Blog Archives: May 2014

That was then

Friday, 30 May 2014

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“When the place was packed full the undertaker he slid around in his black gloves with his softy soothering ways, putting on the last touches, and getting people and things all ship-shape and comfortable, and making no more sound than a cat. He never spoke; he moved people around, he squeezed in late ones, he opened up passageways, and done it with nods, and signs with his hands. Then he took his place over against the wall. He was the softest, glidingest, stealthiest man I ever see; and there warn’t no more smile to him than there is to a ham.”

Mark Twain

Death on the island

Thursday, 29 May 2014

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Browner’s memorial, Isle of Portland

 

The dead of the First World War were tucked up in cemeteries designed and regulated by Those Who Know Best. Edwin Lutyens was one of the architects. Rudyard Kipling was in charge of what was inscribed. The result is, most people agree, fitting and splendid. It was achieved by denying the families of those who had died any form of personalisation save for a few words on the headstone – which had to be approved first.

Good taste can be very inhibiting, so it was refreshing to spend a few days on the Isle of Portland last week and witness an altogether more unaffected approach to the commemoration of the dead — People’s Memorials.

Portlanders like a bit of poetry. We like poetry that rhymes and can be easily understood. I enjoyed this from our latest freesheet by Linda Battely. On the first anniversary of his death, 29 May, it commemorates Darren Clare, a young man famous for his kindness:

Darren was a happy lad
If he could help you, he would only be too glad,
Gardening, shopping, cleaning, anything you name it,
Even if some days he didn’t feel that fit,
Darren would help you if he could…

 On Bank Holiday Monday, 26 May, there was a cricket match to celebrate the life of legendary cricketer Melvyn Tremlin, who died in October 2013 aged 61. He could have played for Dorset if he’d wanted. There was an open-air rock band, plenty of picnicking and a cricket match: “We promise that the cricket will not be too demanding, and there will be a lengthy tea break for those who need it.” Very jolly it looked.

We have memorials to the dead all over the island. Lots of benches, of course, for the dead like to gaze and Portland offers them many vistas –

 

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We’re littered with boulders, and some are adopted unofficially as memorials –

 

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The boulder at the top of the page is dedicated to Keith ‘Browner’ Brown, a ‘loveable rogue’ who may have jumped to his death here. It’s always dressed on his birthday in April –

 

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Portland is the final resting place of foreigners who died in its waters –

 

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Here’s our Royal Naval cemetery in which 12 German airmen lie alongside British sailors –

 

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Here’s one of our pirates’ graves. They weren’t actually pirates, but islanders mistake the memento mori for brigands’ insignia –

 

Pirate

 

I like our posh memorials. I like our People’s Memorials even more.

Getting it right

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

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A client review, just in, of GFG-recommended funeral director Andrew Smith:

I lost my husband on 30th April, he died peacefully at home, following a three year battle with cancer. Never having had to organise a funeral before I didn’t have a clue where to start.  A friend recommended Andrew Smith and all my concerns were taken away.

When I was ready for my husband to be taken from the house I rang Janet and she told me who would be coming and when they arrived about 20 mins later they were impeccably dressed and very sympathetic – treating my husband with great dignity.  After they had taken my husband I went back upstairs  to see that they had not only opened the window, but also made the bed.  I was deeply touched by this and it saved me the trauma of seeing the empty bed with indentations  where my husband had been lying – I am so grateful for that.

From then on Andrew Smith were invaluable.  I needn’t had worried about a thing because they did everything and they did it with compassion and with dignity.

My 24 year old daughter decided that she wanted to visit her dad and to put some photos in his coffin.  When she arrived,  rather than just letting her go straight in, she was shown a photo of the room so she knew what to expect.  She later told me that this helped her greatly.

The funeral itself was flawless and everything was explained to us prior to leaving the house.  How Andrew Smith remembered all our names, I will never know – but it means such a lot to me to know that they really do care about their clients.

Their contact did not end at the funeral.  I received a phone call the following day to see how myself and the children were.  A few days later I received some bookmarks with a picture of my husband on them and a poem on the back along with some wildflower seeds to plant in memory of my husband.  This is not a company that takes your money and then forgets about you.

Thank you Andrew Smith for looking after my husband so well and for treating him with great dignity and for looking after me and my family too.  If only all organisations could be as professional, it would be a much easier world in which to live.

Death by chocolate #bovo2014

Sunday, 25 May 2014

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From the Birmingham Post 25 May 2014:

They’re the Oscars you definitely would be seen dead at – and there’s guaranteed to be stiff opposition for a gong.

The inaugural Ideal Death Show, a top of the plots for the funeral industry, promises to be a celebration in Birmingham of everything that’s good about slipping this mortal coil.

Funeral directors across the nation are bidding for a rest-in-piece of the action.

Highlight of the three-day event will be the Good Funeral Awards, a prize-giving ceremony for undertakers who undertake to solemnly walk the extra mile.

Categories at the glittering Bournville gathering include embalmer of the year, The Eternal Slumber Award for top coffin supplier, crematoriuim attendant of the year and best gravedigger.

Winners will receive not Oscars but similarly sized gold statuettes of the Ancient Egyptian god of embalming, Anubis.

Refreshments at the Beeches Hotel pall of fame, staged from September 5 to 7, will be served in Death Cafés where, presumably, chicken in the casket may well be on the menu.

Lectures from luminaries such as Times columnist Ann Treneman and Oldie magazine’s Virginia Ironside will cover subjects like ‘What It Feels Like To Die’.

Pretty final, presumably.

Charles Cowling, author of coffee table book The Good Funeral Guide, stressed that there is nothing mawkish or even macabre about the celebration of everything associated with meeting your maker.

“They’re not weird, these great funeral people,” he said. “They’re wonderful.”

In fact, they’ve been known to really let RIP.

“Above all,” said Charles, “they’re amazingly normal, just like us – kind, decent, friends in need. The world needs to know this.

“They richly deserve to have their praises sung and their stories told. This event is where we get to do that.”

The show will also feature an exhibition of “unconventional funeral merchandise” – ideal for those wanting a fridge magnet for that urn on the mantlepiece.

“The British tend to be a bit coy about their own mortality, but we’re here to provide a space for the curious,” said an event spokesman.

“Many feel uncomfortable about the idea, but our weekends have more laughs than tears.

“There will also be death cafés, opportunities to discuss the Grim Reaper over tea and cake.”

Bournville – home of Cadbury chocolate – was chosen because of its Quaker links.

“They had a reputation for progressive management and embracing ideas ahead of their time,” said the show aide. “We particularly like the way they put emphasis on making this world better rather than pondering what happens after leaving it.

“We respect the Quaker commitments to social justice, environmental consciousness and community.”

All eyes will be on the industry’s ‘Oscars’.

Anubis

This year’s Good Funeral Awards Oscar

Owl you need is love

Friday, 23 May 2014

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The natural death movement in the UK of the early 90s was very much a child of its time. Its parents were the natural childbirth movement and the environmental movement. The happy coupling resulted in the birth of twins: the DIY funeral and natural burial.

The natural burial movement grew strappingly, but the DIY funeral didn’t. Not in the UK, anyway. But it has begun to thrive in the US, where DIY funerals are more fittingly called home funerals.

The buzzwords at the heart of the home funeral movement are empowerment and reclamation. Like all progressive movements in funerals it draws its inspiration from a golden age, specifically that time when people cared for their dead at home assisted by members of the community. It resists the commodification of funerals and the sidelining of those closest to the dying and the dead by specialist professionals:

“Reliance on a funerary industry to care for our dead and the removal of death and dying from our homes and communities are startlingly recent developments … Our modern approach to death has … left us blind to the extent to which we’ve forfeited our most personal, vulnerable and significant life moments to medical, funerary, legislative and commercial pressures.” [Source]

It may be worth reflecting, at this point, on the popularity of home births in England and Wales. In 1961 32.4% of women gave birth at home. In 2011, that was down to 2.4%.

The GFG has scrutinised the US home funeral movement from time to time, with the result that ours is the only UK website listed as a resource by the National Home Funerals Alliance. It only goes to show how incredibly little is going on over here. We’ve always been puzzled by that.

At last, though, we can announce the birth of a UK enterprise dedicated to helping people care for their dead at home. It has been created by Claire Turnham, who cared for her own father at home. In 2013 she attended the nhfa annual conference in North Carolina. In the autumn she will be hosting Jerrigrace Lyons, one of the great pioneers of the home funeral movement, who will hold workshops for those who wish to care for their dead at home.

Claire’s enterprise is called Only With Love, and you can find it here. OWL is a welcome addition to the UK’s diverse and highly creative funeral culture. We wish you well, Claire!

MuchLoved launches multi-charity fundraising in memory

Thursday, 22 May 2014

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Example of a MuchLoved online charity giving page

 

We’re always happy to promote the work of top people we really like. One of them is Jonathan Davies and his team at MuchLoved.

MuchLoved is the pioneer of online charity fundraising at funerals. Enhancements to the website’s functionality means it’s now possible to fundraise for any number of charities.

“This in part reflects the fact that many more people now have pre-existing relationships with charities as a consequence of participating in fundraising events such as charity runs and walks. Therefore when it comes to arranging a funeral, family members often decide to nominate more than one charity, a request that can multiply the administrative work for the Funeral Director in dealing with the associated cash and cheque burden!”

You can check out how it works by taking a look at this example here.

A survey by the GFG of online fundraising websites is available here: Fundraising in memory

Why undertakers don’t post their prices

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Undertaker

 

The following is by Charles Manby Smith writing in London Life magazine in 1853.

Messrs. Moan and Groan know well enough, that when the heart is burdened with sorrow, considerations of economy are likely to be banished from the mind as out of place, and disrespectful to the memory of the departed; and, therefore, they do not affront their sorrowing patrons with the sublunary details of pounds, shillings, and pence. … For such benefactors to womankind – the dears – of course no reward can be too great; and, therefore, Messrs. Moan and Groan, strong in their modest sense of merit, make no parade of prices. They offer you all that in circumstances of mourning you can possibly want; they scorn to do you the disgrace of imagining that you would drive a bargain on the very brink of the grave; and you are of course obliged to them for the delicacy of their reserve on so commonplace a subject, and you pay their bill in decorous disregard of the amount. It is true, that certain envious rivals have compared them to birds of prey, scenting mortality from afar, and hovering like vultures on the trail of death, in order to profit by his dart; but such “caparisons,” as Mrs. Malaprop says, “are odorous,” and we will have nothing to do with them.

Source

Less is more

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Arka

Dying Matters event, Brighton

 

ED’s WARNING: Very long, boring post today. 

Dig down into the history of any profession and you quickly hit dirt. Medicine, for example. Go back a couple of hundred years and your spade clunks up against a deplorable assortment of scoundrelly self-taught barber-surgeons, apothecaries, midwives and drug peddlers wreaking all manner of unscientific havoc on their patients. Or take dentists — tooth-drawers. When do you think dentistry was regulated? Some time in the 1800s? Wrong. 1921.

The way in which a disreputable occupation achieves social respectability is through a process of professionalisation. To achieve that, practitioners must show that they possess a body of specialist knowledge in which they have been examined; that they are motivated by altruism and public service; that they are members of a professional association which polices them; and that they are bound by a code of conduct. By these means they set themselves apart from the scoundrels and charlatans, the amateurs and the unqualified.

Image problem solved.

No surprise, then, that this is exactly how undertakers have sought to manage their own image problem. We’re starting from a pretty low base here. Here’s how they were seen by The Leisure Hour – A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation in 1862:

“In numberless instances the interment of the dead is in the hands of miscreants, whom it is almost flattery to compare to the vulture, or the foulest carrion bird.”

While this judgement looks a tad harsh today, it remains at least partially true. For ‘numberless’ substitute ‘some’. Because the professionalisation of undertaking has been a limited success. For example, undertakers have not one but two professional associations, the NAFD and Saif, reflecting deep internal conflict between the interests of independents and corporates. Education courses aren’t externally accredited. And undertakers have no means of excluding the unqualified and the scoundrels because there is no statutory regulation of the activity known as funeral directing.

So they’re not quite up there with the lawyers and doctors yet. Or, more relevantly, pathologists.

It’s worth comparing the professionalisation of undertakers in this country with those in the States, who succeeded, for the time being at any rate, in promoting themselves from blue-collar to white-collar. The way they did it influenced undertakers in Britain and other countries.

The first thing they did was mark out an area of specialist knowledge, essential to any profession. Given the mostly straightforward nature of the process of arranging a funeral this called for ingenuity. The element they picked on was the care of the dead body.

This had heretofore not been a specialised occupation. It still isn’t. It only becomes so if you can demonstrate a need to embalm a dead body. And embalming isn’t the sort of thing anyone can do at home, is it?

So how do you justify needing to embalm a corpse?

You justify it by claiming that that the primary role of the of the undertaker is therapeutic.

Therapeutic?

Yes, that viewing the dead body is the most healing thing an undertaker has to offer to grieving people; spending time with the corpse is central to the grief process, the only way they’ll be able to get their heads around the fact that the person it once was is dead, the only way they’ll be able to reconcile themselves with that ineluctable fact. There is indispensable therapeutic value, the claim goes, in the contemplation of, first, a well turned-out corpse and then, enduringly, a beautiful memory picture that only embalming can achieve. The primary claim of the undertaker to be regarded as a professional resides in this therapeutic role.

The public bought it. American undertakers were thereby able to promote the therapeutic display of the body as a social event — the visitation — and sell all sorts of merchandise to accessorise it. They started banking, by Brit standards, good money. They moved up the social scale.

A good many British undertakers sincerely believe in the primacy of the therapeutic value of a good viewing experience where the dead person, as the result of a cosmetic process including the manipulation of the features, appears quite content to be dead. But embalming only gained a partial hold in Britain, and public viewing none to speak of. In the US now it is beginning to look dated as bereaved people turn their backs on it. Diehard conservative ritualists like Thomas Lynch in the US are fighting a feisty rearguard action, but they’re beginning to look as if they are yelling at the tide. It is no coincidence that Thomas Lynch and ‘our’ Barry Albin-Dyer are both Roman Catholics.

The implications of this downgrading of the value of viewing for the social and professional standing of undertakers appear, on the face of it, daunting for, in the words of Strub and Frederick“There can be no question that embalming is the very foundation of modern mortuary service … Without embalming there would be little demand for beautiful caskets and protective vaults and little need for mortuary service as we know it today.” 

Some British undertakers have sought to fortify their therapeutic role by offering a bereavement aftercare service of some sort, many of them in partnership with Bill Webster. Others view this as a distraction from their primary activity or an entirely different specialism. At least one academic study (in Canada) has shown that aftercare is the activity where undertakers receive their lowest evaluation. And then there’s the problem that bereavement groups breed dependency.

To cut a long story short, for a range of reasons British undertakers have not succeeded in deflecting stigma and achieving social status through professionalisation. Some of them fret about this because they yearn to be regarded as professionals and wince at the word trade.

They’re missing the point. In recent years the distinction between a trade and a profession has blurred to the point of irrelevance. What matters to people is whether their surgeon or their plumber is any good. Quality assurance is measured not by letters after your name but by client reviews.

Client reviews measure what matters to clients and it’s really very little surprise to learn that what matters most to them, where funerals are concerned, is the quality of their interaction with the undertaker.

Yes, it really is that simple. As Poppy Mardall expresses it, “a good funeral director will support a family to have the funeral that’s right for them.” It’s about EI (emotional intelligence) rather than Dip FD, and the court of public opinion facilitated by the internet.

In their attempts to big themselves up undertakers have erected a rampart between them and their clients. The shudder-making black suits, the big cars, the ancient lineage, the jargon, the refusal to post prices online — none of these answer a bereaved person’s overriding desire, which is to find a fellow human being who is kind. They intimidate and alienate more than they impress. People want an Us person, not a Them person. No one wants to be overawed and the last person they want is someone who looks like a bloody undertaker.

Which is why the incursion of ‘middle-class’ undertakers has been so successful as well as refreshing — The Green Funeral Company, Family Tree, Poppy’s, Evelyn’s. They don’t angst about status issues so they don’t bother with uniforms and stuff. They keep it simple, they sit down and level with people, and it’s working very well for all parties.

I was reminded of this last week when I went to Brighton for a Dying Matters event organised by Arka Original Funerals, among others. Arka are very much Us undertakers — artisan undertakers. Here’s how they describe themselves:

We are people first and funeral directors second – so you will find us relaxed and approachable and wearing everyday clothes, not the usual sombre black attire of other funeral directors.

We are there to support you through a time of grief and help you to make the choices and decisions you want. We won’t try to shoehorn you into arrangements that you don’t want, or wouldn’t feel comfortable with. We won’t rush you into decisions and we won’t mislead you about our services or prices.

Brilliant. “We are people first.” Perfect. 

Naturally, exhibitors at the event were all nice guys. I met John Turvill for the first time and his characterful Citroen H-Van hearse. He keeps it in showroom condition and it’s beautifully fitted out. It’s lovely and snug inside and affords a dead person some privacy on the way to their funeral. But what seemed most important was the discovery that John is a truly lovely man. 

I don’t want to keep you, but I’ve just got to tell you about the brilliant lawyer who was there, Chris Thomas. He really cares about people and disapproves of the way so many solicitors cherry-pick their clients. Chris likes to work with people who aren’t worth all that much and he goes out of his way to visit people too frail to get to his office. When the show was over, off he went to see a 94 year-old and get her affairs in order. 

There are lots and lots of nice guys in the funerals business, far more than people suppose. More’s the pity if they feel they have to impress in order to reassure. Speak human, guys, be authentic, and your self-regard will take care of itself. 

Tell them where to go

Friday, 16 May 2014

Fairways

 

The number of funerals the average person is called upon to arrange in the course of a lifetime is just 2. (Mummy & Daddy)

For some, though, Reaper G’s scythe lays waste to vast swathes of their nearest and dearest. For these unlucky souls, arranging and attending funerals can be pretty much a full time job.

The writer of the testimonial above is a heartbreaking example. She (she reads like a she, doesn’t she?) has arranged funerals all over Britain for her brothers, of whom she seems to have an inexhaustible supply.

She knows what she’s doing by now, so she uses the excellent website mylocalfuneraldirector.co.uk, a comprehensive source of advice and guidance that, frankly, makes the GFG look like the scribblings of an idiot. “Our funeral home finder tool,” they say, “only lists high quality, trained and experienced funeral directors.” 

Our serially-bereaved testimonial writer has used WM Gilchrist in Aberdeen. And McKenzie and Millar in Edinburgh. She’s used A & E Leese in Stoke-on-Trent. And John Fairest in Sheffield. Her brother in London was laid to rest by the excellent Francis & C Walters. He brother in Brockenhurst was taken into care by R Hallum. And that’s not the end, not by any means.

Thank goodness mylocalfuneraldirector is there for her for when the next bro takes his final breath.

(Hat-tip to DM)

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