Keep the red flag flying

Friday, 21 March 2014

Bristol City v Gillingham 010314


Posted by Richard Rawlinson

The late Tony Benn and I share in common Bristol City FC, a team in League One, the third tier of the English football league system. Known as the Robins  due to their red home strip, I came late to their fan-base as a part-time resident of Clifton, whereas Benn supported the team during 50 years as a Bristol MP.

Unknown-1In the first game since Benn’s death, the Robins drew 0-0 against Swindon at Ashton Park, the grounds in the shadow of the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Earlier this month, a terminally ill fan was allowed to meet the team in the dressing room before they played against Gillingham. Mark Saunders, 54, with days to live due to lung cancer, berated the squad for their recent lacklustre performance, which has left them under threat of relegation. His dying wish was they’d reverse their fortunes. They went on to win 2-1.

Both Saunders and Benn would no doubt recall more dramatic ups and downs over the years. Between 1980-82, the Robins had a staggering three relegations, and were declared bankrupt. Benn’s Old Labour was in trouble, too.

But such is humankind’s indomitable spirit of optimism, we keep the faith: that our team will regain its mojo; our party will rediscover its principles; our religion will be guided by truth; our estranged loved ones will return to the fold; and that we ourselves will do better.

Gods, saints, angels and ancestors are called upon to guide us through life’s successes and failures. Their symbols and rituals, from crucifix to family crest, aid this dialogue. In football, fans like to touch the mascot for luck, Bristol City’s being a man dressed up in a cartoon robin suit.

UnknownThis leads me to a subject of great import. Bristol City FC changed its badge from the red robin to the City of Bristol’s official crest: unicorns mounting a shield depicting a ship. Ditch the friggin’-in-the-riggin’ slave galleon and bring back the robin, please.

Legend has it this beautiful little bird has a red breast after he chirped into the ear of Christ in order to comfort Him while suffering on the Cross. The robin’s breast has ever since proudly borne the stains of the Lord’s salvic blood.

On the all-too infrequent occasions when Bristol City players show bird-like agility and ‘bounce’, supporters sing, ‘Red robins bounce around the ground’ to the tune of thye Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, while themselves bouncing up and down continually in the stands.

Chants, rituals and symbols. Angels and even mascots. They’re all signs of man’s wonderful reliance on things other than pure reason.

POLITICS Iraq Benn 1

The Co-op is dying, long live the co-op

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Outside a Co-operative Funeralcare funeral home


“Every private equity company in the country has been in touch to try and buy its funerals operation.” Lord Myners

  In recent times the Co-op’s reputation has been kept afloat by sentiment fostered by its of-the-people-for-the-people origins, fortified by ‘ethical values’ and holier-than-thou policies on fair trade. Fondness has blinded people who should know better to its executive infirmities. Scarcely a day goes by without the announcement of fresh horror at the top. And the bad news stories about Funeralcare just keep on coming:




With a £2 billion loss behind it for the last year alone, and strife at the top, the viability of the ‘Group’ is now in doubt.

The GFG has earned a fair amount of hate mail for the way it has campaigned against Co-op Funeralcare. We’ve done so more in sorrow than in anger. No need for a detailed analysis of where it all went wrong, the bare bones tell the story.

Funeralcare offers a very poor deal to funeral shoppers — something all the sentimentalists who’ve tenaciously viewed the Co-op through hogwash-smeared spectacles must now acknowledge. At a time of funeral poverty and ever-rising costs its social purpose seems to have gone AWOL, the pursuit of profit remaining its sole purpose.

The predicament of the Co-op Group is dire. If things don’t get better the Co-op’s banks will have no option but to seize its assets and sell them off. Funeralcare remains vulnerable therefore to circling venture capitalists (see quote above). Under new management it could relaunch as a corporate predator — a dreadful legacy. 

And a harsh but necessary lesson for all those sentimentalists who suppose that a co-op is intrinsically better equipped to do business than a plc. The lesson we must hope they have learned is that there is no point in trading as a co-operative if you can’t get a better deal for your customers. If you can’t do that, your co-operative is a failure no matter what ethical values it signs up to.

The good news is that if any activity lends itself to a social enterprise business model it is the provision of funerals. No other model can compete. One of these days someone is going to get it right (and Dignity is going to go to the wall). Whether it’s member-owned or worker-owned, it’ll do more than walk like a co-op and talk like a co-op, it’ll act like a co-op.

FOOTNOTE: The GFG does not seek to make a name for itself by naffing people off. We exist to look for good news wherever we can find it and put bereaved people in touch with the best suppliers of goods and services. We like the co-operative model so much we even developed our own — here

Does distance disadvantage the bereaved?

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

telephone image


Guest blog post by civil funeral celebrant Wendy Coulton

More often the next of kin I work with to plan non-religious funeral ceremonies live in another part of the UK but this week I have had my first experience of discussing and planning arrangements with relatives living on two different continents!

Creating trust and an open dialogue through long distance telephone calls and email communication is more challenging than a conversation in person. A lot can be gleaned from reading facial expressions and body language or observing how relatives interact with each other. There is also of course the power of silence or pauses which can reveal so much about relationships or emotions which may not be as comfortable on the end of a phone line.

I ask the client how they would like to communicate and whether they would like the planning of arrangements to be broken down into bite-sized chunks or prefer to do it in one long conversation or email.

Some clients drip feed me questions or responses by text and others co-ordinate contributions from other people who contact me direct. Offers to skype have not yet been taken up.

Personally for me the most difficult aspect of the ‘remote conversation’ is the tribute research and feeling I have captured the real essence of the person who has died.

It does feel different meeting a client for the first time minutes before the funeral starts but there is a notable shift by the time our shared funeral experience ends. And it’s possible that some prefer the detachment of long distance preparation.

I don’t want my clients to feel disadvantaged in any way because they live so far away and I hope communication technology doesn’t dilute my warmth and professionalism. Any tips or guidance would be welcome.


Future funerals: technology to boost personalisation and sustainability

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Posted by Richard Rawlinson
Five generations living now are neatly labelled as follows:

Traditionalists (born 1925-45)
Example: great grandparents, born in the mid-1930s. Brought up during WWII, a culture of patriotism and waste-not-want-not. Faith in institutions and a job for life. Strong work ethic and stubbornly independent.
Slogan: Keepers of the Grail.

Baby boomers (born 1946-64)
Example: grandparents, born in early-1950s. Brought up in the age of post-war optimism, idealism and the questioning of authority, but also an era of competitiveness. Part of the social revolution that left their parents gobsmacked: human rights protests, mini-skirts, free sex, drugs and rock festivals.
Slogan: We changed things.

Generation X (1965-1980)
Example: Parents, born in the early-1970s. Brought up in a society with a rising divorce rate and working mums—latch-key kids, used to being left alone. Skeptical but resourceful, adapting as adults to the technological revolution. Hard-working and socially responsible. While boomers value teamwork, Xers prefer unilateralism.
Slogan: Work to live.

Millennials (1981-2006)
Example: Born in the mid-1980s, brought up with computers from an early age. Indulged by parents. A trait of entitlement balanced by concerns about the environment, recession and global violence.
Slogan: All about me (and the endangered tiger).

Linksters (2000-)
Example: So called because they’re used to being linked by technology, these teen and pre-teen offspring of Generation Xers and early-phase Millennials will enter the workforce not knowing a world without Google and smart phones, let alone microwaves. For them Diana’s death and 9/11 are historic events before their time, just as Edward’s abdication is to baby boomers or Kennedy’s assassination is to Gen Xers. As well as being tech dependent, they’re closely tied to their parents. While Trads, boomers and Xers don’t like to be micromanaged, Millennials and Linksters crave instructions about how to do things, welcoming mentors.
Slogan: Text me what to do next.

The caveat is that generalisations about generations are valid only to a point. After all, so-called Trads include octagenarians Michael Heseltine and comedy’s Joan Rivers. Baby boomers range from Vladmir Putin to Janet Street Porter. Both David Cameron and Johnny Depp are Gen Xers, with Millennials including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and that jobless couple on C4’s Benefits Street.

Preamble over, let’s talk funerals. Sticking to the stereotypes, ageing Trads remain more likely to have a funeral in a church or with a priest at the crematorium.

Baby boomers, many of whom will be dying of old age in 20 to 30 years from now, look set to be more receptive to more personalised funerals.

Ditto Gen Xers, although some are more small c conservative than their parents. Thatcher’s children and all that, fed up with the way hippies threw away rituals and social conventions that benefit social cohesion. A nuclear deterrent and bras are good. The Saffy backlash against ‘trendy mum’ Edina in Absolutely Fabulous.

Tech savvy and eco-doomsayer Millennials look set to make green funerals totally mainstream when they start dying, aged 100-plus, around 2080.

What will our world be like then? Technology, rather than homogenising life, is allowing for greater personalisation. For example, retailers already email and text information to customers based on their previous purchases and demographic profile. No point in marketing bumster jeans and megaclub nights to a fogey like me, but I might be interested in an offer on dinner for two at a newly opened restaurant.

Personalisation, sustainability and technology: three keys to satisfying funeral planners of the present and future.

FOOTNOTE: Although global population is estimated to grow to over 9 billion by 2050, Jonathan Porritt’s new book, The World We Made, offers a surprisingly optimistic vision for an environmentalist renowned for scaremongering. Utopian rather than dystopian, his future is one of sustainable food supplies and renewable energy sources, where the rich are poorer—yet happier—and the poor are better off. People also manage their own health and die when they want. But that’s another issue.


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