Serving gay and black communities

Charles Cowling

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Guest post by Richard Rawlinson

Recent talk about preferences for traditional or alternative funeral services was pretty much silenced by the word ‘choice’. In other words, whether it’s a requiem mass preceded by a Victorian-lite cortege or a liturgy-free, no-dress-code send-off in a field, give the punters what they want.

This libertarian strain of relativism has again been used to challenge ownership of the word ‘progressive’. Isn’t any undertaker progressive if he/she strives to offer better service and value? Isn’t anyone progressive if he/she wants society to advance in the direction of greater peace and prosperity?

People differ on how and where to move forward but no one owns the label of progressive as people have diverse tastes, beliefs, income levels etc. In this pluralist society, choice trumps homogeneity. Sometimes, the big chains deliver it, sometimes niche undertakers have healthy volume by specialising in a given area.

There’s been much said about green pound undertakers but there are also specialists defined by sexuality and race—the pink pound and black pound sub-categories within the grey pound.

If you Google  ‘gay funeral directors’ (hat tip Mark Sharron’s recent post about search engine optimisation), you find the site of the Gay Business Association (GBA) listing its members in the funeral trade – here.

London’s Chelsea Funeral Directors is profiled as ‘independent, British, gay-owned (actually it’s not – see footnote)  and managed funeral directors and monumental masons, sensitive to personalised funeral requests’.

The entire Dignity chain is also a GBA member and states: ‘We offer sympathetic, caring, unbiased service through our nationwide network of over 550 funeral homes – 24 hours a day… We also provide full services for persons with AIDS and HIV+’.

There’s clearly a difference between a gay-managed company and a corporation making a point that all business is welcome. The pink pound might be attracted to Dignity’s GBA membership just as the red pound of union activists might be attracted to the Labour-funding Co-operative Group’s Funeralcare chain. That doesn’t make either the real deal.

A funeral director catering for reds didn’t score in my Google search but there are plenty of other specialists beyond the greens and the pinks.

  1. Carty Independent Funeral Services in London’s Brixton is managed by people from African and Caribbean backgrounds, and specialises in funerals for Rastafarians.

As with most modern companies, Chelsea and M. Carty undertakers will tailor their services to individual wishes, whether religious or non-religious, opulent or simple. Likewise, their funerals are, of course, available to gay and straight or black and white.

The fact they also promote their niche expertise as a strength is an added bonus, good for individuals within the community and, I hope, good for business.

Footnote: for Charlie Phillips’s photographs of Afro-Caribbean funerals, see here.

ED’S NOTE 1) Cheshire East Council’s Information On Using A Funeral Director notes: “older people tend to reflect upon the past socialist principles of the ‘Co-op’ funeral services, which may no longer apply.”  2) We are informed (21.06, Weds 22.10.2014) that Chelsea Funeral Directors are no longer gay-owned.   

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16 thoughts on “Serving gay and black communities

  1. Charles Cowling
    Richard

    GM, we’re kindred spirits whether you like it or not!! David, nice anecdote about the same sex couple in your promo, and I liked the limo piece too! Lucy, like the jeans experiment.


    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Mark Shaw

    The problem with specialising is that you may be half way through a “normal” arrangement before you pick up on a families specific wish. Do you turn them away at that point? No!

    Our specialism is care of deceased, formalities, legalities and customs in our areas etc. we should therefore be able to look after any client with honest integrity and know the extent of our industry well enough to cater for particular wishes.

    If I were to turn away certain groups as they were out with my speciality (not that I want to) I could be taken to court!


    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling
      Charles Cowling

      I think I’m right in saying that as a service provider you reserve the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason at any time – so long as that reason is not on the grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. I’d much rather see a FD say ‘Sorry, not my bag, I’m afraid’ than go through with something s/he isn’t happy with.


      Charles Cowling
      1. Charles Cowling
        Mark Shaw

        I really can’t think of a funeral I have arranged which was completely “not my bag”.

        I loved the comment from Nigel Lymn Rose on the trailer for the dead good job series along the lines of “we are here to do what’s legal, not to be the bastions of good taste”

        Are there any examples of when one funeral director would have done well to step aside and let another?


        Charles Cowling
      2. Charles Cowling
        Richard

        Dignity’s listing on the GBA site states, ‘We also provide full services for persons with AIDS and HIV+’. Is anyone aware of a FD refusing to provide services on this basis? Is a dead body that’s carried a disease still contagious, even in the most unlikely event of, say, embalming, being carried out without the usual hygiene measures? Apologies for unpleasant subject matter.


        Charles Cowling
        1. Charles Cowling
          Lucy

          I have worked for a company that refused to let the family view the deceased as no one wanted to handle the body at all.
          The embalmer at the time also refused to embalm the person.

          There are embalmers that specialise in “high risk” cases (and charge an absolute fortune), but after speaking to two mortuary managers, they have both said that AIDS and HIV+ people pose a much smaller risk to them than someone with TB for example.


          Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    David Holmes

    Our old website had a pre-paid funeral page with a single photograph depicting an older couple. The text suggested that as we age, we may want to plan our funeral with a partner, husband or wife. In this case, the picture used was of two older men – clearly a gay couple. I thought our choice of picture was brave, but no-one ever commented on it, which I think is evidence of progress.

    Surely a good funeral director never discriminates nor judges anyone. I am proud to have conducted dozens of gay funerals, mostly the casual observer would never have known that the deceased was gay – but that of course was the choice of the arranger.


    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    Lucy

    I think “specialising” in one area from the very beginning is a mistake if you are building your company and reputation from the ground up and is a luxury most funeral directors can’t afford in the short term.
    In the long term though, why not? My website is going to be updated shortly and amongst the types of funerals I specialise in will be Irish Repatriations.
    In the course of my career, I have genuinely lost count of the number of repatriations I have undertaken around the world but in the last three months alone, I have repatriated five people back to Ireland….so why not tell someone what you are able to offer?

    Also, as a “gay friendly” company, we have had members of the local LGBT groups come and visit our premises to have a look round and have a chat.
    However, to say I specialise in “gay funerals” is absolutely foolish. I specialise in funerals full stop and no matter who walks through my door, they all get treated with the same dignity and respect that I would give my own family…..surely that’s what everyone wants when arranging a funeral regardless of their sexuality?

    I have found people really like to put things in boxes, hence the Traditional and Alternative funeral director. Most would put me in the “alternative” box, while I myself would put me in the “Traditional” box but have a slightly different take on things.

    I had a lady last week who made an appointment to come and see me to make arrangements and specifically asked me not to wear a suit when she came. She was bringing her 10 year old child and thought it would be intimidating….so I wore jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt.
    That afternoon, someone else came in to make arrangements. I apologised to them for what I was wearing and told them about the specific request I had from someone else.
    She said “Oh, that’s fine. I was dreading having to sit with someone wearing a black suit and a grey face!”

    By wearing jeans, I would have immediately been put in the “alternative” box. I am running an experiment for a month wearing jeans to see if it makes a difference to the people that come and see me.
    If it impacts on my business, I will revert to the traditional black suit. If it makes no difference at all, you will find me in the Levi store stocking up!


    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling
      Charles Cowling

      I love your comments, Lucy. I think you are right to play to all your strengths, for the impression I have of you is that you are wholeheartedly up for pretty much anything.

      There are, though, undertakers who advertise, say, green funerals even though they hate them (“It’s only a field, you know”). That’s no good to anyone.

      Do tell us how the jeans experiment goes!


      Charles Cowling
      1. Charles Cowling
        Lucy

        Also, what is the point of advertising something you don’t believe in doing?
        Again, I will do anything as long as it is legal. If it is something I don’t do every day (I was recently asked if my client could holistically wash someone. I had no idea what this, so I called an expert.)
        The brilliant thing about being a funeral director, is that no two funerals are ever the same.
        While a thousand families may ask for a “Hearse only all meet at the local crematorium,” I can pretty much guarantee that they will personalise flower choice or orders of service.
        Each and every one of those small changes makes a funeral unique and personal.

        I love opening my office every morning and not knowing what I am going to be asked for that day. Not only does it stretch me as a funeral director, but it makes me want to keep up to date with all the latest legal procedures, products, venues etc.


        Charles Cowling
    2. Charles Cowling
      Andrew Rush

      You could say that you’re supporting Jeans for Genes – http://www.jeansforgenesday.org/ (and do so, of course!)


      Charles Cowling
      1. Charles Cowling
        Lucy

        Andrew, we did support Jeans for Genes and made a donation to them too! On the company Facebook page, we encouraged everyone to do the same.

        Charles, really appreciate the comments. As you say, I am genuinely up for anything (as long as it is legal!) and because of this, I have been involved in some amazing funerals.
        They range from “I want everything including the kitchen sink,” and “something really simple.”

        I have a lady in her nineties who wants her coffin carried by Chippendales but also have a gentleman who wants no one at his funeral. What ever someone wants, it is not only my job to deliver but to carry out their wishes with the absolute highest level of respect and dignity.

        As for the jeans experiment….of course will keep you updated!


        Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    Giving the punters what they want runs the risk of being all things to all people — an unsatisfactory personality trait in an acquaintance as in a business of any sort. If you try to cater for all tastes you will satisfy none. A funeral director must play to his or her strengths and stand for something. This will mean offering some services and excluding others. If I am arranging a funeral I want to deal someone who knows where I’m coming from, not some sort of Uriah Heep chameleon pretending he ‘gets’ me. For this reason, I am pleased to see that Poppy’s Funerals, a conspicuously successful new business, offers funerals which are “Free from the formality and conventions of the traditional funeral.”

    If you google ‘traditional funeral director’ you find just one specialist, Moore’s of Waterlooville run by the lovely Leslie Wigman.

    Most FDs offer trad plus — green, simple, alternative, you name it. I don’t buy it. The best funeral homes offer a Unique Strong Personality.


    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling
      gloria mundi

      Ss usual Charles, I’d go for a middle position. Unique Strong Personality fine, so long as it doesn’t get in the way! And that too can happen. It’s not about the FD. But I agree entirely that a good FD/celebrant – well, almost anything I guess – can’t be all things to all.


      Charles Cowling
      1. Charles Cowling
        Charles Cowling

        I was being wilfully mischievous. GM. I suffer from consensus-anxiety!


        Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    There seems to me to be a really sound strain of common sense and realism running through this post. It’s easy to agree that polarising funeralists into trad and prog is as useless as all such definition games. It’s perhaps harder to avoid slipping into the terminology without noticing, as it is with “green” burial grounds. One I know of seems to me simply a cemetery with trees….

    The historically sentimental assumption that the Co-op is somehow a more socialist choice than any other undertaker is about as naive as assuming that a Dignity funeral wil be more dignified than the other FD round the corner. (If dignity max is what you’re after.) That’s the value of GFG-inspired window shopping.

    I did some mystery shopping by phone recently on behalf of a family member. Much was revealed quickly. As perhaps you might say Richard, “by their fruits shall ye know them,” not by assumptions about trad and prog.

    We have to find our own real deals – gay or straight, black or white, black tie or open-necked shirt. And of course, it’s so much easier to do a bit of exploration before the event!


    Charles Cowling

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